My mum died around 4 years ago and I scattered her ashes last week. Since her death, her ashes have been ungracefully sitting in the cupboard under our stairs - in a paper bag with the funeral homes logo on it. I didn't hold onto them for any emotional reason. They simply ended up there because I got tangled in the traditional funeral process. A process I found impersonal, environmentally unfriendly, highly commercial and rushed.
The act of scattering her ashes has given me time to reflect.
It's given me time to think about the people I leave behind - particularly my children. I didn't know my mother's thoughts about her own funeral. So I took the common path. And I didn't know there were other options.
I don't want my children to associate my death with this brash and commercial funeral processing machine. I'd like them to experience something calmer and more simple. To have time to process their emotions. And I want to leave as little impact on the environment as possible.
I've been wanting to write this letter for years. But I'd put it off.
It's not really something we want to think about really is it? But I don't want my kids to have to question 'what mum would want'. I don't want them to make any decisions based on guilt or what others would think. I want them to know they have other options. This is the letter I have written to them. It's been emailed to our solicitor and there's a hardcopy in our filing cabinet with our wills.
I feel relieved that I've written it. I feel happy I'm not leaving them in the dark. Here it is.
What would mum want? A letter to my kids.
If you're reading this, I've probably moved on to a peaceful place. A really quiet, calm, peaceful place. And the thing is…..while I like peace, my first thought is that I'm not that happy that I've left you guys. Because… really that's the thing I love about life the most. You guys and Dad.
But you know what? At first when I thought about not being with you, I felt gut-wrenching pain and unbearable sadness. And then, after I took the time to really think about it I felt a little bit better. I realised that it wasn't true. I wasn't going anywhere. Even if I'm not physically with you, I'm still going to be pestering you all for a long time. I'll keep popping up in moments when you least expect it. In your thoughts and in the things you say. In you mannerisms and in your conversations. But, on this subject, I'll stop. I've written each of you a separate note. Hopefully, it's very old when you're reading it and we've shared long lives together.
This note is specifically about my funeral arrangements. It's written with the best intentions.. ….. to help make this time as easy as possible for you. And to free you from any questions about 'what mum would have wanted'.
Understandably you might be wondering what to 'do with me'. And dreading making arrangements for a funeral. You're likely to be upset enough without having to worry about all the administrative details. I know I've talked to you about it before but in case you didn't catch it all, I've written it down.
I suppose a big part of my thoughts around this stem from the feelings I have about my own mum's funeral. At the time of writing this note, dad and I have only recently scattered her ashes - even though she died nearly 4 years ago. For all those years, they've been sitting in the same paper shopping bag that the funeral home gave me when I collected them.
Last week in a spur of the moment decision, we took her ashes to the beach and scattered them. It was a beautiful, windy and sunny Sunday. It was a pretty funny experience actually. The ashes blew all over my clothes, my shoes and our little dog Daisy. And Dad took some photos with his really great photography skills! It felt good that we didn't have her remains in a plastic container anymore. It felt freeing. For everyone.
But in saying that, the reason she was under the stairs was because I hadn't known what to do with her. I found the funeral process to be a very commercial thing. I was rushed by strangers through 'traditional' funeral arrangements without any time to think. To be honest, there was nothing about the process that I liked.
I remember sitting in a cramped 'Arrangement Room' to attend the 'Arrangement Conference' at the funeral home offices somewhere in the back streets of Wallsend. I was allocated a dedicated Funeral Director - a really 'sympathetic' guy. Dad and I sat with him in a dimly lit room with fake flowers and found ourselves thrown straight into administration and shopping.
Our first job was the casket. I still can't quite believe the experience. We sat there flicking through the ringback binder containing a 'wide range of casket options for all budgets' - all in little plastic sleeves. It felt like I was considering what car I wanted to buy. Even the eco-friendly cardboard casket I chose cost a bomb. After I'd decided on the particular model I then had to choose the style. Would the casket be printed with pictures of flowers, the ocean or pebbles? (If mum had been a rugby league fan we could have had the team logo and colours on the box). Decision made, we then waited while our consultant called the 'suppliers' to check availability. We were 'extremely lucky' there was one available for dispatch immediately.
In the same meeting, I was asked to nominate if I wanted mum's body prepared for private viewings. Nan (as in my mum's mum - your Great Nan) seemed to want this to happen. Although now I think about it, no one was really sure. Anyway, in the whirl of it all I agreed that yes, her body should be prepared for 'viewing'. As soon as I'd made this 'important' decision our 'sympathetic' funeral director calmly and very slowly explained that he would require a set of special clothes to dress the deceased. When I asked him how long I had to get them to him, he paused - for a long time. And he then said very slowly (I'll never forget this bit, it was quite funny actually). We'll need them….. within…… the next hour.
Before I knew it we were on the phone to her nursing home having a long conversation over what clothes suited her best and if they'd come back from the laundry or not. Should she wear that navy blue top or the long sleeved khaki one? What would 'Nan' like her to wear? Our sympathetic friend assured me that the cosmetology team member always did a 'great job' of restoring a life-like appearance to the deceased. She'd be in good hands.
As you can probably tell, I hated the whole process. While in that little room I kept saying to Dad that I didn't want you kids to be in the same position when it was our turn. But there was still more to be done in that 'arrangement room.' There was an obituary to write for the paper, discussions around whether we'd hire the small or large viewing room, funeral register cover options (vinyl or velvet), service cars, lead cars, doves (yes or no) balloons (yes or no), music, photos on memory sticks, pallbearers, flower sprays etc etc etc. It was crazy.
At the end of it all I received an itemised account. Despite organising an intimate, simple funeral, the bill was huge. The best part of the funeral had been the celebrant we hired. Although she made a significant and lasting contribution, her costs were minimal. Not even 2% of the total.
While I did my absolute best to give my mother a goodbye that would make the family happy (particularly her mum and sisters). I knew it wasn't what I would want (if I had any say in it of course).
So I'd like you three to know that there are others options to this traditional process. Other ways that are less rushed, less brash, and less damaging to our environment. And I'd rather the money be spent on you and your kids. To do something together.
So given that little bit of background, I've written down some ideas to help you with your decisions. I write them in the hope of freeing you from any guilt. As I said earlier, I don't want you to have to guess 'what would mum would've wanted'.
So here goes.
At the time of writing I think the best option would be to have my body cremated. Technology may have advanced by then. There may be new ways to deal with human remains that are kinder to the environment. If that's the case, please take the most eco-friendly option.
If you really feel the need to collect my ashes I would love it if you chose an option like a Bios Urn. I think I'd quite fancy being a tree. I've followed this company since inception and I love their philosophy. The Bios Urn is this biodegradable container that's filled with seeds and after a while your ashes are converted into a tree.
I'd really love it if you didn't spend a cent on a coffin, or a 'service' at a characterless funeral home. That also means there's no need to watch my remains go through heavy curtains on their way to be burned. In fact, there's no need to even attend a cremation.
I'm not sure if you know this, but you don't actually have to collect my ashes from the funeral directors. You can simply request that the funeral home dispose of the ashes for you.
Can I just say that if you do decide to collect them - be prepared. They will try and upsell all of their products. I think I was disturbed by this event more than anything. I had Maya with me (she was only 6) and the memorial consultant bombarded me with brochures for wall memorials, chair memorials, rock garden plaques and marble circles. After a while, she could tell it was unlikely I was going to make a purchase. So, she pulled out some different brochures. The brochures about 'take-home' memorial containers. Urns, marble boxes and necklace vials. Eewh! Not surprisingly my consultant wasn't happy that I said 'no' to her suggestions. After the meeting, she called me every 2 weeks for months to check in with me about 'my wishes'. I put a big part of the blame on her for why those ashes stayed under the stairs for so long!
Just reminding you again… I am not that plastic box of ashes. I'm inside of each of you, and in your memories.
If you do spend money on anything, and you want to have a service, find a celebrant who you all really like. Ask them to lead a small service outside. Perhaps the beach, one of your back gardens or the bush. Then hang out together with some good friends, good food and wine.
As you know, our family was not religious so there's no need at all to involve the church. If you do feel the need for any spiritual guidance perhaps you could refer to the teachings of Buddhism as our family has done for many years.
Of course, you've probably worked it out from what I said earlier, but just to be really clear, please don't feel any pressure to install a memorial plaque or grave. You don't want the guilt of having to visit me at an impersonal memorial garden on the outskirts of town. My own father has a rose garden plaque at a memorial garden. I'd never laid eyes on it until I went there for my mother's funeral. I've seen it once, in nearly 20 years.
And finally, please do what you want. Don't be pressured by what others think. If you'd like a private family service with just a few close friends. Do that. Please don't feel under any pressure to have an open invitation. I chose a private service for my mum. I couldn't face the emotional turmoil of going over everything with a score of people from her past. Other people can arrange their own memorial service if they'd like to. You're not responsible for anybody else's grief.
I hope I've helped just a little bit. I love you all so much. I leave you with this to reflect on.
Always, Mum x'
I had a number of questions that I wanted answered in the letter to my children. My hope is that I've covered them in a way where they'll have flexible guidelines when the time comes. Do I want my children to follow a prescriptive funeral plan that I've left them? No. Do I want my remains to be dealt with in a way that considers the environment? Yes. Do I want them to line the pockets of funeral directors? No. Do I want this important time of life to be meaningful to my children? Yes
Memorial and funeral arrangements are a heavy burden for loved ones. And they don't need to be. I think the traditional way takes the focus away from what really matters - grieving, caring for each other and celebrating the person's life.
How your death affects climate change. The Huffington Post
Ten Eco-Friendly Funeral Ideas The Guardian
What is the difference between visitation and viewing? To be perfectly honest, I haven't got my head around this question and what I would want. I realise I've left the question unanswered in my letter. I think perhaps this depends on the circumstances of my death and what the kids want. But I'm not sure. I'm going to take some time and do some more reading on this.
The Environmental Impact of Death & Decay (Part 1) Rammed with information. Australian based article but useful as a starting point regardless of your location.