Funeral for a Friend.

A funeral can be prepared with a day or two’s notice, or we can start months or years before the day arrives.

Take time to prepare if possible.

Last Winter my friend Felicity called me warning me that she’d be requiring my service as a funeral celebrant “soon”. Her husband Colin’s condition was deteriorating rapidly. He’d had Parkinson’s disease for well over a decade and had been in care for over a year. This was to be my second experience of conducting a funeral for a friend.

I met Colin and Felicity forty years ago when I was sixteen. At that stage they had two boys and another was soon to arrive. I was a typical teenage baby-sitter/helper but this relationship turned to friendship over the years. Strangely, we’ve all gravitated to Wales although Flip and Colin settled eventually in Anglesey whilst I’m in Carmarthenshire.

Hops, lavender and other flowers decorated the coffin for this home-spun funeral.

Colin’s hop – decorated wicker coffin

Home or cemetery burial?

We started discussing funerals during that Winter phone call. Felicity very sensibly realised that making some some decisions before Colin died would give her space to grieve when the time came. She initially chose a home burial, but this was soon dismissed in favour of the local cemetery in Beaumaris which has a great view over the Menai Straights. We looked at venues, including local hotels and village halls but Felicity opted to hold both ceremony and “After Party” at home. Felicity also chose her funeral director, Mr Rowlands early in the organisational process, knowing that she would get on well with him after talking on the phone and meeting with him.

The day came…

Colin finally died at the end of May and the funeral was set for Monday 5th June. A large gazebo was bought and a small marquee hired. Flip and I met and made decisions on what songs to sing and play. She came with her own ideas of the very rude rugby songs which Colin had taken great pride in knowing. I’d have found these if she’d insisted but we delved a little deeper and went with songs which reflected Felicity’s love for him, his African childhood, his rugby playing and (England team!) supporting and his love of Wales.

As a celebrant, if other people are giving eulogies, I normally simply introduce them. However, despite there being four people speaking as well as the boys and Felicity, I was generously invited to give my own personal memories of Colin in my introduction to proceedings. The tributes were interspersed with poems which Flip and I felt reflected Colin well. As usual, I wrote the entire ceremony and sent it to Flip for approval. His brother had expected a catholic funeral but left the final decision to Felicity. Thankfully, he also approved the script I sent out.

Rain tried to stop play!

As the day got nearer, the Sun shone but in time honoured fashion the day broke with drizzle which developed into driving rain. The ceremony was moved into the house (a large room known as the “music room”) but there was no way of fitting everybody in. Some loyal souls therefore sat under the gazebo or marquee without being able to hear a thing, as far as I knew!

The music room looked beautiful for the funeral.

The music room ready for the funeral

Inside the house, the stage was set beautifully. There were cards and pictures on the walls for people to look at afterwards. Candles were lit – and then put out once we realised how many people were going to be squashed in to a very small space! Mr Rowlands brought the coffin, and Colin made his last journey into his house carried by friends and family. Colin worked all his life in the distilling industry, so Felicity and the family had decorated his wicker casket with hops and lavender. It looked magnificent on the large dining table which filled the end of the room.

Room full of friends

Not a spare space in the house on the day of the funeral

Finding the right notes

The ceremony went almost without a hitch; because we’d tried so hard to fit everyone in, we started a little late and forgot the opening music of “Thank you for the days”. We played it at the very end instead, Felicity reckoned this being better in any case! The other choices of music were “Hakuna Matata”, then “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, obviously both being reminiscent of Africa. We all sang along with the CDs, the words being in the order of ceremony. By the time the third piece of music was played, everyone had found their voices and joined Max Boyce with gusto as we sang “Hymns and Arias”. I’ve a feeling that many of the English mourners were unfamiliar with the words and found it very funny! Balance was restored with the final song, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”; Colin was English, after all.

Felicity reads her tribute at her husband's funeral.

Felicity, referring to one of her boys. reaches out to him.

The Interment in the Rain

The family, a few close friends and I went to the cemetery for the interment. The rain lashed down, but we did Colin proud as we said our words of farewell together.

Everyone preparing for the burial at Colin's funeral.

Graveside, sometimes rain feels appropriate.

In the meantime, back at the house, a jazz band had started playing in the marquee and the hog roast was ready. The party had started, just as Colin would have wanted. On our return, we couldn’t blame anyone who shook Felicity’s hand thanking her for her hospitality but confessing they needed to get home and get dry. I recognised some faces from the days when I’d be invited to dinner parties (to make up numbers!) and was flattered by a great many positive comments about the ceremony.

A Job Well Done

The day seemed to have flown by when Felicity and I found ourselves back in the music room with the “cousins” (twenty-something niece and nephews) and the boys, and all the guests had gone. We reflected on the day over very large gin and tonics (well, Colin would have approved!) and were satisfied that we’d said goodbye in the most fitting way we could.

Call me to help prepare your loved one’s – or your own – funeral.

A day or two later, one of Felicity’s friends emailed her. The message was that she “had already decided she was having her funeral at Matthews Orchard with a party in his barn and her ashes under the Oak tree or the horse chestnut. Now they know exactly how to do it. Another booking for Helen!”

As for Felicity, she later wrote a review saying A wonderful wonderful celebration of my husbands life. Helen was truly amazing. Talented, efficient, loving, friendly, and so supportive. It made the day so special. I have had letters after letters raving about the day. I cannot recommend her highly enough.”

As for me, I truly understood what it was to “celebrate a life” for this was a life that I’d known, and knew that it had been lived well. My privilege was in sharing that certainty that all that was left to do was to recall, sing and be thankful.