Being Present At Your Own Funeral

I feel it only fair to declare an interest before submitting this piece. A year ago, I was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I didn’t expect to be here now. I’ve been gifted the opportunity to have a hand in my own funeral. Hence..

Our brief is to discuss the planning of the ‘perfect’ funeral. I’m sure I share with many of you the fact that I can’t remember how many funerals I’ve attended. Most have been okay; one, my mother’s, was traumatic, another, my friend Andy’s a few months later was wonderful.

They both knew they were on their way out for several years before the end, cancer’s like that. They both planned parts of what they wanted. My mother left me the text for her memorial inscription. Her funeral was grim. The chapel in Handsworth Cemetery is supposed to have some architectural merit. I’ve never appreciated it. It seems one of the bleakest places on the planet to me. Her service was antiseptic; the celebrant who had never spoken to me at least got her name right. I wanted to carry her to the family grave where her parents were waiting. The other three bearers ignored me as I was surprised by the weight of the coffin bearing someone who had been an eventually very slight woman. Instead, they raced to the grave as if they were in a Benny Hill sketch, the last fifty feet up and down over kerb sets, I almost fell in the grave. They seemed amused.

When I met Andy he was dying, 1985 maybe. He must have been thirty, a few years older than me. He’d been living with cancer for at least ten years but was in long term remission. I could half empty a thesaurus to describe him; he was a special man. He died at the age of 51 having known it was coming and in contrast to my mother, designed the service rather than the monument.


Being Present at Your Own FuneralHis funeral, a double length affair, sat in the round, was framed by his favourite album, Dark Side of the Moon. Between each track, in chronological order, someone who’d known him at one of the many fascinating episodes of his life, got up and told a story, mostly hilarious with Andy the brunt of the joke. At the end, instead of the usual miming and whispering, we sang the Red Flag with gusto and sent him on his way. As a final contribution, Andy, who it has to be said, consumed prodigious amounts of hashish in his life, conspired to have half a Tesco carrier bag’s worth of joints arrive at the hotel where the wake was being held. The manager’s face was a picture. There were a lot of people there, he was going to sell a lot of alcohol that afternoon. Also, unfortunately I think he may have been intimidated by the look of some of us, which was a shame. An otherwise very respectable group of people may just have looked like a potential riot of bikers, punks, yardies and travellers, but by then it was largely just out of respect for Andy, and given our increasing age, largely nostalgic. We negotiated the carpark compromise.

It was a proper funeral because the deceased participated in the service.

My point being, that those of us who have an unfortunately clear picture of where we are on the final ski jump slope, have no obvious place to go to state our wishes and help shape that ideal funeral. The conversations we have to have are not ones our nearest and dearest are always prepared for. So, we turn to professional help, so my question is, how do you as professionals, engage me?

If Jayne would permit, I’d like to receive and share answers to that question.

Ian Quance

Resident Author

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