Insurance and plans for funerals seem to feature extensively these days on free to air television. Is this the best that product marketers can pitch to our demographic? I hope not. Having said that, I have had cause in recent months to reflect on funeral traditions and trends and to wonder how I would like to be farewelled.

My early experience of funerals

I grew up in rural NSW near the town of Coonamble which has a lovely funeral tradition. When the funeral procession leaves the church or other institution on its way to the cemetery, the town virtually stops. The funeral director walks in front of the hearse as it makes its way down the main street, the shops all close their doors and their staff stand outside the stores with their heads bowed. Traffic other than the funeral procession stops and the community pays its respects to the deceased. It is a truly moving experience to witness and very comforting for those close to the deceased.

Headstones for Monica Wild and Leslie Wild
Mum and Dad side by side but a long way from family.

So imagine my shock when I moved to the City and saw funeral processions being cut into with absolutely no regard for the feelings of the family and friends.

I recall my niece once saying to me that her Mum (my oldest sister) and her Dad were ‘on the funeral circuit’ and that she felt that they had reached that age in their lives where weddings and parties were largely replaced by funerals. At the time I thought it was amusing but now I am wondering if we too have reached that age? In truth we just attended a 40th birthday party so perhaps not, but we have attended too many funerals already this year.

Four funerals already this year

Each funeral has been different and I have found it thought provoking to see how traditions have changed and that in many ways funerals are far more personal than they once were. Here is some of what we have seen.

  • A funeral for a well respected member of a rural community who had been a long serving member of his local Country Fire Brigade. The service was conducted in the Brigade Shed and was a lovely combination of music, images and formality; the latter due to his military and community service. In what was something new to me the hearse left the Shed, with an escort of a fire engine and several cars from the local car club. There was no internment nor witnessing of the cremation.
  • The funeral of a man who was nearly 90 and had been in a nursing home for some time. This much loved man was the Father of one of my dearest friends and had been an important part of my life. He was farewelled in a funeral chapel in Sydney with eulogies by two of his daughters and his son. These were actually a lot of fun as Phil had been delightfully idiosyncratic, so funny stories were told and there was some ‘call and response’ from other family members as anecdotes were shared and embellished. The coffin was then lowered for cremation and we repaired to a nearby room to enjoy French champagne and delicious food whilst continuing to share memories. At the end of the afternoon the flowers which had adorned the coffin were given to family members and friends.
  • The funeral of a friend who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Again the funeral was held in a funeral chapel but this service included some lovely New Zealand traditions (the deceased was born there). There was an open coffin at the start, always rather confronting and then the simple pine box was closed and all present were invited to use texta colours to write or draw on the coffin. The service was non religious and was concluded with an incredibly moving Maori farewell; different to but rather like the Haka. The men who conducted this ritual dropped to the floor as they witnessed the coffin being lowered. I doubt there was a dry eye in the chapel.
  • The fourth funeral we have attended this year (I would be happy if it was the last), was for a long term resident of our small community. This man has been a prominent member of both the Country Fire Authority and the SES. I was very impressed that his widow (not a young woman) was able to present the bulk of the eulogy, not something I have witnessed before and I thought very brave. The service was conducted in our local multi-denominational Church and followed by internment in the local cemetery on a sunny but freezing day.

What funeral tradition would you want to follow?

coffin choices for dunerals
Coffins come in a variety of materials these days

All of this has caused me to think about how I would like to be farewelled and to be honest I haven’t yet totally made up my mind. There are some useful checklists like this one  available on the webI have gathered a mental list of music I would like to be played and I know I don’t want to be left in a cold hole in the ground and I don’t want family and friends grieving in a cemetery on a hot or cold day. I also don’t want anyone hanging on to my ashes, I want to be ‘set free’. But where I don’t know. I haven’t formalised my preferences in a document but I know I should do so and add it to the rest of my estate planning files. Am I being superstitious by not doing so ? Do I somehow think that writing this down means I will die? Surely not as I already have a will and powers of attorney and organ donation in place. I just don’t feel ready yet.

Have you witnessed a change in funeral traditions in recent years? Do you have an idea of how you would like to be farewelled? Have you documented your wishes or will you leave that to your family and friends to determine?