When I first trained as a humanist funeral celebrant, I was tasked with choosing the music for my own funeral. Although some would consider this to be a grizzly task, leaving loved ones your last wishes is actually something that makes perfect sense - and my music choices are documented ready for when they are needed, with explanations as to why they hold such meaning to me. I am very particular about music, and in talking to my friends and family, I discovered that most people are. (And these choices have formed the basis of my funeral music page and Spotify playlist - which you may find helpful when selecting music for your ceremony). Once I got talking to people about their funeral wishes, the ideas started to flow, and no-one found the conversation uncomfortable - no doubt because fortunately, none of us were looking at the possibility of our own death in the imminent future. If only we were able to talk with ease about death and dying more often, it would make more a much easier experience for the people arranging our funerals.
As Dr Sarah Jones, Funeral Director with Full Circles Funerals, writes in her fascinating guest blog:
Knowing one wish can make a big difference
When people arranging a funeral know what the person who died wanted, they describe feeling a great sense of relief and consolation at being able to fulfil those wishes. These wishes do not need to be detailed or complex and simply knowing a preferred flower, music choice or poem is more than enough.
I would be helpful if we start by removing pressure to leave long and complex plans, because it is likely to be much easier to just leave a simple request. Those arranging the funeral would then have a more positive experience and this would help to promote a sense of control and wellbeing.
There are so many things that are important to consider when making end-of-life plans. People might reasonably feel overwhelmed by the number of documents they need to have in place, such as wills, Power of Attorney. However, if there is ever space and time to share one or two simple wishes, it might just make a big difference to the people that they are leaving behind.
When supporting families as a funeral director, I see the benefit of people knowing funeral wishes in practice. But this is also supported by the findings of a large research project that we recently conducted with academics from University of York.
In this project which ran over the course of a year, we interviewed 50 people and from their accounts we identified five factors which they consistently reported as having had an impact on their perceived funeral experience. One of these factors was whether the people arranging the funeral knew the funeral wishes of the person who had died.
If wishes were known, the participants clearly articulated how consoling they found it to be able to fulfil those wishes and this was described as a gift to the person who had died. Interestingly, it did not matter whether these wishes were highly elaborate or very simple. Merely knowing a preferred poem, prayer, or flower choice was sufficient as emotional labour associated with fulfilling these wishes was apparently the same.
In the absence of wishes, people described feeling anxious and uncertain about whether the choices they were making were acceptable to the person who had died. Furthermore, any interpersonal or communication issues between decision-makers were exacerbated in the absence of wishes. In those individuals with the lowest levels of funeral satisfaction, an absence of wishes to fulfil was a consistent contributing factor.
So, I would urge you all to consider adding a question about funeral wishes to your conversation with your family and friends. Asking something simple about a preferred funeral song, whether they would like a church service, or whether they have a preferred flower or colour for a funeral is a gentle way to introduce the subject. You might get a short and brief answer, or you might find that they suddenly share a long list of preferences.
We speak with many people who want to consider funeral wishes but are not quite sure what is possible or how they might best be articulated. We are happy to help with no charge or obligation to use our services at any point thereafter. You might also find “Funerals Your Way – A Person Centred Approach to Planning a Funeral” helpful – it is a short, structured guide to planning a funeral and is available on Amazon, as an eBook and as an audiobook on Audible.
Details of current research and the full “Funeral Experts by Experience: What Matters to Them” report by Dr Julie Rugg and Dr Sarah Jones can be downloaded for free from:
Dr Sarah Jones, Funeral Director at Full Circle Funerals, independent funeral director in Yorkshire. Author of “Funerals Your Way – A Person Centred Approach to Planning a Funeral.