But funerals don’t have to be a taboo topic. In fact, the more we talk openly about the end of life, the easier it often becomes to handle. Knowing what happens before, during and after a funeral can also makes it a far less scary process.
Myth: it’s hard to talk about death
In fact, it’s harder not to talk about it, because it leaves so many unanswered questions and decisions to be made at one of the most emotionally challenging times in our life. Planning in advance opens up new ways of creating something really special, without the element of grief, and can often include lots of laughter – as well as removing doubt about whether you’re doing the right thing when the time comes.
Myth: there are definite stages to grief
There aren’t. Each grief experience is as unique to you as your own fingerprint. Elisabeth Khuber-Ross identified five stages of grief following the diagnosis of a terminal illness, and these stages have incorrectly been transferred to stages of grief following a death. However, there are no stages to grief. Grief is incredibly personal; whatever you feel when you experience a loss is your own unique experience. When we try to fit ourselves into a framework, we go into conflict with our natural instincts.
Myth: you have to have a funeral
There are no legal requirements that stipulate you have to hold a funeral. You can actually do it yourself, though most people prefer the help and guidance of a professional funeral director, and you can be involved as much or as little as you like. Also, anyone can lead the service and it doesn’t have to take place in a church or crematorium. The ceremony can take place anywhere before the burial or cremation, as long as you have permission to take the coffin to the venue. You can even have the cremation or burial first, and then hold the ceremony straight afterwards or at a later date.
Myth: you have to be embalmed
In the UK, there is no legal requirement for embalming, unless the body is being sent abroad and a certificate of embalming is required. Depending on certain factors, you can view a body that hasn’t been embalmed.
Myth: funerals are grimly sad occasions
While once upon a time this was true, we now live in a society where funerals are becoming increasingly personal, and the hobbies and character of the person who has died are reflected throughout the funeral proceedings. For example, a coffin of a chocolate lover can be painted like the wrapper of a Kit-Kat, with ‘Death By Chocolate’ written along the side. This personalisation helps us to focus not on what we have lost, but what we have had.
Myth: funeral directors are miserable people
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Being a funeral director is first and foremost a people person’s job and a deeply rewarding one, too, filled with opportunities to make a significant difference in our communities and the lives of people who’ve lost a loved one.
If we’re miserable, we’d make everyone else miserable, too. We shine a light where we can. Being surrounded with loss in so many different circumstances means funeral directors really value and appreciate each day, and are always quick to see the positive in any situation.
Myth: your local funeral home is privately owned
Many independent-looking funeral directors are not independent. Most people prefer to use a local funeral home, expecting it to be a family owned and run business. However, many are actually owned by large corporations or private groups.
They take the business over, keep everything looking the same and hang their holding company plaque behind the front door of the premises, so you never see it when the door is open during office hours. Always ask who owns the business. An honourable funeral director will always tell you the truth.
Myth: you have to use a local funeral home
You don’t. If you prefer the funeral home in the next town, then by all means instruct them instead. There have been so many changes within the funeral profession over the past 10 years, that the days of using a funeral home simply because your parents and grandparents went there are over. It’s all about knowing what you want and asking before you commit.
You’ve all heard the phrase, ‘There are two certainties in life – death and taxes’. First, let’s look at tax. It is stringently regulated and you’ll find regulated tax specialists everywhere, who’ll tell you how to pay it, avoid it and some, even, how to evade it. Now, let’s look at death: the funeral industry in the UK is worth £2 billion a year, and yet it’s completely unregulated. That means anyone can open a funeral service, which is why the industry gets such a bad reputation.
Bad publicity generated from bad practice has really tarnished our wonderful profession. Attention has been directed purely to price. The public don’t seem to realise that purchasing a funeral isn’t like purchasing a new TV or a new car – if you shop around, you can get exactly the same product for a lower price.
You may think the burial or cremation is like for like, and it is. It’s what happens in between that can make a huge difference. A visit to three different funeral homes will create a surprisingly contrasting experience. Make sure you know who you’re dealing with and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll know if something doesn’t feel right.
Myth: funeral directors will rip you off
If I had a pound for every time someone told me that, I’d be lying on a beach in Barbados. While this may be true of some funeral directors, if you go into a funeral home with the intention of finding an affordable and inspiring option for your loved one’s funeral, most funeral directors will be more than happy to accommodate you. Reputable funeral homes all offer low-cost options and you should see evidence of continuing professional development, re-investment in their premises and a commitment to fair practice.
Myth: coffins are re-used following cremation
In the UK, the body is not removed from the coffin during cremation. The body, together with clothing, necessary packing and any other items (combustible friendly) are cremated with the coffin, which is why all coffins that are to be used for cremation must be combustible and do not emit smoke, give off toxic gas, or leave any retardant smears or drips after final combustion.
The Code of Cremation Practice forbids the opening of the coffin once it has arrived at the crematorium, and rules stipulate it must be cremated within 72 hours of the funeral service. The laws are different in America, where casket-style coffins are generally rented for the funeral service and the body is removed from it prior to cremation.
Myth: cremations are communal
Many people believe that coffins are cremated together. This is not so. The structure of the cremator only allows one coffin at a time and has a
Myth: you don’t get your own ashes back
You do. Each set of ashes has to be collected after each cremation and placed into its own container. This is then labelled and registered, or the next cremation cannot take place, due to the structure and computerisation of the equipment. Most crematoria welcome no-holds-barred visits to their sites, to dispel myths such as these. You may even see a local crematorium tour advertised in your area.
Myth: you don’t need to make a will
Actually, you do. It’s always best to do this through a professional solicitor, as the will must be complied with for it to be legally valid. Compliance is not always included on a homemade or template will – even though the template may be compliant, your content may not be and can invalidate it. For further information, please speak with your preferred solicitor.
There are four main benefits of making a will:
- In these day of blended families, it can stop family disputes.
- It makes the administration of the estate easier after death.
- It guarantees your wishes are upheld.
- Many people assume their whole estate will automatically pass to their spouse, but if there is no will, it’s only the first £250,000. You may not be cash rich, but if you own property, it’s surprising how it all adds up.
Myth: you have to have a coffin
You don’t. In fact, the options are endless: traditional wood, willow, bamboo, cardboard, a shroud – you can even make or decorate the coffin yourself. Some people want an elaborate coffin – like wearing your best outfit for a special occasion. Other people see the coffin as a simple container for the body. We’ve worked with families who have made and decorated the coffin themselves, or decorated a plain coffin during the ceremony, as a way for people to participate.
You don’t. There’s no legal obligation to use a funeral director. You can take charge of some – or all – of the funeral arrangements yourself. However, the vast majority of people don’t want to do it all themselves, and this is where your funeral director is perfectly placed to help.
Knowing that you have the right to do it all yourself should give you high expectations of the person you are paying to do it on your behalf. Don’t be afraid to be involved as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. You’re only going to do this once, so make sure it’s right for you.
Myth: it takes two years to recover from a death
There are many factors that determine how well we go on to live again following our loss: the quality of the relationship we had with the person who has died; who we are as a person; and where we are in our lives.
If we were emotionally complete with the person who has died, we will naturally feel great sadness and despair when we realise we can’t see, talk to or touch them anymore, but won’t be weighed down with guilt and regret. I know people who are still living with their pain 20 years later, as if the loss happened yesterday. We need to learn to grieve at the time of our losses.
It takes courage to embrace all of life’s experiences and to process our emotional responses – good, bad, happy or sad – as they arise. Life is not a series of happy moments, and is always interspersed with traumas and losses. By accepting and allowing ourselves to experience all life events as they occur, we can live fully and meaningfully. That means being honest with your feelings in all your relationships.
Tell the people in your life what they mean to you, regularly, so that if they are taken from you, you will know they went with your love. There’s no timeline for grief, but honesty with yourself and others is the best thing.