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
Moss, snowdrops and rosemary - for remembrance

John Williams, 70, worked for charity organisations devoted to disabled ex-servicemen. He died at home in January. Jane Williams, 35, is his eldest daughter. She is composer manager for a music publishing company based in London.

My father was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. Last autumn we were told that he wouldn't live for much longer. We didn't talk about his funeral much at the time - he liked to stay positive, to concentrate on living. But he had sent away for a leaflet on Humanist funerals. And he did ask that my sister's partner - an actor - should do a reading.

Three days before his death his health was so bad that he couldn't eat any more and he couldn't talk. My sister Victoria and I came home - we knew he was going to die. We took it in turns to talk to him. Because he couldn't reply we could say things that we wouldn't usually have said. Victoria sang to him.

At about 3.30 in the afternoon my mother said: "I'm terribly tired," and taking my father's hand she lay down beside him. In the minutes that followed he died. It was as if he had given her permission to rest. We stayed with him until late evening. I wanted to watch him, to be quite clear that he was dead. His face gradually changed. It became waxy and still. All the expression in his face faded away.

A few days later my mother, my sister and I drove to see Nigel Collins, the ceremonies co-ordinator at the British Humanist Association. We had a long discussion about what to include in the description of my father's life. He asked us what was important to my dad, what kind of a person he was, and how he arrived at being that person. He advised us about the funeral formula.

My mum asked my sister's partner to read a poem by Maya Angelou. She also invited one of my father's closest colleagues, a former prisoner of war, to talk about their friendship. My sister and I selected my father's favourite hymn, "To Be a Pilgrim". It was a poignant choice: Victoria had sung it to him while he was dying. I chose not to read anything at the funeral. I thought I would be too upset.

My mother didn't want to have wreaths placed on the coffin. Instead she chose to cover it with moss and snowdrops and rosemary - for remembrance. We selected the music for the funeral together: Schumann's Kinderscenen then Schubert's Mass - my father loved the sound of choristers.

On the morning of the funeral my mother, my sister and I walked across the reservoir overlooking Gloucester. Then we made our own way to the crematorium. We made a point of having dad's coffin follow us into the crematorium. We didn't want him to be there waiting for us.

I think Dad would have been pleased at the nice things said about him - especially the mention of his MBE for his work with Queen Mary's Hospital Trust, Roehampton (an award of which he was very proud) - and seeing so many people whom he loved gathered together. He would have been especially proud to see how my sister, my mother and I supported each other. He liked us to take a positive view of things. He wouldn't have wanted us to be distraught.

The British Humanist Association offers advice on non-religious ceremonies and can put people in touch with officiates. Tel 0171-430 0908.

The Natural Death Centre offers advice on the practical side of alternative funerals. Tel 0181-208 2853.

CRUSE can arrange bereavement counselling. Tel 0181-940 4818.