…a cautionary but ultimately triumphant tale of organising a funeral without employing a funeral director.
A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine died in hospital in the UK. She had been ill for some time and had been admitted to hospital for treatment. She went in on Monday and sadly her physical condition deteriorated rapidly and she died shortly after midnight on the Friday morning. The previous Sunday, not expecting her sudden departure but wanting to be prepared nevertheless, she invited a friend over to help finalise her Will and Advance Decision. She said she wanted her body to be cremated in a home-made coffin – made of cardboard boxes from Tesco’s and chipboard – she didn’t believe in wasting money and was very much into recycling!
The day after her death, I looked up the number of a local funeral director we had used a few years ago for another friend and passed it onto Mala who was the main person organising the funeral and was also the executor of the Will. We had already decided that we would take my friend’s body to the crematorium in her beloved Bongo campervan which had given her so much joy and freedom in the few years she had owned it – she was to make one final journey in it. So, when Mala called the number and found that the quirky, friendly Funeral Director had been bought out by a chain, she asked herself, “Why do we need a funeral director at all?” Our friend’s body was in the hospital morgue, we were making our own coffin, no embalming or other procedures were wanted, we didn’t need a hearse and were designing the funeral service ourselves….What was left for a funeral director to do?
I called the super-helpful woman at the Natural Death Centre and she reassured me that it was perfectly possible to do everything ourselves – to have a DIY Funeral (Do it yourself funeral). She gave me a few tips such as:
- We needed to make sure the coffin was cremation compatible – i.e. the materials must meet legal emissions standards when burned and that we mustn’t put anything in the coffin that might damage the incinerator such as metal objects (including a pacemaker!) It would be good to contact the superintendent at the crematorium to check everything was OK and to go over any paperwork.
- The need for good communication with the mortuary to establish a convenient time to pick up the body.
- We would need to get a second doctor’s signature from the Patient Affair’s Office at the hospital as it was a cremation rather than a burial and would need this for the crematorium (& possibly to register the death).
- At the Registrar we would get the Death Certificate and could get several copies for £4 each as institutions such as banks often require an original certificate to close an account. We would also get a Certificate for Burial or Cremation (aka a Green Form) which we would need to fill in and send to the Registrar once the funeral had happened. (In fact, the crematorium did this for us).
The Natural Death Centre recommended we took steps in the following order:
- Get the Medical Cause of Death certificate from the Patient Affair’s Office at the hospital (it would have been the GP if our friend had died at home) including two doctors’ signatures on the crematorium form. We would need to pay £82 for each signature.
- Phone the Registrar’s Office to make a provisional appointment and check which paperwork needed.
- Liaise with the mortuary and the crematorium. We could ask the mortuary staff to put our friend’s body in the coffin and could pick it up (strange how the body loses its gender) the day of or the day before the funeral.
In the meantime, Mala had called the crematorium and obtained the materials and dimensions specifications for the coffin and passed them on to two lovely friends (one a builder) who had agreed to make the coffin.
Over the next couple of days Mala and I met with our friend’s family including her sister who had flown over from Australia and her niece from Canada. We agreed to have the funeral and the celebration of life on the same day…and soon so that far-flung family could attend. The date was set for 11 days after the date of death. We didn’t quite realise how much work would be involved but luckily we had lots of support from family, friends and local community – and the vast majority of what needed doing would have needed to be done whether or not we had booked a professional funeral director.
We booked a wonderful venue for the celebration and together chose poems, readings and music for the funeral service. We put together the order of service, a friend designed it and I picked it up from the printers on the morning of the funeral. Mala had visited the crematorium and completed the necessary paperwork – we had booked a double slot of 1 hour rather than the standard half hour as we had many people who wanted to pay tribute to our much-loved friend.
The coffin team brought round the coffin to our friend’s flat – they had done a fabulous job – with cardboard sheets bought from the Scrapstore (not Tesco’s!), a chipboard base, sturdy joints and a well-fitting lid all neatly finished and ready for decorating and the special plastic liner we had bought from a funeral supplier. Our friend’s sister and niece painted a beautiful design on the coffin lid, painted her full name and dates on the end plate and together with other family members and friends made colourful painted handprints round the sides of the coffin.
Everything was running to plan… until at 4pm on the day before the funeral, discussions between Mala and the crematorium revealed that she had been given the wrong dimensions and the coffin was too long and wouldn’t fit in the incinerator! Apparently, there are 2 types of coffin (or should I say burial box?) – a casket and a coffin and they each have different maximum dimensions – we had been given the wrong ones (see end note). The crematorium was apologetic and said they would change their operating procedures to make sure this didn’t happen again – we were their first experience of a home-made coffin!
Mala, remaining remarkably calm, phoned another funeral director to see if it was possible to buy a last-minute coffin and also called the coffin team to see if they could help – luckily one of them was able to come round, hack the end off, trim the length, fit it back together – and all without spoiling the design on the lid. Phew!
Next morning, I arrived at my friend’s flat, a box full of Orders of Service hot off the press in my bag, with less than an hour to go before we were due to drive to the mortuary to pick up the body. At this point, everything became somewhat surreal! My friend’s sister and her daughter (already in their funeral clothes), their hands slathered in multi-coloured paint were crawling round the coffin slapping handprints on bare bits of cardboard. Seeing my look, they grinned back and said don’t worry (or was it ‘No worries’ – they are Australian after all!) – ‘We’ve got a hair-dryer.’ I quelled the vision I had of the pallbearers (of which I was to be one) sitting down with red and blue shoulders and assiduously followed the two artists round with the hair dryer. After a while I noticed that the heat of the hair-dryer was causing the cardboard sides of the coffin to peel away from the wooden struts. Dave the driver arrived just at that moment – and followed me round with the staple gun. I could almost hear our friend giggling at our antics!
We lined the coffin with the plastic liner, added a favourite shawl, a cushion and a couple of photographs and suddenly our coffin looked like the real thing – and all in the nick of time. My friend’s sister, Mala and Dave drove off in my friend’s van to the hospital mortuary and I and the niece drove to the crematorium to brief the soundman about the recorded music and talks we had prepared and the live music we would be having. We met the official crematorium man who was extremely helpful and assured us that he would show us pallbearers how to carry and place the coffin.
We briefed another friend who would be leading the ceremony, welcomed the guests and liaised with friends who were livestreaming the service so that the many friends overseas or who were otherwise unable to attend in person could join us via video link. Mala and co arrived with the coffin – as there had been only one person at the mortuary, they had needed to help place our friend in her coffin themselves – a powerful experience which they had found strangely beautiful – but not what they had been expecting.
We had a poignant service (slightly ambitious as we ran out of time and had to shift a couple of the tributes to the celebration) and a heart-warming celebration afterwards.
Looking back, what would we have done differently? The main thing would have been to have triple-checked the coffin dimensions; perhaps finished the coffin decoration a little earlier and been a little less ambitious with the funeral ‘programme’. The video quality (both visual and audio) was quite poor despite good pre-checks and we concluded it might have been better to have just videoed the ceremony rather than live-streamed it. However, despite the quality, many people said that they had found it very valuable to have been able to share in the experience of saying goodbye to our friend.
This was our experience of a DIY funeral – there could have been many permutations – e.g. buying a coffin but not using a funeral director, keeping the body at home packed in ice for a few days if our friend had died at home; and burying her ourselves if she had wanted to be buried on private land. See Private land burial for more details.
So how much did it all cost?
Although following our friend’s wishes was the primary motivation for doing a DIY funeral, rather than keeping costs down, we did manage to reduce costs to the following:
End Note (or a little post event research…)
A Coffin is a coffin is a coffin…unless it’s a casket!
Here’s what came up when I Googled ‘casket shaped coffin vs regular’:
What is the difference between a coffin and a casket? The difference is basically one of design. Coffins are tapered at the head and foot and are wide at the shoulders. Caskets are rectangular in shape and are usually constructed of better quality timbers and feature higher standards of workmanship.
See images at the top of this blog post.
Googling the name of the crematorium (in Bristol UK) didn’t lead to much but some further ‘digging’ revealed this page Arranging a funeral including this crucial bit of information:
- At Canford Crematorium the biggest coffin size you can have is 82″ long, 28″ wide and 21″ high. Casket shaped coffins can’t be bigger than 78″ long.
N.B. The crematorium listed below it had slightly different maximum dimension specifications!
Our friend’s ‘coffin’ was 4-sided so was actually a casket rather than a coffin – we had been given the dimensions for a coffin.
Just to make things crystal clear, here’s the irreverent Caitlin Doughty – a Los Angeles-based mortician, death theorist, and the founder of The Order of the Good Death – explaining the difference between a coffin and a casket.
Article by Sidika