Reprinted from The Irish Times dated January 15, 2014
Written by: Richard O’Leary
Viewers of Coronation Street have been intrigued by Roy Cropper’s plans for a “DIY” funeral for his terminally ill wife Hayley. Roy was seen searching on the internet for “do it yourself” funerals, and Hayley suggested they wouldn’t even need an undertaker. In the fictional world of Corrie, anything is possible, but is a DIY funeral a realistic option?
Last year I had to ask myself this same question. During the summer my partner of 25 years, Mervyn Kingston, was told he was terminally ill with bone cancer and had only weeks to live. Unlike Coronation Street’s Roy, who was initially reluctant to discuss funeral planning with his wife Hayley, I was fortunate that Mervyn openly discussed the subject with me. He told me of his wish for a DIY funeral, or as we preferred to call it, a “direct-it-yourself” funeral.
We both liked the idea of a simple, “not-for-profit” funeral consistent with our non-consumerist values. We were attracted by the possibility of increasing the contribution of our close friends and family to one of life’s main events, while minimising the involvement of strangers and professional funeral service providers. Furthermore, I retained a memory of my grandmother’s funeral in Co Cork. Granny was laid out at home by a neighbour who had known her for decades. She was waked in her own home. Those who knew her well transported her to the church for a simple funeral service.
Mervyn dictated instructions to me from his bed, as I typed up a list of all the tasks we could envisage being part of the funeral. We were fortunate that Mervyn had been a Church of Ireland clergyman until his retirement in 2007, meaning that he was well aware of the tasks involved. However, even without this experience, most people would be capable of drawing up the to-do list. I then contacted likely volunteers among our close friends and family, inviting them to carry out post-death tasks – transport, pall-bearing, flowers, catering.
Registering a death
First I familiarised myself with the legal requirement to register a death. There is no cost in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland for registering a death. The only cost is for copies of death certificates (information on registration can be found atgroireland.ie or nidirect.gov.uk). Then we both prepared the draft death notice for later submission to The Irish Times. Even in the age of the internet, a newspaper death notice is an indispensable way of informing the wider community, especially older contacts, of a death.
Hayley in Coronation Street said, “I don’t want to waste good money on oak caskets and brass handles”. However, the alternative isn’t necessarily Roy’s self-assembly cardboard coffin. We sourced a sturdy and attractive wooden coffin for £420 (about €510) from a local undertaker in Co Down.
Although we had been told that some undertakers might be reluctant to sell a coffin on its own as part of an “a la carte” service without the full funeral package, that was not our experience. Our local undertaker was friendly and accommodating, advising us that this coffin from their brochure could be purchased with a simple phone call when required.
We knew we would need help when it came to preparing the body, and it appears that the days when this skill was available in the local community are gone. We made inquiries among district nurses, care workers and clergy as to who might be able to prepare the corpse. All our inquiries drew a blank. Fortunately, in advance of the death we agreed with the undertaking firm that sold us the coffin that it would prepare the corpse as well. We did not request embalming. The charge for the basic preparation was £75.
We had a preference for a church service for the funeral, so we advised in advance the relevant clergy of the expected death. I typed the service sheet in advance – including the hymns – ready to be photocopied once the date of death was inserted. We also had a preference for burial rather than cremation. We already had a family grave in a graveyard. I contacted the gravedigger.
“No man knoweth the day or the hour” (Matthew 24:36). Even the best-made plans for an impending death will need to be altered. Here is how it panned out for us.
Mervyn died peacefully at home with me by his side on Friday, August 2nd, at 6.20pm. We kept his body at home that night at a cool temperature. The following morning I phoned the funeral service to complete the purchase of the coffin and requested that the funeral service collect the corpse to prepare it before it was returned to our home.
I contacted the church and the clergyman to agree the date and time of the church service. I informed the gravedigger to ensure his availability on the same day. Normally an undertaker would attend to these tasks. Once these details were confirmed, the finalised death notice was emailed to The Irish Times and I alerted my list of volunteers that they should begin their tasks – providing the vehicles, flowers, photocopying of service sheets and catering.
The day before the funeral, a volunteer collected the death certificate from the GP’s surgery and registered the death at the registrar’s office. This must be done before the funeral can take place. We waked Mervyn at home that evening. We made one room in our house available for viewing of the coffin. Fortunately we remembered to choose a room into which a 6ft coffin could easily be carried. It felt right that mourners could say goodbyes to Mervyn and offer support to me in our own home.
On the morning of the funeral, instead of a black hearse, Mervyn’s close friend Percy used his estate car to transport the coffin to the church. A beautiful spray of flowers prepared by a friend from Mervyn’s favourite garden adorned the coffin. Six pre-arranged friends acted as pall-bearers. Instead of the unfamiliarity of a chauffeur-driven black limousine, I was driven by a close friend in his saloon car. After the church service, instead of going to a hotel, home-made refreshments were prepared and served by volunteers in the adjacent church hall.
Transported by friends
A smaller group of mourners drove to the graveyard. As I sat in the saloon car following the estate car containing Mervyn’s coffin, my sister remarked to me “how comforting it is that a dear friend of Mervyn’s is bearing his body to the graveyard”. At the cemetery one of the volunteers brought straps to assist the pall-bearers to lower the coffin into the open grave. This highlights the number of small tasks and items that can easily be forgotten and need to be included on the to-do list for your DIY funeral.
DIY funerals are not for everyone. There are many tasks to be undertaken at an emotional time in a short period. An anticipated death makes it easier, and detailed planning is essential. It requires the availability of reliable volunteers. Nevertheless, as our experience shows, a DIY funeral is achievable.
It is certainly more economical – a basic cost €600 (coffin plus preparation of corpse) compared with the typical funeral service’s basic package of €2,500. This difference is mainly accounted for by the saving on administration, personnel time and transport costs, which in our case were borne by volunteers.
Typically, there are additional expenses such as costs of newspaper death notices and the grave – the latter can sometimes be considerable.
We donated our savings from our DIY funeral to our favoured charity. However, as important as the economic advantage is, the personal satisfaction of directing it yourself is immeasurable. It felt more like my granny’s traditional funeral.
The contribution of family members and close friends, instead of strangers, transformed a very sad occasion into an unexpectedly positive experience.
Further reading (Inclusion is not a recommendation of any particular organisation or company):