A different way to say goodbye

How do you mark the end of a precious life if you do not hold religious beliefs? Esther Oxford talks to bereaved families and friends who chose alternative funerals
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sailing into the stars, like Wynken, Blynken and Nod

Donna Kantaris, 32, gave birth to Christopher, a stillborn baby, last December. The year before, she lost her first child, Ashley, because of an ectopic pregnancy. Donna is still childless. She lives with her husband, Nicholas, in north London.

There is no meaning to the death of our two children. It just happened. I wanted a commemoration for both children that was free of cant and hypocrisy and so-called meaning. But I did want to be left with a bit of hope.

It was so frustrating. We'd lost the opportunity to look after our children for a lifetime. We'd lost all those years during which we could have loved and cared for our babies. I wanted to show that I cared about my children. I wanted to say a personal good-bye - not a good-bye which followed a universal script.

The words used by Vivienne, our officiant from the British Humanist Society, were quite hard to take. She said that these things happen - people die. She didn't try to explain the deaths of our babies. But she did say that it is also in the nature of things that life gets better. It was very comforting because one cannot deny the truth of both statements.

The funeral was called a farewell ceremony, which I thought was lovely. Vivienne didn't just stick to our script - she ad libbed. At one point a robin turned up and hung around: the earth had been turned over and the bird was attracted to the worms. She brought him into the service. "Look," she said. "Life carries on." She showed such empathy. She even cried. I found her understanding so comforting.

I read a poem at the farewell ceremony, a Victorian poem called "Wynken, Blynken and Nod". It is a lullaby about sailing into a sea of stars and catching the stars in a net. Even though I am not religious, my children do exist in my head. When I think of my babies I think of them as being safe and warm and asleep.

I asked people not to wear black at the funeral. We wanted the ceremony to be a celebration of life. The hearse was covered with bunches of brightly coloured ribbons, there were ribbons on the white coffin, too. I made Christopher a swaddling cloth of bright colours. He was too small to wear clothes.

I wrote my children a letter which I put in the coffin. And I drew them a picture of the most perfect place - a cottage and trees and flowers and birds. I hope that if they are anywhere, they would be there. We also put the top tier of our wedding cake on the lid of the coffin - my husband and I had saved it to celebrate the birth of our first baby. Other people may have found the gesture depressing, even morbid. But to us it just felt right.

Baby graves in cemeteries often look so forlorn it breaks my heart to look. I wanted to take pleasure in the place where my children were buried so that I could bring future babies to visit. I made the grave into a tiny garden covered with flowers. It has a bird table. I want the birds to come back.

The plaque is made of clay; the glaze is vivid. It just has their names on it - Christopher and Ashley and the words "pleasant dreams". It doesn't have the words "die" or "stillborn" on it. It is a celebration of life. They lived. And they are still alive in me.

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