DAISY GOODWIN: Why I believe a good funeral can be just as memorable and life-affirming as a wedding (and to deny your family one is selfish), as more than half of us say a formal send-off is a waste of money
My mother died ten years ago, and when I think about the exhausting, grief-drenched days that followed, the clearest memory I have is sitting in a small country church sobbing through the singing of Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell.
She had not been a good mother in the conventional sense. When we were little, she left my father, a film producer, to run off with a novelist eight years her junior.
No one explained what was happening. My brother and I, then aged three and five, were sent to live with my paternal grandmother in the country for two years, until my father remarried.
I saw my mother every other weekend and in the holidays, but I never lived with her. Perhaps because of that distance, and the lack of domestic friction, I worshipped her as a child, but when I had my own children I found it hard to forgive her for what she had done. It took me years to reconcile the mother I adored with the woman who had bolted.
She died at home, a month before her 79th birthday, after a mercifully brief illness, but it wasn’t until I heard Purcell’s music at her funeral that I understood my life-enhancing, maddening, perennially-youthful mother was actually dead.
DAISY GOODWIN: My mother died ten years ago, and when I think about the exhausting, grief-drenched days that followed, the clearest memory I have is sitting in a small country church sobbing through the singing of Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell (Stock Image)
The service was cathartic. It brought everything I felt about her to the surface and for the first time since her death ten days earlier, I was able to acknowledge my grief.
For me, my brother and younger half-sisters, that funeral provided the crucial emotional framework that kept us sane in the first shock of her death.
So I’m saddened to hear the news that, according to a recent poll, less than half of us now see the point in having a funeral.
The traditions surrounding death are seen as ‘expensive, time-consuming, and irrelevant’ said the report by religious think tank Theos, and more of us are opting for a ‘direct cremation’ without a service, a ceremony or indeed any mourners at all.
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There are many reasons for this — the decline in religious observance, the steep cost of even the most modest funeral (the UK average is around £5,500).
But above all, most people simply don’t want to think about their own mortality.
Before World War II, when families were bigger, life expectancy shorter, people took pride in joining mutual insurance schemes to provide for their own funeral costs or to send their loved ones off in style.
Now the idea of planning your own funeral seems morbid. The idea doesn’t fit into our shiny, happy lives: I don’t see many funerals on Instagram with uplifting hashtags attached.
Yet, as we all realised last year when the Queen died, a funeral is a ceremony that gives shape to those otherwise formless tides of overwhelming grief we often feel.
Every society through the ages, every religion, has a ritual that can be followed after a death, at a time when even the simplest decision feels impossible.
I am not particularly religious, but when my mother died, I was very grateful for the tact of the vicar who officiated, and for the order of service which meant my siblings and I knew exactly what we had to do: choose hymns, find a reading, arrange flowers.
Finding the right florist isn’t going to grant you another conversation with the person you’ve lost, but it does give you a sense of control at a time when you feel most powerless.
I am not particularly religious, but when my mother died, I was very grateful for the tact of the vicar who officiated, and for the order of service which meant my siblings and I knew exactly what we had to do: choose hymns, find a reading, arrange flowers (Stock Image)
Recently, I attended the non-funeral of a friend’s mother, held in a crematorium. It was a stripped-back affair — just a few words from the children and Frank Sinatra as the coffin went into the furnace. The mother hadn’t wanted a church ceremony, so her children had had to improvise.
There was also no cathartic moment, no rush of emotion, no sense of taking part in this most meaningful of human rituals. And no point therefore at which it was possible to let go.
Understandably, my friend, in that period of shock, wanted to make the ceremony as undemanding as possible. But death is a serious business and somehow the combination of cremation and Come Fly With Me felt wrong.
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I think a moment of shock and awe is what funerals are about. ‘In the midst of life, we are in death,’ says the Book of Job — if we don’t contemplate the end that lies in store for all of us at a funeral, then I believe we are missing an opportunity to savour the meaning of the life we have left.
But funerals don’t have to be elaborate; they simply have to move us and mean something. More than half the people in the latest survey thought they were a waste of money and they could do something better with the cash, which strikes me as desperately sad. How can marking the end of a life be considered a ‘waste’?
Of course, it’s not an occasion for joy in the way a wedding is (average price: £18,600), but I firmly believe a good funeral can be just as life affirming.
Carpe diem, seize the day, is a very good thing to be reminded of. Indeed, in the film Four Weddings And A Funeral, it’s the funeral I remember best, with its hugely powerful reading by John Hannah of W. H. Auden’s Funeral Blues (‘Stop all the clocks…’), rather than any one of the weddings.
I firmly believe that funeral denial is ultimately a selfish act, a reflection of just how narcissistic we have become. Funerals aren’t events for the one who has died, after all. They’re for the living.
My mother’s funeral took place on a beautiful spring day. The sun shone and the daffodils were out. I just about kept it together as I read a short eulogy and when the coffin was lowered into the earth, it felt like my mother’s life had come to a very appropriate full stop. My passionate, creative mother had been celebrated with the emotion and style that marked everything she did.
Our modern reluctance to have funerals is connected to a profound squeamishness about death, but are we doing ourselves any favours by pretending we are not all headed in the same direction? (Stock Image)
Afterwards, three generations of family and friends stood around in her garden in Somerset reminiscing about her extraordinary life as a writer and designer, drinking and eating, children scampering about — which I am pretty sure is exactly what she would have wanted. Her partner, the architect Richard MacCormac, designed a beautiful gravestone, where my siblings and I gather every year on her birthday.
She lived a full-fat, richly-flavoured life and I know she would have approved of her descendants eating and drinking in the sunshine. Yes the whole event cost about £8,000, which was split between the family and her estate — a considerable sum, but definitely worth it.
The Emperors of Rome famously had a member of their entourage whose job it was to whisper Memento mori in their ear (‘remember you must die’) every so often. Funerals are, in this world of tweakments and youth obsession, a necessary reminder that we too are mortal.
We all need to acknowledge that there is shadow as well as sunshine, dark as well as light. Our modern reluctance to have funerals is connected to a profound squeamishness about death, but are we doing ourselves any favours by pretending we are not all headed in the same direction?
Just as we write a will to make our descendants’ lives easier when the time comes, so we must tell them to hold a funeral for us. Tell them it’s the best way to confront that maelstrom of emotion, to give the end of a life its proper significance, and to remember how very lucky they are still to be alive.
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