Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: A grave situation

Dear Virginia, my father has only weeks to live. The problem is, he wants to take over the funeral. He has already lined up someone to give a talk and wants to vet it. All the hymns are chosen, he's even designed the headstone. My sister and I want to make some contribution, but he won't hear of it. She says once he's dead we can do what we like, but I feel uneasy. He's always been a control freak. What should we do? Yours sincerely, Helen

Virginia writes:

The question is: whose funeral is it? And I have to say that I'm a great believer in funerals being for the living and the bereaved and not the person who has gone. Indeed, I loathe the current fashion to arrange funerals and pay for them in advance, because when the grieving relatives are left stunned by a death, the one thing most of them want to do is to get some power back into their lives.

Arranging a funeral, discussing the hymns and readings and wondering what the dead person would have wanted, make you feel needed and can be tremendously healing and comforting. You feel you are doing something for the dead person, honouring them and doing your best by them. You are telling them you love them. Instead of feeling like a battered leaf in the wind, you are, finally, able to take control over something. I remember getting huge solace from suggesting my ideas for a gravestone the family organised for my father, tiny as my contribution was.

So I think that yes, Helen's father is being a control freak and trying to run his affairs even from beyond the grave. But, having said that, I'm sure he feels pretty out of control at the moment. And what better way for him to feel in charge of his life than to organise his own funeral? It must take his mind off his impending death, and probably gives him a great kick, particularly when he reads the complimentary things his friend is going to say at the funeral. One of the things that so many people say, after a funeral, is "If only daddy/mummy/whoever had been there! They'd have enjoyed it so much!" And that's what Helen's father is doing. He's trying to be at his own funeral.

But the reality is that once he's died he's dead. He's not going to turn in his grave if his funeral isn't exactly as he wanted it. I'm with your sister on this one. Obviously I'm not saying that if your father had chosen a Catholic service consisting of Mozart arias, readings from Khalil Gibran and a piece from a lone bagpiper, that you should insist on Elvis being played at a Humanist service with readings from one of Richard Dawkins' books and African drumming, but I don't see why you and your sister shouldn't be involved in a bit of tweaking here and there. It is important that you can make some contribution to an event that is crucial to both your lives.

Perhaps you could ask the vicar to announce that the funeral was arranged from top to bottom by your father, but that you're going to have your say later at memorial held in a couple of months. That way you and your sister would have the best of both worlds.

Readers say:

Let him have what he wants

I wept and then raged about what you and your sister may be planning. Losing a parent is much harder than anyone expects.

I think you are afraid of standing up to your sister and you want us to tell you how wrong it would be to override your father's last wishes. I cannot believe that you would want to deny him his last wishes. These plans are the last things on this earth that he can hope to have any control over.

You can add to and amplify his wishes, but I do not understand why you would not be desperate to let him have what he wants. He is doing you a great favour in letting you know what he wants as so many people have absolutely no idea how to honour their dead after the event. Those who know and care for him would appreciate that he was planning, right up to the end. Is your sister actually the control freak, bent on having the last word with a dying man?

When my mother died, with just two weeks to make sure we knew what she would like, it was a sweet but sad pleasure to know that the champagne wake was just right.

Helen Wood by email

He won't know if you change it

Funerals are for the living - to give comfort to those left behind. When my first husband died, he said he didn't want a church service but, as he was well known in his close knit profession, I went ahead and organised one anyway. It was very rewarding for me to see so many people at the service and they appreciated the opportunity to show they loved him.

Have a word with the priest, and his solicitor to check whether your father has left specific instructions in his will, and unless it would be impossible, go ahead with whatever service you think appropriate. You needn't upset your father by letting him know that what he has organised may be altered.

Vanessa Gregory


Funerals are for the bereaved

When my mother became aware of her terminal illness, four weeks before her eventual death, she too planned her own funeral and I think gained some considerable solace from the process. I think she also believed that she was helping her family and saving them work.

In fact, when the time came to arrange the funeral, my siblings and I felt it was very important for us to put our own stamp on the occasion too. Whilst we included some of her choices, we wrote our own eulogies and selected music in her memory. We knew we had to feel comfortable with all the arrangements and the content for what was after all a ritual to help us on our journeys through grief and loss.

I do believe that funerals are for the living, and whilst of course in your father's final weeks you want to remain sensitive to his feelings, you should not feel guilty about organising the funeral you want.

Elizabeth Parry

South Norwood

Respect his wishes

Whose funeral is it anyway? Too right he should choose the hymns and the speaker, and the design of the headstone. This is the one thing he can control while he is dying.

The sheer gall of saying that after he's gone you can do what you want for his funeral is astounding, it's not about you. Sorry, but it's not.

When my 38-year-old brother died, he had asked for "Road to Amarillo" to be played, and no hymns at all. This went against what my familywould have liked, but it just wasn't "him" to have religious songs. It was an uplifting day, and everyone who attended said it was very Dan.

Your "contribution" is to be there for him, let him go the way he wants, and support each other.

Rebekah Barton


Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 43 and single. Recently I met a lovely man of 33 at my tennis club. He broke up with his girlfriend six months ago and confides in me and makes me feel special. We play tennis together, and he texts me lots, but he's never attempted to see me alone. Do think it's because I'm older? My feelings for him are getting stronger. What should I do? Yours sincerely, Anthea

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