A DIY funeral for a peace activist

Last summer I had a call from my friend Brian, to ask if I would help to plan his funeral. He had been living with cancer for several years, but now no more treatment was possible, and he was facing death with his typical courage and resilience.

Brian and I had first met in November 2006, after a blockade at Faslane, the nuclear missile submarine base in Scotland. I found myself sharing a cell with a gentle, erudite, bearded American. We talked pacifism, politics, and theology, and shared songs most of that night….

I was honoured to be asked to take on this role, and to work with Brian, his partner Jane, and his daughters Fiona and Morven, to design a ceremony that reflected his ethical concerns and his approach to life. Together we were able to take the time we needed to enquire deeply into what mattered to him. I listened to stories of his life as an activist, and we discussed what kind of ceremony he wanted, and the songs (lots of them!) and readings he wanted to include.

Brian Larkin
(photo: Jane Tallents)

As a celebrant, my aim is always to devise a ceremony that honours the essence of that individual, the gifts they gave to the world and those they loved. Each ceremony is a space where that person can be remembered with love, and emotions can flow.

Planning your funeral

Actually, this is something I’d encourage everyone to do! We often have a bit of a taboo around talking about death, in the hope that it might never happen (spoiler: it will!).

You could begin by having a talk with those you’re close to, about what you’d like to happen when you die. This doesn’t have to wait until you know death is close – it’s never too early to start, and it can really help your friends and family through their grief if they know your wishes around your death. You could write some notes to keep alongside your will. There are many possible options: Do you want to be buried (perhaps in a woodland or natural burial ground)? Or cremated? Do you want a funeral just after death, or a memorial gathering later? Are there particular songs and music or readings that you would like? Working with a celebrant at this stage can help to focus and facilitate the process.

The Scottish Government has produced a useful Planning Your Own Funeral leaflet that outlines some different options, and has space to note down your wishes. If you belong to a church or other religious organisation, they might also have some resources to help you.

You could also consider having a living funeral, a celebration of your life before you die.

Do it yourself

Brian and his family choose a very DIY approach to his dying: he chose to die at home, and they kept his body there in the days leading up to the funeral. The family found the resources from the charity Pushing Up The Daisies tremendously helpful, full of practical advice (for example, how to use ice packs to keep the body cold). Jane told me: “They are very upfront about what to expect in their guide and this helped me in being unafraid of planning to keep Brian’s body at home”. The Natural Death Handbook also has lots of useful information.

Jane’s son built a beautiful coffin out of reclaimed wood and they carried Brian’s body to the crematorium in a friend’s work van decorated with ivy.

This approach wouldn’t work for everyone, and many would choose to have professional support from an undertaker. But speaking to Brian’s partner afterwards, she said she had found the process empowering and helpful in coming to terms with the loss of her beloved partner.

People sometimes find it surprising that you don’t actually need to involve an undertaker at any stage. Or you could ask an undertaker to help with certain stages of the process, but not to provide a whole package. Again, this is something that it will be helpful think about in advance, as when you are caught up in the turmoil of death it’s not easy to think clearly about what you do and do not want.

I had wondered what the crematorium staff would make of this approach. In the event, they couldn’t have been more supportive. We met with them beforehand and talked through everything, but they said it was very unusual to have a funeral without undertakers being involved. I got the impression that they would welcome others taking a similar approach.

The ceremony itself was beautiful: the family carried the coffin in and placed it with the earth flag in front. We had songs from our local activist choir, Protest in Harmony, and a slide show of photos of Brian. Brian’s partner and his two daughters all spoke movingly about what he had meant to them. We stood and said our final goodbyes as we sang We Shall Overcome, that powerful anthem of so many peace and liberation movements.

Where will you look for me when I’m gone?

Brian had told me he was very much inspired by the Buddhist teacher and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hahn and he visited his community at Plum Village in France. During his final illness Brian found the Plum Village meditations a great source of comfort and sustenance.

Speaking about death, Thich Nhat Hahn asked “Where are you when you die? Where will you look for me when I’m gone?” He spoke of our lives being like a candle flame lighting other candles. We can see our continuation in children, seeds we’ve planted, our actions for peace, the work we’ve done in our lifetime. He said:

You do not suffer because things are impermanent. You suffer because things are impermanent and you think they are permanent.

Thich Nhat Hahn

For a cremation

(without using an undertaker)

Brian’s partner Jane kindly offered to share this checklist of things you need to remember for a funeral if you don’t use an undertaker:

  • Who is going to do the admin? Registering the death and sending form 14 to the crematorium. Do they have all the info and know where birth certificate/marriage certificates are?
  • Who do you need to tell about the death and the funeral arrangements? How to contact them?
  • Who is going to conduct the service and speak/sing? Once finalised, who will format the Order of Service and get it printed?
  • What kind of coffin? Who will make or order it? Are there any things to go into the coffin? (No glass or ceramics – check with the crem what is and isn’t allowed.)
  • Which crematorium? Advance contact to check they are happy with DIY arrangements, especially if the coffin is home made.
  • What happens to the body in between death and the funeral? If kept at home who will be looking after it?
  • How does the coffin and the family get to the crem? Check the vehicle you will be using as the ‘hearse’ is big enough. Check you can get the coffin with the body out of the house!
  • Who will carry the coffin? Make sure there are enough people to get it from the house into the ‘hearse’.
  • Will there be any special items at the service, photos, flags, flowers?
  • Will there be a collection? Receptacles for money. (A QR code for donations to charity?)
  • If there is to be a gathering afterwards: venue, arrangements for food/drink, any photos on display.

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