A grim addition to an already gruelling day
Most of us only rarely ever stumble into someone else’s intensely emotional moments in the course of our working lives. Not so for those in a few notable professions including doctors, fire fighters, journalists, police – and of course, funeral directors.
My own encounter with a funeral director came when my twin sister Jenny died unexpectedly just short of our 28th birthday. Regular readers of this blog will know that the circumstances were horrific – she died when her clothes caught fire. The burns were so intense, there was not much left from what she was wearing, other than her boots and jewellery. Even her glasses had been damaged.
I was in a terrible state of shock, there was so much to take in during those early days. And so much to organise – the dealing with the police and coroner’s officer, undertaking a long formal interview, letting friends and family know…
One of the toughest tasks was sorting out the funeral arrangements. Being the only sibling, I felt especially responsible for this in order to support my parents.
This is where a thoughtful, sympathetic funeral director can make all the difference. Sadly, it wasn’t my experience.
So many years have passed that there’s no need for a ‘complaint by blog entry’, but I hope that sharing this experience may help others who either work with the bereaved or are in the process of dealing with a sudden death themselves.
First there was the not knowing which funeral director to choose. Jenny had settled in a part of Yorkshire I wasn’t familiar with. Although, of course, I visited her regularly, it wouldn’t cross the mind of the average person in his mid-20s to compare and contrast the local funeral directors’ services, just in case! Ditto for any of Jenny’s friends or facilitators.
Then there was the problem of where the funeral would take place. Although not a church goer, Jenny would have known the town centre church, she was friends with the vicar’s wife who sat on the board of the local organisation that Jenny chaired. But when I suggested this church I was told by the funeral director, that as Jenny didn’t live in that parish, we’d have to use the church a couple of miles up the road – a venue I doubt she’d even seen. Irrational as it may sound, it felt important that Jenny should have her funeral in a place familiar to her. But I assumed those was the rules and they could not be broken.
The ‘hatch, match and despatch’ page was always among the most popular in our local paper. Naturally I wanted to mark Jenny’s death, to let people know she’d died and encourage a donation to good causes in lieu of flowers. Spreading the news this was also my insurance policy against bumping into people and having to recount not only that Jenny had died but how she’d died. At that time, so soon after the event, I found it very difficult to say the words. I wanted to write the death notice my way but the funeral director knew better. ‘Oh, we don’t put that!’ was his stock response to every detail I gave over the phone, trying to make the death notice as specific and personal to Jenny as possible. (Quite important in fact when you have a surname as common as ours). Never mind that the types of things I suggested were in keeping with the format I’d seen many times in my local paper.
The funeral service was to take place exactly a week after Jenny died. I would have thought it a matter of course for a funeral director to provide an order of service. But no, I was told that with so little time, hymn books would have to do. I was hurt and upset, not feeling in a position to fight this but wanting to do the best for my twin, I found myself sitting at my computer, the tears rolling down my cheeks as I typed out the order of service myself. It took a whole afternoon.
Thinking back, at that point I should have told the funeral director to ‘get stuffed’ and found someone else. But how can you find another undertaker when you’re living many miles away from where the funeral’s to take place and your relative’s body is already in a chapel of rest? It’s not as if you can have a 14-day cooling off period after you’ve made your choice!
The culmination of this nightmare came on the day of the funeral itself, when at the end of the cremation service, with all its sadness, pain and awkwardness, someone bluntly pushed an envelope into my hands.
The scribbling on the outside revealed its grizzly contents:
- Wrist watch
- 1 ring (finger)
- 1 ring (ear)
The jewellery Jenny was wearing when she died.
Having this content list so ‘without any warning’, so blunt, so naked even, felt like a punch. A simple gesture of adding a short, personal and explanatory note, and placing all of this in an outer envelope addressed to me would have made all the difference.
I’m sure we all react differently at times like these. What’s helpful for some may be a really unwelcome with others. But surely a little attentiveness and respect for the individual’s needs go a long way.
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