Maddy’s friend, Bernie, lost the ability to say more than a few words after suffering a stroke. But he was still able to enjoy life and to make his views known. When he died, his friends knew exactly what Bernie wanted for his funeral. With the help of a humanist celebrant, they were able to give him the perfect send-off: a humanist funeral which was totally inclusive of all his friends and family, regardless of belief or faith.
‘Bernie was a real party person,’ says Maddy. ‘He loved music and dancing – we’d often go to clubs and gigs together. After the stroke, he couldn’t move his left side, but he remained fiercely independent. You’d see him speeding around in his automatic wheelchair – to the barbers, the manicurist, M&S, waving to everyone as he went.’
A non-religious funeral
Bernie moved into a supported living setting. Here, staff organised a meeting between Bernie and his family to talk about end-of-life planning.
‘He wasn’t about to die at that point, so this must have been a standard thing for all residents.’ recalls Maddy. ‘There was a meeting with Bernie and his sisters, but he became agitated and sent them away. His family are Irish and Catholic, and were very religious and traditional in their approach. Bernie was always different. He knew he wanted something more personal and authentic.
‘He called me after the meeting, asking if I would go through the funeral plans with him. I made suggestions and he said yes or no. We listened to the music that he wanted for his funeral and we made decisions together.’
Maddy was already familiar with humanist ceremonies. So when Bernie made it clear to her that he wanted a non-religious funeral, she could make sure that his wishes were respected.
‘It was strange to be in the situation of planning his funeral, because I wasn’t a family member,” says Maddy. “It was a big responsibility to make sure that he got what he wanted.’
A funeral that included everyone
Several years later, when Bernie died, Maddy’s responsibility extended to making sure all his friends and family felt included in his humanist funeral.
Our humanist celebrant spent time getting to know Bernie’s family. She found out about his childhood, which was incredible, and she put a lot of that story into the ceremony. It was important to his family – and showed Bernie’s friends a new side of him.
She made sure there was a moment of reflection during the ceremony. She said that if you are religious, you might like this moment for a private prayer. The family appreciated having that option. In fact, I think the family was blown away by the whole thing. Our humanist celebrant also talked with all the friends who took part in the ceremony, making sure everything was exactly right.
‘We had a WhatsApp group of Bernie’s friends. There was so much input from everyone in the group. Someone suggested a favourite club record of Bernie’s as the closing music. Someone else offered a poem. It was brilliant – a real team effort!’
A truly unique funeral
Bernie’s friends included lots of personal touches in the ceremony. They tied hand-written messages, memories and wishes to the coffin with coloured ribbons. And they came up with an amazing and unique musical tribute.
‘After his stroke, Bernie couldn’t speak, but he could still sing,” explains Maddy. “A friend and I took him for a day out. We were sitting in a cafe and she started singing ‘Close to You’ by the Carpenters – and, to our surprise, Bernie started singing along! It was such a moment. We had found a way that he could still communicate with us. When he was singing along to music, he was at his happiest – he could join in again.
‘For the funeral, we asked all his friends to record themselves singing ‘Close to You’, but we didn’t tell them why. They all did it! A friend edited it together and we played it at the ceremony. It was so special.’
One of Bernie’s old school friends told Maddy that he had never been to a funeral like it. “He thought this was how a funeral should be,” says Maddy. “He had not witnessed a funeral before that was totally about remembering and celebrating a person’s whole life. It showed him what was possible, and now he wants something like that for himself!”
A funeral that was planned in advance
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.
This made all the difference for Maddy when she was starting to plan Bernie’s funeral ceremony.
‘I’m so glad that we had this conversation before he was really ill. Most people will wait until someone is dying, but then the mood is different – you are all so emotional.
‘When we talked about his funeral, Bernie was able to reflect on what he wanted and to make decisions. It meant, when the time came, I could be confident that what I was doing was right. It was comforting to know these weren’t just my ideas, they were his. It was absolutely the sort of ceremony that Bernie would have liked. We gave him a good send-off.’