Updated: Apr 22, 2019
Would you like to hold a celebration of life ceremony instead of a more traditional funeral? Did you know you can choose where and how you celebrate the life of your loved-one? And you don’t have to follow any traditions that don’t feel right to you. You only get one chance to get this right so don’t hold back from asking for whatever you want.
I was recently asked to lead a celebration of life ceremony held at a Heaton House Farm. This is a gorgeous wedding venue, attached to a working farm, overlooking the glorious countryside of Cheshire and Staffordshire.
The ceremony was for a beautiful soul called Maria and her family needed to book a venue like this because they’d never have managed to fit all the mourners into a smaller space. Maria was someone who touched many, many lives and, as I stood before a huge room, packed with even more people than we’d expected (and we were expecting a lot), I felt awestruck to be in the presence of so much love. Love for this woman I’d heard so much about but had never had the pleasure of meeting.
Maria’s widow, Wendy, was shocked and heartbroken but she knew that getting this goodbye ceremony right - and doing full justice to Maria’s incredible warmth, humour, kindness and intelligence; and to the joy she’d spread throughout her life - was one last act of love she could do for her.
Working with me and a flexible and supportive funeral director (Andrew Smith), Wendy - and Maria’s two brothers - threw the rulebook out of the window to create a truly unique and bespoke send-off.
The room was set out beautifully and filled with flowers - as if for a wedding. Natural daylight flooded in and guests could look out across the surrounding fields. Maria had always loved nature. I stood at the front - right next to
Maria; who was in a natural willow casket, interwoven with garlands of flowers. More than a dozen of Maria’s close friends had written tributes. Many of them felt able to come up to deliver their tributes themselves.
One of the things that struck me about how this ceremony differed from some of the more conventional funeral services I’ve conducted in crematoria was the mourners’ responses to the coffin. In a crematorium, as a casket makes its way from the hearse, down a central aisle and then onto the catafalque at the front of the chapel, mourners are deeply respectful. Funeral directors - and indeed I - almost always bow to the coffin and we treat it with the sincerest reverence.
This is absolutely the right way to do it - if that’s what feels appropriate to the bereaved family. But respect and reverence don’t dominate every family’s emotions at this deeply personal time. We are all different. What I noticed at this Celebration of Life ceremony was that as Maria’s friends and family came up, one-by-one, to the microphone to deliver their tributes to her, they had to walk past her casket. Not one of them bowed to it - but many of them spontaneously laid a hand upon it as they passed - giving it a warm and gentle touch. Perhaps it was because the casket was a symmetrical oval shape - it didn’t have that classic flat-topped diamond outline of a more conventional wooden coffin. Maybe it was the fact that it looked light and natural and really rather pretty. I don’t know - but what was missing was fear. There was immense sadness but nobody seemed to struggle to be in Maria's presence as she lay at rest.
We incorporated an informal time for the guests to mingle and chat and, during this time, some people came up to the casket for a final moment with Maria. Wendy had also brought a long a beautiful Acer sapling in a pot. Guests were invited to write a little goodbye note to Maria to hang on the tree. Wendy later planted the tree in their garden, which Maria had loved so much, together with everybody’s messages.
The wonderful Heaton House Staff farm staff took it all in their stride and made sure the event ran like clockwork. Throughout the informal elements of the ceremony, we had the most wonderful live music, provided by pianist, Guy Porteous. This really helped us to steer the mood and to bring people back together when we needed their attention. Right at the end, just before Maria was carried out, we brought everyone back to their tables so we could stand and drink a toast to her - with masala and vodka to reflect her unique Italian and Ukrainian heritage.
This was one of the most moving ceremonies I’ve worked on. It was happy and sad in equal measure. Happy because it was full of laughter and funny stories - but of course sad because the more fiercely you love someone, the more intense is your grief for them.
I was overwhelmed by the kind words and thanks I received from many of the guests but I think the real reason why the celebration was so special was because of Maria herself; because she’d had this rare capacity to connect deeply with people throughout her life, to give out her love and time and energy with such tireless generosity that a huge number of people had counted her as one of their closest friends. The love that she’d given so freely throughout her life came flooding back to her in waves on that day.
I felt privileged to work with Maria’s friends and family because they were so open-minded, so thoughtful, that in many ways they showed me how well a funeral can be done. When I started in this business I thought weddings would be lovely and funerals would be depressing. What I’ve learned is they’re essentially the same thing - just viewed from a different angle - a celebration of love. Nothing else really matters. It all comes down to love.
Every life is special and unique. How can we do justice to all the years someone has lived on this planet - the connections they’ve made and all they have created, shared and enjoyed with us - if we limit ourselves to a rigid 25-minute crematorium time-slot? How can we get this one chance to say goodbye right, if we feel compelled to follow traditions that don’t reflect our true beliefs and values - or those of the person we’re there to remember?
If you want to do things your own way, and arrange a bespoke celebration of life ceremony instead of a conventional funeral, I urge you to seek out an open-minded, independent funeral director who really listens to you and gives you the time to talk about how you want to do this.
You can read more about me, my prices and the services I offer on my website.
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