Can the British laugh in the face of death and funerals? Do they really want to know what happens when they hand their body over to the men in black?
You are a short time alive and a long time dead! Go on, risk it; read this irreverent fictionalised tale of real and astonishing events beginning in 1993. At times, deadly serious; at times, deadly funny. It’s the mysterious world of the funeral directors, as they try to kill off burial under trees and oppose DIY funerals. It’s a world of embalming, pink glitzy shrouds, crappy coffins, brawling at funerals and girl power. Nobody’s resting in peace. It spawns a revolution but twenty years later, who is really in control? Find out; if you dare!
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R.I.P OFF! OR THE BRITISH WAY OF DEATH
Welcome to the final taboo – death! As a writer on bereavement and funerals I have one
aspiration; that everybody will take control of their death and funeral. I am appalled by people
who say that they cannot talk about death because it suggests that they are both selfish, and
uncaring. Sadly, that appears to be most of the British. If this sounds harsh then my excuse is that
during my work involvement with over 100,000 funerals, I saw, first hand, the consequences of
At the time of death, the bereaved are harassed, not least when they realise that they did not
know the answer to a few simple questions. What were the deceased’s religious views; did he or
she want cremation, or burial? Who will take the service; what would the deceased have
preferred? Floundering, most people sign up to the good send off, the traditional funeral; to play
safe, follow the herd. Stepping away from the norm takes confidence, especially if those closest
are inclined to that needling comment “what will people think?” It is also unbritish to mention the
cost until, that is, the funeral bill arrives. All too often, it is a shock, and always more than expected.
The denouement, increasingly so, is how to pay the bill? Decisions are made, often precipitately.
That nagging doubt remains, not least that the deceased themselves would have not supported
the kind of funeral chosen, or have been comfortable with the cost. People told me that they lay awake at night, unable to sleep. I could have told them that this is cognitive dissonance and, no doubt, is what precipitates the mass of depression that is blamed on bereavement and leads to a reliance on prescription drugs.
Hardly a day went by without an illuminating snippet of information; the widow who told me she did not know that her husband’s pension died with him. Children who told me that they failed to talk to mum or dad before they died; that they did not make their peace. The mother who told me that the child’s death lead to the marriage failing. In many I noted that destructive, self-flagellating question – if I had done more then perhaps the deceased might not have died? For some, it is anger, that somebody or something failed the deceased; the GP, the NHS, the nursing home, the ungrateful daughter, the workplace.
Perhaps the most damming indictment of the British way of death was when people would tell me, a total stranger, how good it was to talk about their funeral; that their children would not allow them to broach that subject. These children, often themselves aged and retired, preferred to ignore the death of their parents. The consequence is a poor death experience; it is avoidable; we all deserve a better ending.
So that was why I wrote R.I.P. Off!, a book intended to look death in the face with a smattering of humour. Expert opinion suggests that humour is the only way the British will read about death. But beneath the humour and the irreverence, lies a story that gives an insight into the funeral world; a world of real, everyday people. You will be shocked to realise what you can do; and what you do not have to do. Hopefully, as you read, it will ease a phobia or two, give you a laugh, raise a tear, but ultimately remind you that life is a wonderfully precious thing. Talking about your mortality and the impact of your death will not make life any less enjoyable, and, more to the point, it is considerate.
I could not have written R.I.P. Off! without my diaries, which comprise over one million words. Every incident is true, every swearword, even the letters are printed exactly as they were written. I have used my authors licence to imagine what was said by the funeral directors behind closed doors, why they acted as they did. Reading this, you might incorrectly assume that I was a funeral director. In fact, I was a council employee in Bereavement Services between 1961 and 2006 and worked in, or managed, cemeteries, crematoria, natural burial grounds and mortuaries. I experienced funerals in Shrewsbury, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Carlisle, Cardiff and Croydon, so I can claim to know the British way of death. But that took time and even in 1978, with 17 years experience, I made many mistakes when I arranged my mother’s funeral. I accepted embalming and viewing only to find that, puffed up with embalming fluid, she was unrecognisable. Had I had the benefit of reading R.I.P. Off! I would not have made that mistake.
What R.I.P. Off! also shows is how mainstream funeral directing opposed some initiatives I put forward. There are many decent and caring funeral directors and what I have always tried to do, and seemingly failed, is to separate the personality from the process; it’s the funeral process that stinks. It maintains the status quo and has no intention of creating new options, especially ones that reduce funeral costs, and that has increasingly serious consequences for the poorer members of society.
Give me a break; take control. At the very least, make a will, but remember that it might be read after the funeral. Those who are really interested, the ones who manage all of life’s crises, I am talking of women here, of course, might even consider an Advance Funeral Directive. That will tell those who matter what you want, in detail, and they will find it therapeutic to follow your wishes. Appreciate that there is a highly sophisticated funeral market out there longing to get their mitts on your body. With just a little thought and research, whether it will be hands on or hands off will be within your grip. R.I.P. Off! gives you the power.
My site also includes downloads that you might find helpful. They include the comprehensive Advance Funeral Directive I drew up in the 1990’s. The other items are all articles written for people working in the funeral scene, so they can be a little technical. They are about how death has changed in recent decades, how to make funerals more environmentally friendly and more spiritual, and a review of new cremation technology. I have also included a Home (DIY) Funeral guide.