When Henry Died

I’m in Intensive Care with my sister Jane, by our father’s bedside. My mother, Joyce, and my other sister Demelza, are taking a brief break. Henry has been on life support for almost a month. An hour ago, after informing us, the doctors shut off the medicines that were stabilising his heart rate and blood pressure, whilst leaving the ventilator on. My attention alternated between Henry and the machines with the read-outs. Heart rate and blood pressure dropped steadily over the hour until his heart stopped. Jane and I looked at each other. Joyce and Demelza would be back in a moment. It felt like the end of an era.

. . .

It’s the following morning; time to make some decisions. Henry had given considerable attention to the matter of his death for the last eight years. We knew what he wanted: a church service with Holy Communion, followed by a woodland burial. Henry and I were going to look at his latest burial site possibility as soon as the winter weather receded. His pneumonia prevented this from happening.

I’m feeling a strong need to support my mum. Joyce has not been as preoccupied with death as Henry, and I know how overwhelming this is – the morning after the death of her husband. My wife died five years ago on the day before Henry left his body. I check out the local funeral directors and come back with information.

Joyce and I decide to go and visit the burial site at Cheriton Bishop. Crossland Woodland Burials is just thirty miles away. We arrive a little early and we have a good look around. Joyce had not liked any of the sites she had visited with Henry over the last year or two, so I was not optimistic. However, as we walked around, I could see that she had already decided that this would be the place for us. The field is high up, with an excellent view of nearby Dartmoor. There was clearly individuality in the manner of the graves. Some had small stone rectangles engraved with the person’s name and dates. One spectacular one had spelt the deceased’s name out in bright yellow flowers. It was explained to us later on that this was a young person suicide from the nearby village.

I felt a great sense of relief knowing mum like the site so much. There is a cabin off to one side for gathering in, with a composting toilet next door. When Martin arrived, we took an immediate liking to him. His friendly nature combined perfectly with his willingness to share his views based on his experiences. I knew that Joyce was most unsure about the younger grandchildren being present at the burial. In just a few words, Martin allayed her concerns, enabling Joyce to see the benefits to all concerned with their presence.

On the way back to Joyce’s in the car, we realised that we would rather handle the arrangements ourselves, so we did! Martin had given us a lead on coffins. Henry had wanted a cardboard coffin, to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

“Why a wooden box? Why the brass handles?” he had remarked, when asked. However, I was not so keen on cardboard; it felt a little too insubstantial. I had attended a woodland burial in Shropshire just two months earlier. The deceased was enclosed in a willow wicker coffin. I did not like the creaking sounds it made as it was moved and i was concerned that the weave meant the body was exposed to the air. Martin suggested Sunset Coffins in Gloucestershire. Theirs are made from board, created from recycled newspaper, with a choice of colours, made from natural plant dyes. A quick look on the internet convinced me we were on the right track. When Steve suggested a guided tour of the facilities, I knew it was the right choice for us.

At this point, I need to come clean: I have experience as a funeral director. I provided this service to the eco-village community I used to live in, in the North of England. My clients had this in common: the desire for something different, which included a woodland burial or commemoration.

These are the steps I took:

How to organise your own family funeral

You will need:
+ a lot of emotional resilience
+access to the phone, a motor vehicle, the internet
+enough time – more about this later


a) Become aware of the main areas to manage: Burial site certificate of death coffin Church service: yes on no? Death certificate mortuary Invitations flowers: yes or no? Catering Pall-bearers family politics feelings Fund-raising

b) You need to locate the woodland burial site of your choice. Some are merely the corner of a conventional cemetery, whilst others are beautiful and especially designed for the purpose. Look up Natural Death Centres on the internet or order The Natural Death Handbook. Natural death centres charge according to an agreed fee schedule. Make you choice and go on site visits before making your selection.

c) Get in touch with the mortuary. I am assuming the body has been conveyed to the local hospital, or that hospital was the place of death. You will need to inform the staff at the mortuary. They have their own phone line, that you are the funeral director. Make an appointment with them to collect the certificate of death. This document is signed by the doctor, who states the cause of death for the record. Now is the time, whilst you are still on the phone, to give them an idea of how long you would like them to store the body for.

My opinion: DO NOT RUSH THINGS. Henry was in the morgue for almost 2 weeks. We needed all that time to make arrangements, deal with feelings and family politics. As we did not know that date of the funeral until the vicar agreed, we told the staff just that. They were most helpful. Once you have a definite date, do ring them up and let them know. Our date was Easter Monday, and even this was ok.

d) Once you have the certificate of death, its time to get in touch with the local Registry of Deaths. There is one in each fair-sized town, open office hours. Smaller towns have a registry that is open occasionally. There is a phone number on the certificate of death envelope to call to make an appointment to register the death which must be done within five days of receiving the certificate of death. So, make your appointment and be sure to turn up with the certificate of death in your possession.

e) The coffin. I recommend Sunset Coffins, for the ideal balance between environmentally-friendly and a firm, sealed container, which looks good, and carries well. You can collect, or they will courier it to the address you provide. There are three sizes to choose from.

f) The Church Service.
If yes, get in touch with the vicar and obtain the date you can. Henry was a devout Christian. To our amazement, the vicar agreed to hold the service on the Easter Monday – so appropriate, yet with its share of issues to resolve! The vicar will visit you at home, asking about the deceased’s life and advising on matters arising. Henry wanted a Holy Communion service, which David James agreed to readily. It added another 15 minutes to the service.
If no, go straight to g).

g) Ensure the woodland burial site is available for your proposed burial date. Got this far? Well done! As you will discover, the more time between the death and the burial, the more notice you will be able to give to all the other players in your event. So...now the main steps are organised, its time to take on the detail.

h) Attend the Registry of Deaths appointment, with the certificate of death. The registrar will ask you who the funeral director is. When you answer with the words “I am.” they will ask you again, assuming you did not understand the question. When you repeat your answer they will realise you mean it! The registrar will write down all the details from the certificate of death into a register. They will then ask you how many copies of the death certificate (notice the difference?) you would like. You will need to send a copy to each bank, building society, insurance company, private pension provider, and any other institution that is required to ask for one. They cost half the price when you order them at your appointment. You will not need one for the state pension. You will be given a white form, which serves this purpose. Just fill it in and send it off. I ended up ordering fourteen copies of the death certificate, and I have used up almost all of them.
As you are the funeral director, you will also be given the green form. You will need to present this to the owner of the burial ground, because: no green form=no burial! I took it with me to the mortuary too, to authorise me to remove the body.

i) Invitations. If you have a date for the funeral, its time to comb through the address books and invite those friends and family you are guided to invite, by that inner sense that tells you: Henry would have wanted me to invite--------------, but he would have preferred it if I did not invite-------------.It is best to do this is by phone or email. It will save a lot of time. It is desirable, but not easy, to get an idea of numbers for when it comes to ordering the food.

j) Flowers: yes or no? You need to decide on this before you invite people, so you know what to say. Some people like to have a charity collection box on site for people to contribute to instead. We chose a beautifully-crafted display of white roses to lay on the coffin. I feel flowers do have a place at a funeral, but a profusion is not necessary. I had to collect the flowers on the Easter Saturday and put the stems in water until the Monday, keeping them out of the sun. Result? They looked perfect! What a relief.

k) Catering. Joyce decided to provide a buffet at the functions building next to the church. A local cafe provided the food for around £500, paid in advance, once we had an idea of numbers of people likely to attend. She also chose another of Martin’s suggestions. She hired the local pub to provide a meal for each of us attending the burial. We had to ask each person to choose a meal from the menu they gave us in advance, and get back to us with their choice in sufficient time to inform the chef so he could order the meat and fish. Having plenty of time is so helpful! The food was paid for after the meal.

l) Pall-bearers. It is essential to have in mind the people for this. If the deceased is on the light side, four will be sufficient. A larger, heavier person will require six, which is why one usually finds six handles on the coffin. Hoisting the coffin onto the shoulders is not something you can practice easily. It helps if pall-bearers are paired according to similar height. To be invited to be a pall-bearer is an honour that’s yours to bestow as funeral organiser.

m) Fund-raising. It is most vexatious to discover that life insurance policies, taken out to pay for funeral expenses, cannot be accessed until the tedious task of probate is effected. Probate can take up to twelve months if it is left in the hands of solicitors. In brief, probate is the process whereby the assets of the one who died are made legally available to whoever it is who is handling the estate, the assets, who is known as the executor. It involves filling in a probate form and a tax form, available on line or by ringing the local probate office, which is attached to the courts at your main town in your locality. You are required to calculate the total value of the estate; house, bank accounts, insurance policies, shares, bonds, etc. Each organisation will provide the information you need on receipt of the death certificate. Until this is all completed, no money from the one who died can be made available. Doing the probate yourself can save both time and legal fees.
In circumstances where the people handling things are on benefits, it is possible to obtain a grant towards the cost of funeral expenses. This is the really hard part: someone needs to have access to funds to pay for all the expenses to allow it to happen.

n) Feelings. There is no question: the death of someone you feel strongly about has such a strong effect. You need to ask yourself whether you are strong enough to organise your own family funeral. My opinion is that it is most definitely worth it. Doing what needs to be done is therapeutic and empowering. The sense of having things done the way you want, knowing it was you that made it happen – its a terrific confidence boost at a time when confidence may be lacking. It is important to be supported in what you are undertaking, either by a good friend or by the family as a whole.

o) Family politics. In most families involving more than half a dozen people, there will be unresolved issues, dramas, grievance and gossip. The death of one member of the family provides an unparalleled opportunity for people to put aside their petty grievances and come together, with the clear intention to honour one of their own. My family was replete with un-resolved issues, and it was fascinating to watch how Henry’s dying brought about so much healing. He could so easily have died within a day or two of admission to hospital. It was the ventilator and the drugs that purchased another few weeks of life for him.
During that time, all but two of the family took time out from their busy lives to come and visit him; so healing in itself. At the same time, during his dying and after, a fair amount of conflict came to the surface, with some family members saying hurtful things to one another. This was painful to endure, and yet this was also part of the healing process.
What is needed is for whoever is organising the funeral to keep a clear head, not to take anything personally, and to take on the role of mediator when necessary. Joyce found herself saying “No.” to some requests from family members. This was entirely appropriate. At times, once her “no” was acknowledged, she felt able to turn it into a “yes”. At other times, the “no” remained, and needed to be respected.

p) The funeral vehicle. My mother did not want a hearse, so we hired an estate car from Enterprise. It fitted our coffin perfectly. A larger coffin would have needed a car with more room than the Renault Scenic that we hired.

So, that’s my list of what to do to arrive at the day of the funeral.