Fond Farewells

In my other life as matchday announcer (annoying bloke on the microphone) at Scunthorpe United I recently had to introduce my first minute’s silence. One of the directors had passed away that week and, as he had been a major figure around the club, it was decided that he should be honoured with a moment of contemplation before the recent league game against Coventry City kicked off.

With barely any time to go until it was due to commence, the club chaplain wandered up and offered me a few words of advice. He requested that I make sure I emphasise that it was to be a minute’s silence and not a minute’s applause or celebration as has become popular in recent years. I was told that the director’s widow was attending the game and knew full well that her husband had detested the trend and would have been horrified at being commemorated in such a way. As it happens he received an impeccably respected, revered silence and that was, as the cliché goes, what he would have wanted, proving why it is so important to let your loved ones know how you’d like to be remembered.

Joan Rivers passed away in September having noted her funeral wishes, perhaps with tongue firmly in surgically enhanced cheek, in her autobiography I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me. The comedienne requested a wind machine by her casket to blow her hair as if she was in a Beyonce video and Meryl Streep “crying in five different accents”. Her family may not have managed to work out the logistics of those particular demands but Rivers had also stated that she wanted a big Hollywood style funeral with paparazzi causing a scene outside and that is certainly what she got. A star-studded crowd arrived for her send off with close friend and celebrated shock-jock Howard Stern delivering the eulogy in suitably ribald fashion. A little too ribald to repeat in this family publication but fitting considering the subject of the homage and her love of dirty jokes.

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It seems that nowadays we are having more say over our send-off than ever before, the concept of the dearly departed having planned their memorial down to the finest details often years before the event is becoming hugely popular as we begin to find it easier to talk about our mortality.

Christopher Sykes from Skipton uneral Directors has noticed the trend.  “It’s happening more and more now, as if the taboo about death is shifting,” he ays, “people are more open and the industry is keeping the traditions and professionalism but also moving forward in modern ways which takes the edge off it a bit”.

With no plan in place, relatives had previously had to try their best to honour their loved ones’ lives to the best of their abilities often leaving the nagging doubts that come with never knowing for sure that they had done right. “By choosing what they want for their funeral they’re getting exactly what they want,” explains Christopher, “but they’re also saving their families any financial commitment afterwards and they’re saving them the burden of wondering what ‘would my mum or what would my dad want?’ It’s already set in stone.”

The deceased’s blueprint is not always as public as Joan Rivers writing down her wishes in a book but there is occasionally a story that has more than a hint of a Hollywood movie about it. Christopher says: “You hear of people who told their family to look in the box under their bed once they had passed and lo and behold in there were all the details of a pre arranged funeral which was all organised with a list of the music that they wanted. It sometimes happens but it’s not a regular thing.”

As people start to piece together their own funeral the industry has grown, modernised and responded. As with any service that we use in the 21st century there are increasingly more choices and options when planning the memorial. “You could have the traditional hearse,” states Christopher, “but then there’s also the horses, a motorbike, the Reliant Robin from Only Fools and Horses – that’s a hearse now, you can have a tractor, you can have a wagon. There are wicker coffins, bamboo coffins and colourful ones with pictures of your family on them. It has softened funerals for people and made them think outside the normal barriers.”

Having discussed this topic with my wife (the evenings fly by round our house) she told me that she’d always fancied having her ashes made into a firework and then set off over Ilkley Moor. In these situations it is advisable not to scoff as I found out to my detriment and, in fact, I was most definitely wrong to – a quick Google brings up a plethora of companies across Yorkshire and Lancashire offering that very facility. Whereas once funerals were renowned for the caterwauling and crying of the distraught mourners, nowadays it’s feasible for your send-off to be soundtracked by a chorus of ‘ooh’s and ‘aaaah’s. Why not continue the theme with a buffet of baked potatoes and ginger parkin?

“Funerals are definitely turning into more of a celebration of someone’s life than doom and gloom” reckons Christopher Sykes, “you can get the funerals that dwell more on the gloom than others which is completely down to the family’s wishes. Generally though they’re becoming more of a positive event where you’re looking back over the happiness and good life that someone has lived rather than mourning over their passing.”

With funerals topping a recent poll of events that bring otherwise distant family members together it’s easy to see why actually they often turn into a more joyous affair than previously considered. There are plenty of eccentric and leftfield ideas out there that dispel the myth that they have to be solemn events with a despondent ceremony followed by a quiet buffet strewn with curled up sandwiches and weak tea.

Take the Cheshire man who knew that he was dying in his thirties and organised a white camper van to transport him to church where the tunes played included Another One Bites The Dust by Queen and Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. His widow insisted that there be a lifesize cut out of her husband at his funeral so he could be a guest at his own farewell party. Not to everyone’s taste but a fine example of the modern way of coordinating commemorations.

There are many examples of the deceased’s last wishes being played out at their funeral from the proud biker displayed in a glass case astride his Harley Davidson for the final time to the boxer, embalmed and placed upright in the corner of a boxing ring for mourners to pass by while they paid their last respects. And then there is the touching story of the two British army comrades who agreed that, if one were to lose their life, the other would turn up to their funeral in a dress. At Kevin Elliot’s memorial in 2009, his pal Barry Delaney appeared, grieving at the graveside in a tight, fluorescent lime dress and pink leg warmers, keeping up his end of the bargain.

As for me, I don’t know about organising my own funeral. The idea that the finances would be sorted out is obviously appealing; you don’t want your lasting legacy for your nearest and dearest to be the mother of all credit card bills. I think I might be a little put out though after spending time organising a party that I’ll never get to enjoy. This is why, when people ask what song I’d most like at my funeral I always say the same thing: Joe Dolce – Shaddup You Face. I love the idea of the mourners feeling compelled to listen and attempt to enjoy one of history’s worst musical atrocities and, just as I won’t be there to enjoy the party, on the flipside I also won’t have to endure that song.

It’s the little things…

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