Resolving family funeral disagreements

Relatives don’t always see eye to eye – sadly, that’s just a fact of life. And, it’s sometimes still the case when it comes to death. 

When siblings who haven’t spoken to one another in years suddenly face planning a funeral or a memorial for a parent, a humanist funeral celebrant can often become an intermediary trying to make sure everyone’s wishes are met. 

Humanist funeral celebrant Felicity Harvest tells the story of a lovely open air memorial service for a father whose daughters hadn’t spoken in years. The names have been anonymised.

Bob didn’t want a funeral. But his daughters, Pam and Susan, wanted to do something. Not that they discussed this with each other; they hadn’t spoken for some years. But somehow, using old neighbours as intermediaries, they agreed a date for a memorial. They also managed to agree on the location. Bob had been born during the war, in Kent, and as a boy he had helped out on a nearby big estate and they wanted to scatter his ashes into the lake there.

Pam approached me to conduct the ceremony. It turned out that they had scattered their mum’s ashes in the same lake ten years before, and it hadn’t gone well. They’d struggled to get the ashes to scatter, not known what to say, and come away feeling dissatisfied. So, this time they wanted the help and guidance of a professional celebrant

I learned from Pam that water had played a big part in Bob’s life. He’d been in the Royal Navy for many years and then became a naval instructor in the Gulf. Later, he and his wife ran a seaside bar in Spain. We discussed various ideas, music, poems, and readings with a water or sea theme. Pam chose John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’ as one of the readings.  

Bob’s two sons weren’t able to be there, but they sent messages to be read out. Pam said she would prepare something, and she was sure that Susan would want to do something involving sunflowers and the song ‘You are my Sunshine’, which she and her dad used to love to sing.

On the day of the memorial, we met up at a local pub. I immediately worked out who Susan was because she was wearing a sunflower-patterned dress and carrying a big bunch of sunflowers. 

We walked over to the estate, expecting to be met by one of the staff, but there was nobody there and it wasn’t obvious how we could get to the lake. 

I was determined that this time they would have a good experience of a parent’s memorial! I asked them to wait while I worked out how to get to the lake.

I reached the lakeside and checked the wind direction to make sure that the ashes wouldn’t blow back on us, and then I went to collect the family.

It was a lovely ceremony. We told his story, read the readings, and sang ‘You are my Sunshine’. 

We scattered the ashes and threw sunflowers in after them. And we finished with the words he had always used to his family, ‘Stay Safe!’

Afterwards, I received this message on Facebook, from Pam: 

‘I really am stuck for words at what a difference it made to our day as a family to have had you with us. As a group of individuals we have not been close to each other since my Mum died. Today, we actually came together… and that had everything to do with your perfect ceremony. You are clearly someone who has great empathy and patience. My thanks again. I’m convinced our memories of today would be so much different without your help.’

I was happy to see that Susan later ‘liked’ the message.

Susan and Pam’s story speaks to the service that celebrants really provide, and the importance that funerals and memorials play in navigating not only our grief and our feelings towards the dead, but the complex tissue of relationships that surrounded that person and which still mean something to us today.

Funerals evolved as a human ritual long prior to any of today’s established religions because they speak to a timeless human need. The healing and harmonising power of a well-crafted funeral that is tailored to the deceased and which truly reflects their values shouldn’t be under-estimated. With an accredited humanist celebrant from Humanist Ceremonies, that’s exactly what you’re getting.

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One in seven people now say they’d want a humanist funeral when they die. For more information about humanist funerals, visit our FAQ page

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Felicity Harvest is a humanist celebrant based in East Sussex.

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