Patsy Freeman’s memoir ‘In Search Of You: Letters To A Daughter’ is a volume of extraordinary letters written by Patsy to her younger daughter Jasmine over a six-year period. It covers the time of Jasmine’s cancer diagnosis, her death and funeral, and then Patsy’s journey through grief. In compelling detail, she shares the complexities of this mother/daughter relationship and writes, “If you haven’t had your heart broken, it’s impossible to understand the physicality of it. Painful as it is, it slowly begins to mend; and in the process we are taken into the soul of life – the rich feelings of the heart. I never thought I’d say this, but grief has been a gift. I even feel more alive now than before.”
As a funeral director, working at Family Tree Funeral Company in Stroud, Gloucestershire, I wanted to meet Patsy to delve deeper, both into her experience of Jasmine’s funeral and more generally to talk about how we engage with death in our culture.
Q: “My impression is that Jasmine’s funeral could be called a ‘good’ funeral, not least because the funeral director was sympathetic and genuine. What do you think are the important elements that go towards making a good funeral?”
A: “He enabled us to plan something very beautiful. There was no question of him taking over. We chose not to have a hearse as my daughter is an artist and she loves colour. The funeral director even found us a little chapel with none of the usual time limits. This meant we could decorate it with flowers and candles and arrange Jasmine’s paintings along the window sills. It was very empowering. They say the person who dies usually attends their funeral – well, I know Jasmine would have loved hers!”
Q: “I keep thinking about a funeral we did recently for a four-year-old girl. Her parents were incredible with all that they did to care for their daughter after she died. How important is a good funeral in facilitating healthy grief later on down the line?”
A: “A funeral is where we let go of the body of our loved one; some ceremony around this is, I believe, crucial as it marks an ending and a farewell. Perhaps we lag behind other cultures which have longer periods of mourning and sitting with the body. And maybe it’s because we don’t do that that the funeral becomes even more important.”
Q: “The interring of Jasmine’s ashes after her death on her 40th birthday and marking the first anniversary of her death were milestone moments. Can you describe how your ceremonies helped to keep the grief moving?”
A: “We sprinkled Jasmine’s ashes into her grave and took turns talking about her. My grandchildren wrote her letters and read these aloud. Afterwards we went back to the house and had tea. At nine o’clock in the evening, the hour Jasmine died, we released a helium balloon into the night skies. We also left a plate of birthday cake out for her and a little glass of champagne. By the end of the day we had this incredible feeling of completion, that we had shared memories and honoured someone who was so important to us. When an anniversary approaches there is usually a build-up of grief in the body; it may feel a bit like being thrown back to the early days of bereavement. I thought I had flu or something. A simple ceremony can help you move through the day. And even though it may feel hard at the time, you actually feel much better at the end of it. Facing and marking an anniversary in some way is the way forwards.”
Q: “You write in the book, “Why are we in such a hurry to give away the body?” So many indigenous cultures, religious and spiritual practices, place high value on the body staying in place after death. What are your observations on our relationship to the dead body in Western culture?”
A: “I asked the hospice head nurse if I could spend time with Jasmine after she died because I wasn’t with her as she was dying – that was Jasmine’s wish. Without those hours after she died, I would have been in such terrible shock. I’m choking now thinking about. I suppose it’s our fear of death and seeing the body that makes people want to dispose of it as soon as possible. We’re just not used to it.”
Q: I’m a firm believer in planning for end of life. I’m guessing Jasmine hadn’t considered this before her diagnosis – most young, healthy people don’t! Was there much of an opportunity for you to discuss Jasmine’s wishes with her and what preparations, if any, have you made for YOUR funeral?”
A: “Jasmine was only 39 when she died and she didn’t want to talk about dying. I think she felt that it would bring forward her dying or something. There wasn’t any goodbye. That’s what I missed out on. Writing letters to Jasmine was my way of feeling close to her.
Have I thought about my death? I should hope so as I’m 70! However, I hope it’s not going to be for a while, as there’s still a lot more I want to do. As for my funeral, I would like to be buried. It’s a conversation I’ll have with my elder daughter soon. I’ll give her power of attorney, tell her where my will is and suggest things for my funeral. I’d like to be buried in a simple cardboard coffin, which my granddaughter, friends and family can decorate!”
A conversation with Jane Diamond (Family Tree Funeral Company) and Patsy Freeman, S.R.N. B.Sc, Adv Dip. Counselling.