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I’m unmarried and haven’t got a best friend – who will plan my funeral?

Having a fractured social life spread across a million WhatsApps never seemed like a problem for Oliver Keens. But after the death of a close friend, he’s starting to become aware that his funeral might be the best party he’ll never go to

Thursday 11 May 2023 10:39 BST
‘Gathered in a funeral chapel in Skegness, I found myself wondering: does anybody love me enough to make all this happen when I die?’
‘Gathered in a funeral chapel in Skegness, I found myself wondering: does anybody love me enough to make all this happen when I die?’ (iStock)

Because I work in the modern age of media, I’ve sat through my fair share of bombshell meetings where half the company suddenly finds out they are being made redundant. During one such announcement, a smarmy-suited gent from one of the finance teams calmly took out a Post-It, wrote “Order business cards” and then rather camply added the word “EMBOSSED” in capital letters.

I had a worry I was being equally narcissistic amid sadness when I went to a funeral recently. This was to mark the death of a very dear, beautiful friend. It was the first funeral I’d been to since I was six; the first time I’d lost a peer, a pal, a buddy. I grieved for him before, during and after the service – so I don’t feel like I did him an emotional disservice by lapsing off for a moment. But gathered in a funeral chapel in Skegness, I did nonetheless find myself wondering: does anybody love me enough to make all this happen when I die?

I feel this quite acutely in my own life situation right now. I’m an only child with young children and an ex. I don’t have an automatic next of kin who might lay on a spread and put some cash behind the bar (a tall order for an eight- and five-year-old). I date, but casually and respectfully across multiple people, in the mould of our new queen of zesty zeitgeist, Carol Vorderman. I can’t see myself settling into a relationship anytime soon, so that’s an automatic pallbearer ruled out.

Crucially, I also lack what you might quaintly call a “best friend”. I say quaintly because it feels to me like a concept that’s fast becoming a bit old hat, or certainly one that many people never seem to make work beyond their twenties at any rate. The pace of living and the sheer divergence of interests people can immerse themselves in seem to take their toll on BFFs – to the point where, by their thirties, they have done, said, shared and exhausted every single calorie of their mutual being. Modern life also encourages a sense of exogamy, where you exist in a variety of social groups at the same time, not just one. If you don’t believe me, scroll through your WhatsApp chats and you’ll see how many different silos you live in. Looking at mine, for example, I can confirm that nobody in “Carvery Watch” (a group of friends concerned at the slow decline of the UK’s unlimited meat fests) knows anybody in “Kink or Knitting?” (a group where people try to guess if words like “frogging” relate to BDSM or needlecraft).

Perhaps it’s time to replace the status of BFF with the “Legacy Contact”. This is a person nominated by individual users of Facebook (other social media sites will surely follow soon) to administer their accounts once they’ve died. Your trusted online executor can pin an RIP or a memorial message to your wall, allow tributes to be shared, stop people getting “You Might Know”-style notifications from a dead guy or delete the account altogether. With so much of our lives on social media, and with so many of us only connected by it, it’s conceivable that many people won’t even know you’re departed if you don’t have a Legacy Contact, let alone be invited to a funeral of some kind.

Of course, having a big grandiloquent funeral involving speeches and snacks isn’t mandatory. There’s been a steady growth in “direct cremation” services over the last few years, which are so at odds with the stereotypes of funeral services that it’s surprising they’re so under-discussed. They’re essentially a click-and-collect service, where you do the bulk of organising online and either collect ashes at the end of the process or ask them to scatter them for you. My mum and I did this when my dad died, and it was a strangely beautiful if sometimes comic affair. We collected a large, thick, papery bag from the crematorium – similar to the kind that potatoes are transported in – then drove to five places of significance in his life, scattering a bit at a time. One was a pub that proudly kept a beautiful rose garden. Jacked up on a weird mix of adrenaline and shock that my dad was now a potato bag, and with seemingly no awareness of social norms, we ended up bursting into it at 11am with a full sack and wearily disposing handfuls of his remains into the soil as the pub staff watched bemused from inside. I later worried that the ashes would somehow contaminate the roses, but I went back a year later and they were thankfully in full bloom.

The final act of my friend’s service involved us all filing out of the chapel and saying goodbye to the coffin to the sounds of Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit ‘The Twist’

Having only experienced this kind of intimate and lowkey way of marking the death of a loved one, I must admit I was intimidated by the prospect of a big, formal funeral. It took me going to one to realise how, well, funny they can be. The final act of my friend’s service involved us all filing out of the chapel and saying goodbye to the coffin to the sounds of Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit “The Twist”. I didn’t understand the significance at the time. I just burst out laughing through a trapped nervous grief. It was only when outside that someone showed me that our friend had posted a spurious thing on Facebook in 2012 about wanting the song to be his “funeral dirge”. And so it came to be.

This was him all over: endlessly silly and deeply irreverent to the last. He was also, by his own admission, a socially timid person who chose his friends carefully and modestly. Or so we all thought. Because on the day, so many people from so many walks of life attended and, for the first time, we all got to see just how popular and adored he was for his humility, kindness and silliness, and how many small and meaningful pockets of friendship he’d created over his way-too-short life. I saw a lot of myself in this. A sudden recognition of how fractured and siloed I’ve deliberately made my life and friendship groups over the years. And so I’m determined to change: to do more mixing, sharing, convening and socialising before I snuff it. What a waste it will be if all the excellent people in my life have a really banging party, without me there to bang on about how “frogging” is actually something you do in knitting.


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