How to make your death a sure fling
Published by Anne Marie Hughes on Thu 05 Jul 12 @ 12:59
By Marisa Duffy, Senior Features Writer, The Herald.
Barbara Chambers is gingerly picking her way across the uneven floor of her pitch-black basement, searching for her coffin.
Light from the lantern she is swinging falls upon a rectangular shape in the corner. She drags the coffin across the windowless room with surprising ease. Closer inspection reveals that it is made of sturdy cardboard. Emblazoned with a colourful motif, she designed it herself and in it she intends to make her final journey.
"The neighbours think I'm off my head," says Chambers, who grew up on a farm in Dumfriesshire but now lives in a tenement flat on Glasgow's south side.
"When it was delivered it sat in the communal hallway for a day before I could move it into the basement, so they all know it's here."
Barbara, a 52-year-old mother-of-two with a shock of grey curls and the vivacious energy of a teenager, has given a great deal of thought to her own death and funeral and wants the rest of us to do the same. So strongly does she feel about the issue that she has launched a website called FinalFling.com which she describes as a "bold, spirited, pragmatic approach" to end-of-life care and death.
"It really just came about through me going to bad funerals, particularly that of my Aunty Nelly, who was my hero. She was tremendous fun and we would go and stay at her house. She always had dressing-up boxes and was making raspberry jam and had Nestle's milk in a tube. She was full of cheek and chortle. But, oh God, going to the funeral. It was just a real disappointment. It was a crematorium and the person officiating called her Helen all the time. Nobody ever called her Helen.
"I just thought, 'Why do we put up with this?' At that point I just had a feeling of needing to do something about it and if you want to do something in this world, do it yourself."
Around the same time, Chambers, who has worked for the Scottish Government and in the arts, attended another funeral of an uncle. "It was a church funeral and I realised why people hang on to that, because they are great rituals, great spaces, most people know what they are meant to do and they have well practised people delivering it. I just thought, for those of us who are not religious, we are going to have to get better at this because that is just not good enough."
Fired with a desire to change things, Chambers poured her life savings into setting up the Final Fling website, which provides information on all aspects of funerals with links to specialist services and suggestions for a more memorable send-off. There is also a discussion forum for issues around end-of-life care and a secure place to store one's wishes for a funeral as well as, for a fee, a legal will, digital documents and keepsakes.
While some of the suggestions tend towards the more unconventional - such as having your ashes sent heavenward in a firework - Chambers is careful to point out that the idea is not about being frivolous, but moving away from the cookie-cutter mentality towards funerals to a more personalised, bespoke experience.
"There is a lot that is unpalatable about death. Somebody asked if the website was about putting the fun into funeral and no, funerals are not fun, death is not fun, but what can we do to engage in the best way that we can. It's not about saying it's a party. But the funerals I've been to have been neither a space to celebrate a life nor a space to grieve. What are we doing them for? Let's not bother."
What's needed, she feels, is "a little bit of contemplative space and maybe some place in the day to grieve and then some place to expunge some of the emotion and have a bit of a laugh and remember the person in life. I think people want a mix of that. It is a really tricky thing."
Chambers believes that having arrangements in place helps families deal with their grief, citing the family upsets which are caused by disagreements surrounding funeral arrangements.
"There is a proprietary anxiety about funerals where people think, 'What is the proper thing to do? The right thing to do?' We are at our worst and best in those times, and in those heightened emotional places it can all go a bit belly up.
"There is good evidence now that if people get the end, the death, that they want it is much easier for families picking up after that. They don't worry if that was the right music or whether they did the right thing to cremate them. That's a massive decision to leave to somebody else."
Part of the problem stems from a cultural reluctance to discuss our own death.
Unlike some cultures in the world, where the business of death is a visible, integrated part of life, in modern Britain a reticence persists. "We generally don't offer condolences," says Barbara. "Even at work if somebody has had a loss not everybody will be able to say, "I'm sorry for your loss." To me, it's not a case of, 'We're not very good at talking about it so how can we avoid it', it's 'how can we get better at it?'"
A Final Fling-commissioned survey has shown that 70% would prefer to manage their own affairs than leave decisions to someone else, yet the same number had no arrangements in place for their funeral.
However, Chambers, a trained counsellor, believes that once coaxed, people are keen to discuss death if given the chance. "They really want to talk about it because by a certain age, people have experiences and are not untouched by dying and death. People really do want to talk about it."
"Final Fling works like a safe deposit box so you can record your wishes and then if you hear a song, you can go back the next day and add to it. I think that is one of the main ways that people get into thinking about death and dying - what song they want played at their funeral - and that changes quite a lot."
Such measures are increasingly important, says Chambers. As family trends are changing, more people are living alone and it is therefore not obvious who will take charge of a person's funeral arrangements.
"Lots of people in my life don't have children or a partner. Lots more people live on their own so who is going to sort out their stuff when they go? Who knows where their policies are and all those bits of information?"
Approximately 70% of the UK adult population dies intestate (without making a will). Even among those who have written a will, many are out of date and irrelevant. Chambers points out that having a legal will held on the website means that individuals can go in and change it as often as they like to reflect what is important in their life.
"One of the things that emerged for me was how much those things change as different life experiences come up and also in terms of having a will.
"I've had a will since I was 24. I bought a flat then and I think that is quite often what happens, you get property and solicitors encourage you to get a will. My life circumstances have changed dramatically over the years. I was married for 20 years. I live with a woman now. I had another relationship somewhere in the middle. I've got kids. Now I live in my partner's flat. Life is complicated and personal circumstances change a lot and so with some of those big decisions you need another will."
It isn't just funerals which Chambers feels we need to tackle differently but our whole approach to end-of-life care. While many of us have firm ideas about what we want to happen to us should we become incapacitated, unless those wishes are recorded, they are meaningless, which can cause distress for families.
Every year, a fifth of NHS beds (460 million bed days) is taken up with end-of-life care, yet two out of five people who die in hospital have conditions that medicine cannot help. Some 60% of NHS complaints are around end-of-life care. By creating a living will (or advance directive), a person can state their preferences for medical treatment if they were in a terminal condition, coma or vegetative state, which can be helpful to family members faced with difficult decisions. The website has a place to record a living will.
Chambers hopes that the discussion forum on Final Fling will grow to become to end-of-life issues what Mumsnet has become to parenting. The growth of social media and online forums has created a fertile landscape for strangers to come together and discuss difficult issues without having to give personal details, she believes.
"Traditionally, this [funeral care] is an older market place but the baby boomer generation are the ones who are moving up to the front of the crematorium queue. People of that age are using technology. Those who are now making those decisions for themselves or for an ageing parent, they are all online."
Having invested 18 months and £60,000 of her own money setting up the venture, Chambers is keen to get going.
"When I was setting this up, I thought it should really be a social enterprise company because that is the ethos. It's not really about rapacious money-making. However, if I am going to keep doing this, I need to be able to generate some income, or I'll never replace these jeans," she says laughing.
For her own send-off, Chambers has decided upon two details: to be buried in her bespoke cardboard coffin and to have a women's samba band playing. "I've been playing samba for the past 10 years, that was how I met my partner Erin. She's now a full-time samba teacher. Samba is important in my life and it's also because I am a feminist and you get really interesting women doing samba. The other details, I'm still pondering those."