Every burial involves more than 1,000 decisions that have to be made by the organiser during the worst five days of their life. The first time I helped to organise a funeral, I found it baffling, terrifying, weird, overwhelming, devastating and incredibly important – a very bad mixture. The second time, I kept thinking, it's easier now – I wish that I had understood all this before. The third time, I was beginning to feel like something of an expert treading this strange dark path.
It is an odd topic, but one that most of us end up investigating at some point. You may not think you need it now but keep it handy. If you are ever called on to arrange the burial of someone you love, here's what you need to know It may help. If only for the little cake idea at the end.
The funeral director
It all starts with your funeral director – not someone you'll have on speed dial. The doctor/ambulance will probably give you a name – or you will suddenly remember that you've seen one near you and thought: "I'll never go there while I'm alive." Alas, one day, you probably will. Soon after the death, you need to chat everything through with the funeral people. It's an important, though brief, relationship and if you don't like the company once you meet them, you can change. I did this once. I was terrified that it would be complicated – like changing schools mid-term because you fancy a different headmaster – but actually it was really easy. They moved the body without any fuss, handed over the paperwork, and no one shouted at me for changing my mind.
The first meeting with the funeral director takes for ever, ticking off the first 100 of those 1,000 decisions. Where do you want the service, what time should it be, how many cars, cremation or burial, pine or oak, chrome handles or gold-painted ones, live music or taped, will anyone be visiting the body, do you want the corpse to have makeup, etc etc and then etc and etc – and you have to make up the answers on the spot, as though you had an opinion. All this at a time when you may well be feeling that your world has ended and you no longer actually exist.
What I didn't know the first time was that if you ask, they will often come and do The Big Questions Chat in your own house. This is about 200 times nicer than doing it in their office. You can drink your own tea. Sit in your own chair. It helps a bit.
Emma Freud: 'The front page of my dad's order of service said: Clement Freud. Born 24.04.24. Best Before 15.04.09.'
The order of service
This invariably becomes the emotional focus of the week. It needs to be a collective effort and is probably the moment when family tensions emerge in that lovely dysfunctional way that only a close death can inspire. It is important to reconcile yourself to a little compromise … If the only things you don't like are the typeface and one of the hymns, it's a big win. For my dad, we had a few jokes (the front page said: "Clement Freud. Born 24.04.24. Best Before 15.04.09").
For my mother-in-law, we had photographs. For my father-in-law, we kept it formal. For my hippie friend, it was a party on a page. Whatever you do, the congregation is going to be staring at it for the best part of an hour, so make it special.
And whoever ends up delivering the eulogy needs more love and support than you can possibly imagine. It's a massive and terrifying job – summing up an entire existence in five minutes while standing next to a dead person in a box.
The night before
The night before the funeral, a family supper with just the closest relatives is where the real talking/grieving/crying/laughing/ consoling gets done. Comfort food and beer and wine and memories. Strangely, it can be a very good night – like a team bonding before facing a big match the next day.
There's a traditional tyranny-by-flowers in operation at many funerals. If you don't express a strong opinion and instead let the chapel sort it, you may find yourself staring at one huge urn (why always an urn?) filled with ugly chrysanthemums that have taken your entire budget and will give no one any joy. But this bit can be personal too …
At my father's funeral, we decided not to bother with flowers as he always hated them (along with chewing gum, perfume, music, Dr Scholl's sandals, garlic and Nicholas Parsons. Odd bloke). Just before it was too late, we remembered that the one bloom he had time for was the forget-me-not – and, fabulously, he died bang in the middle of the pitifully short forget-me-not season. So we ordered a massive bunch of these tiny blue blossoms, which covered the whole of the coffin – and on top of this huge bed of flowers we put the teddy bear with which he always travelled.
For my sister-in-law's funeral, we filled the church with jam jars, teacups, teapots and Kilner jars bursting with multicoloured wild flowers. As soon as anyone entered the church, they knew that this girl was an amazingly free spirit and remembered that her hair was mostly dyed all the colours of the rainbow. For my mother-in-law, who loved her garden more than she loved her children (and she loved her children more than any mother I have ever met), we spent all the flower money on little pots that had been planted with white daffodils (she died during a February). We used the potted plants to line both the path into the church and the length of the aisle – then we brought them back to the house after the service to decorate the house, and at the end of the wake, we gave one to each guest to take home, plant in their own garden and remember her by. Turns out you can actually say quite a lot with flowers.
I have a feeling that, for my generation, the day of the black-car procession with uniformed drivers may be over. If you've never been able to imagine yourself in a funeral car with a serious besuited driver trailing behind the hearse, then simply don't do it. When the funeral director says: "How many cars would you like to take the funeral party to the chapel", take a deep breath and say: "None." You'll save hundreds of pounds from the funeral bill and you won't start the ceremony in an alien environment. Arriving at the chapel for one of the toughest days of your life in a mode of transport you understand is far better than stepping into a huge black chauffeured car and feeling like someone you've never met.
The coffin toppers
I'm not sure if that's the official name – but you know what I mean. Something on top of the coffin is nice. Broadcaster Ned Sherrin had his ancient leather gladstone bag. My activist friend Solly Kaye had the communist flag. I asked people on Twitter if they had seen any good toppers … A friend of Dom Joly's had a bowl of his favourite food – hummus. One lady had her best hat on the coffin and the rest of her millinery collection hung at the ends of each pew lining the aisle of the church. Another person, Sam Nash, tweeted that her grandfather raced bangers, so they stuck the number 23 on the side of the coffin. Other unusuals included a coffin carrying a bottle of Guinness and a bag of crisps, a lottery card, a New York Times crossword, a pair of flip-flops, a rugby shirt, a framed photo of Elvis, knitted flowers (the deceased didn't like waste), a perfect sheaf of wheat for a farmer and a bunch of bananas for someone who had particularly enjoyed his fruit.
If you don't request otherwise, you get an organist doing inoffensive classical vamping as the guests arrive in order to deaden the noise of the congregation's sniffing. If your loved one's favourite track actually was Elgar's Nimrod, then stick with it. But if they would have hated the muted organ tones as much as the rest of us, then do something different.
For one ceremony, we booked a New Orleans funeral jazz band – they played brilliant, slow, soulful, atmospheric songs outside the church as the guests arrived, then came to the wake an hour later to play more upbeat brassy classics in the garden while everyone got as drunk as was humanly possible. Another time, we chose a playlist of the deceased's favourite pop songs, which we played at the beginning and end of the service, though we omitted Another One Bites the Dust. And a few gospel singers giving it their spiritual and emotional best can be close to miraculous.
The key to finding affordable but bespoke musicians when you have around two days' notice is a website like lastminutemusicians.com – you choose the musical genre you fancy, find a band photo that looks good, listen to a few audio examples of your shortlistees, click "book" and they will appear at the right moment, in the right outfit, playing the right music. As if supplied by God.
The service is over, the words are spoken, the tears are shed, the songs are sung … Nobody wants complicated food when their heads are already complicated enough with grieving. You want nursery food and lots of cups of tea. Whatever happens, don't do the catering alone. Ask some of the funeral guests to come two hours early and help you make the spread – it will probably be the best bit of the day.
If you remember nothing else about this article, I'd love you to remember this: at a funeral, everyone would like to feel useful or helpful. Hence the deafening chorus of: "Let me know if there's anything I can do", which always makes me want to say, quite loudly: "STOP ASKING ME, JUST THINK OF SOMETHING AND THEN DO IT OR AT LEAST BUY ME A PRESENT."
But there is a constructive answer: "Could you please make a cake and bring it to the funeral tea." This is a win-win-win – the person you've asked to bake at last feels useful. They arrive at the funeral feeling like someone who is contributing, rather than someone useless who is trying not to cry. And your funeral tea will be glorious, giving everyone lots of chances to say "Bernard would have adored the battenberg", and opportunities for quite a lot of Great British Bake Off-style banter. Also, you get left with enough cake to see you through the rest of that very difficult week.
This fulfils the crucial function of giving guests something/anything to talk about. I found about 50 shots of my father-in-law on my computer after he died, and I was sent more by the guests coming to the funeral. We printed them all super-size on A4 paper and Blu-Tacked them on to every bit of wall we could find – reminders of so much happiness in so many places and the same "photo smile" in each.
Photo albums lying around on tables for guests at a loose end are also good. Plus candles or fairylights, if you like that sort of thing – the departed person's favourite film playing on a TV, their favourite singer on an iPod. And do bring all the flowers from the church back to the party if they are movable. Anything to stop it being the worst, quietest and saddest party of all time.
Alcohol was virtually invented for funerals. As soon as you can, bring out the booze. Have one on the deceased's behalf. And then give them another for good luck. And then another because (s)he'd have wanted it. And then one last one because they should never have died in the first place, FFS.
So that's all I can tell you. Unless the person being buried is young, or died in truly horrible circumstances, I do think it's possible to create an intense, extraordinary, moving, memorable, vital, passion-filled day of celebration and remembrance, rather than an unhappy gathering that murkily mourns a death. If you end up organising my funeral, whenever it is, can there be fairylights on top of my coffin, a vast quantity of Black Forest gateau on the kitchen table, a vat of peach bellinis and Robbie Williams singing She's the One in the church, preferably naked. Thank you.
PS. It's impossible to talk about death without being offensive to someone at some point. If you're that someone – I'm sorry. Just ignore me. I've been to too many funerals recently.