My partner was just 43 and very much a child of rock'n'roll. With a rather wry sense of humour, the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was requested for the funeral - just one of many explicit instructions: "I do not want any sad faces, because I had a good life, and no religion." My problem was that my partner's parents, both in their eighties, do have a strong faith and "seeing their child off properly" would be a great comfort. How could I reconcile these two sets of wishes? If they had demanded to have things their way, it would have been easy to fight, but there is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing two elderly, and themselves infirm, parents trying to understand this perversion of the natural order of death and then struggling to accept that there will be no formal service.
Some might argue that funerals can be personalised; indeed I have great admiration for the natural death movement and people like former Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Raven, who even dug his own grave on the moor close to where he lived. But they are very much in the minority. Talking about death is extremely difficult; two-thirds of people fail even to leave a will. Until I found myself really having to discuss dying I had always imagined it would be no problem: my generation talks openly about sex, and we are far better at discussing money than our parents.
However, the reality is that even when death is shadowing every move, you concentrate on the positive and live for the moment. It is the only way to steal some happy moments from the last few months. Furthermore, an alternative funeral takes an incredible amount of planning, and although someone who is terminally ill can make general outlines like my partner's "no religion", the problem is turning that into reality. What kind of service? Who will conduct it? Every time you step outside the established pattern there is another decision to make. The closer the funeral came, the more questions I had and the less likely my partner was to have the energy to discuss them. Finally, I was told: "Do what you feel is best."
After much heart-searching, I decided that a funeral was not only for the deceased but part of the healing process for the bereaved, too. With a traditional funeral for the parents and then a memorial service to celebrate my partner's life, I felt I fulfilled everybody's wishes.
"Let me know if there is something I can do," is something that all widows and widowers are forever hearing. Putting a memorial service together can harness this goodwill. I felt much better about co-opting my friends than I had when I handed everything over to the smooth professionalism of the funeral director. One friend loaned a large house for the service, another co-ordinated, another scanned a favourite photo into their computer and printed off smiling pictures of my partner to place on every chair. In all, about a third of the guests either helped arrange or actively participated in the event.
At the memorial service everybody wore bright colours and brought flowers from their gardens. A live band was hired to entertain the guests as they arrived and to perform special songs during the service; a close friend was master of ceremonies; poems were read and clips from favourite movies were shown. Anybody who wished to share a memory was invited to speak, though British reserve meant that although many wanted to, few had the courage. Video cameras were set up to record everything (although it will be a long time before I feel like watching the results).
A perfect balance was created between the sorrow we felt and my partner's desire that we enjoy ourselves. We could smile as well as cry - something that had been impossible at the crematorium.
Not surprisingly, it was this memorial celebration, rather than the traditional funeral, which helped me make a massive internal change and become grateful for the time we shared together rather than just mourning our lost future.
Not one of the guests had ever been to a memorial service before, but there was universal agreement that it was too good to leave to the rich and famous.
I found it so beautiful that my only regret was that we couldn't do everything all over again - but that is how I feel about life with my partner, too.Reuse content