I would say that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!” for the following reasons:
Firstly, working as a funeral celebrant, the families I visit are, understandably, in a deep state of shock and distress when I go to see them in order to discuss the deceased and try to clarify their thoughts about the upcoming ceremony.
Often, when I ask about music choices for example, the next of kin can become completely bewildered and upset if the subject has never been discussed; they want to do the right thing by the person. Worse still is when family members disagree about what would be the most suitable choice. Husbands and wives, for example, have a different perspective from siblings and relatives and all feel that their opinions should be taken into account – not always easy with blended and extended families when everyone is feeling extremely fragile and emotional.
Making any kind of decision after a bereavement is incredibly difficult; many people experience a well-documented feeling of unreality and dissociation, common symptoms of shock and grief. Interestingly, loved ones are very much guided by the principle that “it is what he/she would have wanted”. Though of course the deceased is not going to be physically present, even in humanist and non-religious funerals there is some sort of residual feeling that the family would want the deceased’s approval if they were, somehow, aware of what was happening.
I therefore believe wholeheartedly that leaving some “guidance” for your relatives as to the arrangements for your funeral is an act of love; you are sparing them from having to make difficult decisions at a time when they are least emotionally equipped to do so. In addition, let’s not forget that, if the instructions are impractical and almost impossible to follow, they are not legally enforceable. One always has the choice to moderate or even ignore them completely if they wish.
However, often, especially when people are terminally ill and have had the time to reflect and organise how they would like things to go, it is a great relief to the relatives not to have to make decisions about the ceremony. I have had various occasions when relatives have presented me with handwritten lists and instructions that they had found after the person had died. On more than one occasion, the bereaved have been searching through notebooks and paperwork as “I’m sure he/she would have written it down somewhere…” I truly believe that it is a selfless act of love and kindness to take that pressure away from the family.
Perhaps, more controversially, I also don’t think that we should wait until death is imminent to do this. Not just because it is helpful for one’s relatives and friends but, also, because I truly believe that reminding ourselves that we are mortal can actually improve our experience and quality of life. And I’m not alone in thinking this. As Richard Lyle MSP from the government’s Cross-Party Group on Funerals and Bereavement stated:
“Talking about death is in everyone’s interests. It can help us to prepare while we are still in good health, cope with grief after a bereavement and plan for the future.”
I truly believe that death is a natural part of life and once we come to terms with that we are able to concentrate on finding meaning and purpose and value in the present, making the most of this one life we can be certain of, and helping others to do the same. I would, therefore, encourage everyone to think about and plan their funeral.
Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.