From rigor mortis to shouting at corpses: What I learned about dying from those who work in the funeral industry

There are only two rules when it comes to being dead: get someone to register your death and keep your body covered when moving it around. The rest is totally up to you – from getting your ashes tattooed into your loved one’s arm to punk funeral services

Kirsty Major
Sunday 30 October 2016 16:20 GMT
The UK's only tandem hearse is one such alternative idea being adopted to mark the life of a loved one
The UK's only tandem hearse is one such alternative idea being adopted to mark the life of a loved one (Good Funeral Guide)

Halloween is one of the few times of the year when you are allowed to be morbid, so why not take the opportunity to think a little about your own funeral? If fear of death is fear of the unknown then we should definitely be more afraid of funerals. For a start, most of us don’t know that there are only two laws to keep in mind when planning a funeral: you have to register the death of a person within five days, and secondly, you can’t travel with an uncovered body on a public highway. Seriously, that’s it – the rest is totally up to you.

Why have some black-suited blokes coming to haul your body away in a Transit van to have your eyelids glued together, only to be subsequently burned to cinders in a glib 20-minute service at a crematorium, when your shroud covered body could be crowdsurfed into your mate’s Volvo or turned into a firework? I spoke to five women making funerals that work for the dead and their families about what makes a ‘good funeral’.

Not all dead people are ‘loved ones’

Let’s start with terminology. Hopefully you’re living your life being the best person you can be, but if you happen to fall short and die being widely regarded as a complete and utter a***hole, then your relatives should be able to say so at your funeral. Some people cause pain and funerals are a good place to finally put those feelings to rest (alongside your body).

“I remember the first time any anger was expressed at one of our funerals, and I hadn’t seen that it was missing. This young man was in his late twenties and he had been a heroin addict for 15 years and his brothers were angry, as they had tried to help him for so long, and they just stood up and shouted and it was so brilliant and it was a relief to hear that,” says Claire Callender from the Green Funeral Company.

Tell your family to relax around your corpse

Before you pop off, try to remind your relatives that just because you have breathed your last breath it does not mean that your body stops being you. As a death doula – someone who provides care to the dying and their families – Anna Lyons describes “families who are happy to sit and hold somebody’s hand while they are in the dying process, and the second their heart stops beating and they stop breathing they shy away and their body becomes untouchable and something disgusting, because we have medicalised everything and we have stripped everyone of the normality of it.”

Ditch the funeral parlour

Louise Winter, a funeral celebrant, says: “Funeral directors have come to see it as their duty to protect the living from the dead.” Perhaps instead, we should be protecting our dead selves from funeral directors. Tora Colwill, from Modern Funerals cautions: “You shouldn’t just pass over your body to be manhandled. The mortuary hub is often in an industrial estate, where they stack up the bodies and one by one wash that, cut that hair, embalm there… if we actually asked questions about how our bodies are being treated, some of the answers we would be unhappy with.”

There has been a move over the past 20 years to return funeral care, planning, and burial logistics back to the home, the traditional place where families dealt with death before the rise of the funeral industrial complex following the Second World War. Claire Turnham, a funeral planner, says: “It is not about doing things differently, this is the way things were always done, this is the norm. This is the traditional.”

Funeral directors are probably going to rip you off

For anyone who has yet to organise a funeral, the receipts would cause you to die of shock if you could afford it. Reflecting on her time working at a funeral directors, Anna Lyons says: “(A) lot of funeral directors push people toward spending more money. You are working with people at their most vulnerable and people have been taken advantage of for too long.”

Embalming is gross and unnecessary

Many funeral directors recommend that a body should be embalmed if it is to be displayed in an open casket during a wake or service. However, according to Cara Mair, co-founder of ARKA Original Funerals, “Embalming fluid is lethal, it is formaldehyde, and it is carcinogenic. The embalming process is so invasive and it is not needed.” Instead, proponents of the natural death movement like Tora Colwill use natural methods, often alongside the family, to prepare the body for an open casket. “When you die, you can use rigor mortis to your advantage. For example, instead of having your gums stitched through to keep the mouth shut, you can simply roll up a towel and place it under the chin keeping the jaw locked as your corpse begins to stiffen.”

You don’t even need to have a coffin

Undertakers offer luxury metal and wood coffins costing several thousands of pounds; instead coffins can be made from biodegradable cardboard that your family can decorate as part of the wake, or bodies can be buried in traditional shrouds which cost just under £100. Also if there is life after death, I would much rather wake up in a cool shroud to haunt people in.

Your funeral service can include anything

Since there are really only two rules you can literally incorporate anything into your funeral service. Claire Callender and her husband Rupert use the ethos of punk and rave when helping families plan funerals: “I just throw out the rules, there is no set way of doing it, just make it up as you go along. And that is the punk, DIY, let’s just set up a record label in your bedroom, let’s just do it … with the rave aspect it is that thing about rave where you just found yourself dancing with a thousand people and you were all connected and you had this communal thing and you had a church without a religion.” Giving your family something to do allows them to process their grief, so don't outsource it all to a funeral director.

Throw the eulogy out of the window

By having one person who is allowed to give their version of your life you lose out on the rest of it. You are more than a mother or husband – maybe your ex-partner has a salacious story to tell about that one time in Vegas, because what happens in Vegas should not stay in Vegas, it should be told at your funeral to all of your assembled relatives. The advice given by pretty much everyone I spoke to was to get everyone in a room, preferably with your body and let conversations happen.

Crematoriums are the worst

The most important thing is to not have the service in a crematorium, or as Louise Winter, from Poetic Endings calls them, “hospices where flowers go to die”. For Callender they can be one of the most challenges places to work: “The crematoriums hate us because they just want to bring a dog in, light the candle and rearrange the chairs – it is because we are trying to bring ritual to a really spiritually barren place.”

You don’t have to choose between burial and cremation

You can do so much more with your corpse. You can be buried in a pod that later grows into a tree; blasted into the sky in a firework; or inked onto your loved one’s skin forever in the form of a tattoo until they too die and then it’s up to them where you end up.

If you do decide to get buried, you don’t have to go to a church or local authority cemetery – you can be buried in a natural burial ground or on private land. It is recommended that you check in with the landowner, police and local environmental health authority – nobody wants to become drinking water.

Finally, whatever you do at your own funeral, make sure it is honest

We don’t get to say the things we really feel because we are too anxious, or tied up in the tedium of the everyday. Funerals are the one time that people are listening and really want to talk about life, death, love and all of the things inbetween. Like really talk about it – not just pretend they are talking while they’re swiping away their phones. So make some space for that.

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