It Might Be Time To Plan Your Funeral

Artwork by Anna Jay
It’s Dying Matters Awareness Week and #BigConversation is trending on Twitter, encouraging us to give our funerals some thought in order to posthumously help out our friends and family on some of the big questions when we, inevitably, kick the bucket. The NCPC (National Council For Palliative Care) reported that just 7% of Britons have written down their preferences and two thirds don’t have a will. It’s not too hard to understand why, since it’s about the most depressing conversation you can have with yourself. A more prepared 33% have registered to donate their organs – which by the way is something you have to sign up for in advance; here’s the form.

“Do you want to be buried or cremated?”, “What song do you want at your funeral?” are often flippant questions in hypothetical conversations on long train rides between friends that don’t really mean much. “I want 'Simply The Best' by Tina Turner as my coffin goes down the aisle”, “I want 'Fire Starter' by The Prodigy at my cremation” or “Hmmm maybe I’ll give my body to science, but DEFINITELY not my corneas” is the kind of thing said at school with the comfortable ease of time and a youthful assumption that death just isn’t your problem.
The writer Hunter S. Thompson drew up plans before his death (he committed suicide in 2005) requesting a 153 foot tower in the shape of a fist be erected on his estate (the construction was funded by Johnny Depp) and for his ashes to be shot out from a canon at the top of the tower. Guests on the ground included Depp, Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray and Sean Penn. There was also a firework display. Tupac’s friends reportedly mixed some of his ashes with marijuana and smoked him in a joint, which was – they claimed – in accordance with his wishes, as outlined in his track “Black Jesus”, specifically in the line “Cremated, last wishes ni**a smoke my ashes.” Janis Joplin set aside $2500 for an all-night party at her favourite pub in California, for her friends to “get blasted after I’m gone.” And the country singer Jimmy Dean requested he be entombed in a piano-shaped mausoleum – that he bought for a reported $350,000 years before his death. The inscription read: “Here lies one hell of a man.” Unusual endings to unusual characters, and the beginning of a bizarre internet search of reported death wishes. Anecdotes aside though, planning your funeral might be the hardest thing in the world – if it’s something you’re doing because it’s going to happen soon, and you know it, and you’ve been asked, seriously, to outline your wishes. A boy I knew died at 27, and planned his funeral meticulously. He wrote something that he wanted to be read out, about how he felt lucky, at least in part, to have seen the world from the tops of mountains in far-flung countries, and experienced things that other people might never have the chance to in their lives. The reading also included a plea to his mother to try and move on. He chose the songs he wanted, the friends he wanted to speak, and organised a collection of things for guests to take away with them. We make decisions about our lives all the time – spend ages planning things we might one day do like travelling, getting a dog, buying a house, getting married, having babies, doing charity work, giving it all up to live in a shack in Thailand. We’re obsessed with the details of our future lives – picking out middle names for children we may never have, kitchen islands for phantom houses, aspirational career changes. But when it comes to death – life’s only certainty – most of us draw a blank. One strand of psychology assesses that our inherent fear of death and of talking about death, even thinking about death, comes from the conscious brain physically not being able to comprehend the state of being dead. And so comes the fear of “being buried alive”, because since it’s impossible for our conscious brains to fathom a state of nothingness, we assume we’re still going to be ourselves down there, trying to find ways to kill time immemorial. Everyone’s favourite nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche articulated it like so: “How strange that this sole thing that is certain and common to all, exercises almost no influence on men, and that they are the furthest from regarding themselves as the brotherhood of death!”
Death is the muse of philosophers, writers, artists, musicians... “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well”, wrote Sylvia Plath. Even if it’s touched our lives several times with people close to us, our own death still somehow seems far off – something we put to the back of our minds – probably a necessary act of self-preservation in order that we can get out of bed in the morning. And anyway it seems indulgent, and emo, to plan one’s funeral when one is in good health. Shouldn’t we just be making the most of life instead of staring morosely at the ticking clock? When it’s not a reality in our lives, we even seem to find death entertaining – a morbid fascination. A consistently popular article on Refinery29 is “Saddest TV deaths”. When we have the luxury of health on our side, there’s a cultural tendency to indulge in others’ misery, reading lengthy stories in the papers about the deaths of people we’ve never met, mourning musicians we’ve loved, playing their songs over and over, hearing a new melancholy in the melody and darkening the lyrics to suit our dark mood. The Telegraph ran an article called 'The Top 75 Funeral Songs: A Guide'. And don’t you want to know what’s on it? Number one is “Always look on the bright side of life” from The Life Of Brian. Number four is the Match Of The Day theme tune. Number five is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – “And now the end is near/ And so I face the final curtain.”
Is our voyeurism actually voyeurism? Is it indulgent? Or just an unconscious desire to prepare? Inspired by the #BigConversation campaign, I group-emailed the members of my family and asked sincerely about their wishes, in order to create a document, which I’m certain will be helpful one day soon or far away. My mum was the first to reply with somewhat less grandiose requests than Hunter S. Thompson: “Unusual email Sarah. I would like to be buried. I bought a plot some years back but only three spots available so first come first served. Organs no longer of use but welcome to use any that are. Would like wicker coffin with yellow roses on top. After event: afternoon tea with sandwiches and small cakes. I want the afternoon tea to be on those nice tiered plates – all flowery and colourful. Tea pots with leafed tea – not bags – and nice mugs to drink from. Thanks.” Good. Now we know. So for the record, loved ones, here's my last request: - “Lilac Wine” by Jeff Buckley
- This poem by Amelia Josephine Burr
- A particular passage I’ve highlighted in my copy of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, which begins “How could I assess the thing that makes you different?”
- I’d like whoever wants to say something to say something, but preferably my brother, sister, Sean or Nadia.
- I’d like one of those big screens on the alter with a quick slideshow including photos of myself that I like (I’ll make a folder on my laptop.)
- I’d like to be buried in my Givenchy T-shirt, some big, comfortable pants, and my favourite trainers – and with a photo of me and my siblings when we were little.
- After party: I would like my best friends to go raving to some head-banging, euphoric house.

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