When Sarah talks about her mum Joan’s funeral, words like “joy”, “fun” and “celebration” come up a lot. It’s hardly surprising. This was someone who, in Sarah’s words, ‘always said yes to new things’. When Joan died in her 80s, after a very short illness, her daughters knew that her funeral had to celebrate their mum’s passion for life.
‘Mum and I didn’t really talk about funeral plans. Not because we were afraid to – it just didn’t come up. I think she was comfortable that we would do what she wanted,’ explains Sarah.
But one casual comment provided Sarah and her sister with a starting point: ‘We happened to drive past Bluebell Cemetery, and she mentioned that she’d like to be buried there. I took that comment and put it away in my back pocket for when it was needed.’
Bluebell Cemetery in the Kent countryside is within an area of outstanding natural beauty. And it was just right for Joan. ‘She wasn’t exactly a rambler – I don’t think she even owned a pair of wellies – but she loved fresh flowers and her garden. She wouldn’t have wanted somewhere stuffy – Bluebell cemetery is modern and fresh. It was her to a T.’
Why choose a humanist funeral?
They had the location, but next they had to decide what type of funeral they wanted. ‘Mum wasn’t at all religious,’ says Sarah. ‘I think she would have wanted a humanist funeral. Doing anything else would have felt fake to us, and it wouldn’t have suited her.’
Next, Sarah and her sister chatted with their humanist celebrant telling her all about what their mum was like. The script for the ceremony grew from that conversation.
‘We were in control and we knew what was going to happen,’ says Sarah. ‘There were no surprises in the script, which meant that every single word was appropriate to my mum. We were also pleased that the ceremony was streamed online. It meant that mum’s friends who lived too far away, or were not well enough to travel, could still be part of it. Our celebrant explicitly included them in the welcome.’
A unique life celebrated in a unique way
Every element of the ceremony was crafted with care and expressed something personal about Joan.
‘Mum would always tell us to “have a humbug for the journey”, so we thought it would be nice if everyone at her funeral could enjoy a humbug too. We had them in little bags, for people to have during the moment of reflection.’
As well as her sweets, Joan loved her scarves – she was always wearing one.
‘We gathered together all her scarves and everyone in the family helped to stitch them together. They were wrapped around her wicker coffin, with a couple of bunches of flowers, each hand-tied with another scarf. We carried the coffin ourselves – myself, my husband, my sister and her partner – mum would have liked that. It looked so beautiful. Mum always loved pretty things’
And it wasn’t just the scarves that were brightly coloured – none of Jan’s friends and family wore black for her funeral, instead they chose colourful clothes for this celebration of her life.
The wicker coffin was a deliberate choice too. As soon as Sarah and her sister saw it online, they knew it was the right thing. ‘We always joked about how much mum loved a basket,’ says Sarah.
Getting ready for the end of life
While Joan might have been too busy living life to talk about end of life planning or about her funeral, she was not too busy to organise her affairs while she was well.
‘She had prepared a box with all the paperwork we needed – and everything was in order. She didn’t tell us about the box, but having it made everything so much more straightforward for us.’
Dying Matters Week (2–6 May) encourages everyone to plan for the end of life and to talk about their wishes with the people closest to them. Sarah agrees that this is important: ‘It’s hard to address these things, but I believe that you have to do it while you are well, or it becomes even harder. My mum was pretty well, right until the end. We had time with her to say everything we wanted to say.’
Sarah and her family can look back on a funeral that they know was just right for their mum – one that she would have absolutely loved.
‘She lived a unique life and we wanted to celebrate that in a unique way. With a humanist funeral, we had the freedom to pick things which expressed how special she was. There were no rules. We wanted it to be joyful – full of little things that would make people smile, and would remind her family and all her many friends of our unique and fabulous mum.’