Planning a funeral for my husband wasn't what I expected to be doing a few months after my 50th birthday. What was a little – ironic, or just providential – was that, a few weeks before he died, we had talked a little about it on the drive home from a friend's burial. Some people have the opportunity and the foresight to discuss funeral plans in detail; all I knew was that he wanted to be buried in Somerset to the soundtrack of Shine on you Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
I used the funeral director that had arranged my parent's funerals a few years before. If you know the person that you want to lead the funeral, whether religious or humanist, ask if they have any recommendations. The National Association of Funeral Directors and National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors have lists.
Preparing for burial or cremation
You will need to choose whether you want your partner to be buried in a coffin or a shroud. There are eco-friendly coffins available, from bamboo to wool, and even printed cardboard coffins.
The undertaker is likely to ask you if you want clothes for your partner. After holidays together where I would pack his bag if he was working late before we went away, I distinctly remember the sadness of packing Tim's bag for the last time.
Include underwear and shoes if you want to, and any little things that it feels right. Roald Dahl's coffin included chocolate, a bottle of Burgundy, his favourite HB pencils, a power saw, and his snooker cues. Other examples include flowers, letters, photos, books, rosary beads, religious texts, jewellery and soft toys. Tim was buried wearing his wedding ring, his suit (he'd joked after that funeral a few weeks before that it had been worn to more funerals than weddings), and the shoes he wore for his last acting role. In his pocket were the tickets for the race meeting we were due to go to the day of his funeral, and a Jaguar key ring he'd got the Christmas before from a lovely friend.
Be aware that funeral directors may have to remove things from the body or the coffin. For a cremation, these include pacemakers, leather, latex or vinyl shoes and accessories, and bottles of spirits. For a green burial, all clothes and items should be natural materials, and be biodegradable.
Planning the ceremony
You can choose to have a religious or humanist ceremony, and locate it where you want to (provided they are happy to have a coffin on site). This could be from a place of worship or crematorium to a pub, from a boat to a football ground, from a field to your own garden. You can have hymns, music, poems, bible readings or readings of poetry or prose that mean a lot to you. You can ask friends and family to talk about your partner, and you can speak yourself. From experience, I would suggest having a 'second' who has a copy of your reading or eulogy, and who can step in on your behalf if you can't carry on.
A basic structure:
Music can be recorded or live. If you get friends to do the music bear in mind they might struggle to sing of they are overcome with emotion in the moment.
The order that things are done can be changed around. For my parents, there was a short ceremony at the crematorium for just family, and then we moved to the church for a service. Tim's burial immediately followed the church service. At a friend's funeral, we had a service and then waved her farewell at the gates. The funeral directors went to the crematorium and we went to the wake.
There are traditionally four or six pallbearers, and these can be men or women. They will carry the coffin at waist or shoulder height. It's often done by friends or family, supported by the funeral director's team. It's a big responsibility, and it's important to accept that some people may not wish to do this.
Funerals can be expensive, but there are ways that you can keep the costs down. Check whether your partner had a pre-paid funeral plan, but be aware that this may not cover everything. If you are on certain benefits, you can claim a Funeral Expenses Payment from the government up to six months after the funeral.
You can invite just specific people to the funeral – for example family or close friends – or open it up more widely by posting details on social media, in the newspaper, or online, for example on the funeral director's website.
Particularly in the Western world, black is a traditional funeral colour. This may go back to Roman times, where people in mourning wore a dark-coloured toga (toga pulla). If this doesn't suit you, you can ask people at the funeral to wear a particular colour that's important to you, carry a certain flower, or wear bright clothes.
Setting up a live stream
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many people were unable to attend the funerals of families and friends. Livestreaming funerals became more common, helping people to come together. As a result, an increasing number of churches, crematoria and funeral directors are now offering livestreaming. This allows people who are ill, too elderly to travel, or who live too far away to be able to attend. It's also possible to set up a livestream using Facebook, WhatsApp or Skype.
The day of the funeral will be tough. Check out the location so that you have somewhere to escape to if you need it. Stand tall, be proud of the person whose life you are celebrating. Clench your buttocks if you need to hold things in, but otherwise – weep silently, sob, howl, smile, laugh, talk or be silent. Or all of those, in any order. This is their day, but it is a day for you too.
Negotiating with families
You may have the freedom to have the day exactly as you want it, but you may also have to negotiate with family. If you and your partner have made plans beforehand, make sure everyone knows what will happen, and that it is how your partner wanted it. However, your partner's family may have fixed ideas in what they want. You may need to stand your ground, but you also may need to make some compromises. They are grieving too.
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.