Why planning a funeral before death can be a gift to yourself and others.
My mum knew she was dying. I knew too, as much as I didn’t want to, I knew. It was written in her face which seemed to show more peace every day, in the gait of her shuffling steps, in her tiny body collapsing in on itself.
It was there in the oxygen tank that appeared overnight in her lounge room, in the breakfast left on her plate, in the final hug of comfort she gave me in her kitchen when it all finally sunk in (for me, not her).
So I took her cancer riddled body to the dog park with her beloved George the labradoodle and we sat in the shade of an ancient tree and played with huskies, labradors, rescue dogs and George. I asked her if there was anything she needed done before she left this planet and she replied “I need to buy your father some pyjamas in case he ever ends up in hospital.”
So we did. Three sets of cotton striped pyjamas and afterwards we wrote her funeral wishes.
Mum wasn’t scared of death, she took it all in her inspiring stride, but she was worried what would happen to the family fractures after she had gone. Clearly setting out her funeral and wake wishes meant she could die with less worry.
I made tea and set up the laptop. She sat in her big green recliner that would forever be hers long after she had gone and shared her send off wishes.
The hymn Jerusalem for a nod to her homeland of the UK and Swing Low Sweet Chariot because she liked it. Her granddaughter to play the piano and flute in the church, other granddaughter to do a reading, one daughter to read a poem, the other two to read something from her closest relatives in England and her husband to do the eulogy.
Oh and balloons, blue balloons, lots of them, to send her to the sky. Did I mention the vintage horse drawn funeral carriage from the pre chosen undertakers to the church and back again?
Then the wake. To be held at a private heritage listed coach house with sweeping English gardens, Brandy Alexanders to be served with champagne, wine and beer and a crooner friend to perform Frank Sinatra style songs live.
She wanted a party in keeping with her namesake Joy, not a maudlin gathering. That was an order.
As one friend wrote to me the next day. If I wasn’t already married I would have stolen your mother’s wake and had it for my reception.
Nothing was left to chance, even the Facebook post announcing her passing and her funeral was pre written with photographs chosen by her and while all the pre planning didn’t 100% ensure that no family blow ups were to be had it seriously reduced them, at least in public. As I said, she knew what she was doing and why.
If you think sitting with a parent and helping them to write their funeral is depressing, it doesn’t have to be. Mum and I sang and made black humour infested jokes and looked back on what her life had meant to her and how she wanted that conveyed.
Was it easy? No. Did it help her? Yes.
Planning a ‘going away party’ is one of the greatest gifts you can give a dying loved one in the process of their acceptance of the end and it is one of the greatest gifts they can give their family left behind. Who wants to argue with fellow family mourners over the choice of coffin handles and the Order of Service when the gaping hole of grief is hard enough on it’s own?
A person’s predicted death is not about you. Yes, you are impacted, but in the final days it is about the person who is dying. Being given a terminal prognosis is in a way a gift for it gives you time, time for the dying to wrap up their life, for those around them to resolve issues and say the things that mean the most.
When they reach their final few days is not the time to do it. It’s the time to give them the most gentle transition possible so having the funeral wishes in order ahead of time makes sense if only to reduce the worry alone.
After all we plan ahead the entry of a new life with birthing choices, hospital choices, christening choices and more. Why wouldn’t you plan the end of this life and the entry to the next?
If you find the idea of planning the end of a life confronting then may I recommend a book. It’s called The Bottom Drawer Book and you can buy it online. It’s practical and funny, like my mum.
This piece has been published on The Huffington Post.