THERE are two items on the bucket list which might cost much the same.
One is a trip round the world. The other is planning and putting the finances in place to pay for your own funeral. If you believe those adverts with Michael Parkinson on the television you can cover the latter - those "final expenses" - and get a free Parker pen. Sadly, many of these insurance policies do not quite meet the cost of dying and bereaved loved ones will face a substantial bill.
A survey published last week shows the average cost of dying is now £7622. That is 7% up on last year and 80% more than a decade ago. An average funeral ceremony costs £3456. Around £2000 is spent on flowers, catering, and a memorial. Estate administration costs another £2000.
The authors of the study by the University of Bath's Institute for Policy Research estimate more than 100,000 families this year will face "funeral poverty". They call on the Government to review the system of state death benefits. The average social fund funeral payment last year was £1225.
Before I splurge on a round-the-world trip, I must make plans to avoid unnecessary expense or even a pauper's funeral. My farewell (preferably not any time soon) should not involve spending large sums of money. In life I have not been inclined to waste money hiring expensive limousines, so why do so in death? Nor do I require the services of people in sombre suits. Or flowers. Or a priest to sprinkle my coffin with holy water and waft incense in the air.
A few years ago I started to compile a list of my final wishes. I got as far as choosing some tunes in the style of Desert Island Discs, except you don't get eight pieces of music in your 30-minute appearance at the crematorium, just three or four. I didn't want a humanist to be master of ceremonies; no poems by Joyce Grenfell, please. I would prefer a humourist, a stand-up who can slip in a few jokes in dubious taste. That's me in death, as in life.
I concluded that a crematorium service was not for me. Even the most celebratory farewell is essentially gloomy because of the venue. A party atmosphere would be better. Food, drink, music and dancing as long as no-one knocks over the coffin during Strip The Willow. At a suitable moment, there would be the cry, "Taxi for Shields!" and I would be taken off to the crematorium accompanied by just a handful of relatives and friends. My only concern would be that my presence at the party might cast a pall over the proceedings. In death as in life.
I have a new template, inspired by a good friend who recently died. Bruce was an amazing entrepreneur. He grew a score or more of successful companies. He mentored young business people. He had a firm belief in the financial future of an independent Scotland that was both pragmatic and passionate. I cannot give you more detail about the man as Bruce had a dislike of the cult of personality and would disapprove of further eulogising. Bruce left two clear instructions. There should be no funeral service. There was money set aside in his will for a party and anyone who tried to attend his cremation would be barred from the celebrations.
It is one thing to leave a set of final wishes. It is another for the family to have the strength to carry these out at a time of mourning. Bruce's daughter Susan set about the task: "We made calls to various funeral directors stating we were looking for something really simple. We wanted to keep Bruce's body in the house and then take him ourselves to the crematorium. The undertakers found it hard to get their heads around this." They wanted to take him away for embalming and make-up for a viewing. There would have to be the purchase of a coffin and hire of a hearse as they were not sure using your own vehicle was allowed. Even just to advise on organising the funeral would incur "professional fees" of £880. Eventually Susan found an independent undertaker who said: "It sounds like you want to direct the funeral yourself." So she did.
Going down the DIY route is not an option many people will feel able to pursue. But it can be rewarding - not just from the point of view of saving money but also turning grieving into a positive process. There is no end of information and advice available on the internet. The Glasgow-based finalfling.com and naturaldeath.org.uk are particularly useful. Among the facts to be discovered: You don't have to have a funeral service. You can have any ceremony you want or none. You can go gently into that night, quietly and privately. There is no law saying you need a coffin. The only requirement is that the body should be transported decently and is not visible to the public eye.
Crematoria will likely insist on some sort of coffin for "health and safety reasons" - for the protection of the living, obviously, not for the deceased. There is no need to hire a hearse. Anyone can move the body in any vehicle. It may be a coach and horses for someone who expressed a wish to make the last journey in expensive style. Or in the family estate car. I saw in an Amsterdam undertaker's window a bicycle-drawn hearse-type trailer. Ideal for cycling enthusiasts to form a peloton cortege, as long as the journey to the cemetery or crematorium is not uphill.
A DIY funeral involves extra paperwork for the organiser beyond the usual death certificate. Two cremation forms have to be completed and signed by a doctor. For reasons best known to bureaucracy and the medical trade, this costs £146. The modern way is to have the body taken away to a funeral parlour. We seem to have lost the ability - even the challenge - to look death in the face. We have lost the tradition of using the home as the natural place to care for the mortal remains.
Susan kept Bruce at home. Along with Zara, her father's personal assistant, she washed his body and dressed him in a cotton shroud a friend had made. Was this traumatic? "No. I think it is important for people to be there and deal with death in a physical way. Just after Bruce's last breath, there was a feeling of lightness - luminosity or something - in the room. When we laid him out his mouth closed into the cheekiest grin you could ever imagine. It was so peaceful."
There was a wake, of course. Including some energetic dancing to jazz funk, which necessitated an apology to the neighbours for the noise. And a quieter thoughtful get-together for friends and family over a nice bit of fish and some excellent wine and conversation long into the night. All the DIY arrangements went well. Even when Bruce had to make a post-mortem visit to hospital to donate his brain for medical research. Susan and her DIY funeral team then collected Bruce from the hospital. "Willie Scott and his colleagues at the Southern General could not have been more helpful and caring," she says. "They were quite inspirational."
Bruce had wanted to make the journey to the crematorium in his ancient and beloved Ford rally car. But the cardboard coffin (purchased online for £70 plus £80 overnight delivery charge) would not have fitted in. So Bruce's white works Transit van was pressed into service, a set of ladders and some boxes of paperwork moved aside to accommodate the coffin. It was the way he would have liked to have gone.
The staff at Craigton Crematorium were unfazed by Bruce's arrival in a white van rather than a hearse. The manager Harry Tosh says: "It was unusual but we are here to help fulfil the wishes of the family and the deceased. As long as it is legal and respectful."
"Harry Tosh was brilliant," Susan tells me. "He took the coffin from us and invited us in for a last farewell but we explained we couldn't because we would then be banned from Bruce's party." Goodbye messages had already been written on the cardboard coffin and the event was sealed with a nip of very good whisky in the car park.
The party a month later was certainly worth passing up the crematorium for. It was 13 hours of celebration with friends and family having time to gather from all airts and pairts, a scenario not possible in the usual funeral timescale. Susan and Zara had created a timeline for Bruce from his first breath to his last, filled with fascinating photographs, documents, and memorabilia. His famous favourite red anorak was hanging on the coat-stand. There was a physical timeline where people stood in order of the date they first met Bruce. They had the chance to say a few words or just listen. "Bruce knew so many people from so many different communities," says Susan. "They went home with new memories."
Here is the final rundown on how I want to go: Not soon but, when the time comes, at home. I want a shroud with pockets so I can have a notebook and pen to hand. I would like to lie in state on my living room sofa but that would spoil the wake. It will be a small shrine in the spare bedroom. Obviously with the heating turned down, which will save a bit on the final gas bill. No embalming, please, or cosmetics to try and make me look alive. As a boy I was taken to see my favourite priest, Father Power of St Robert's, in his coffin. I wondered why he was wearing lipstick and had cotton wool up his nose. When I saw my mother just after she died in hospital she looked natural and as beautiful as ever.
I hope to have a long wake filled with melancholy and merriment. Then I will be carted off by strapping young relatives in my cardboard coffin in a suitably borrowed vehicle to be delivered for planting or burning. Bruce's commandment will be enforced that anyone at the disposal of the remains doesn't get to the party. I am a big fan of grandiose and opulent 19th-century cemeteries and have spent many hours wandering around Pere Lachaise in Paris and the Cementiri de L'Est in Barcelona with their ornate tombs and pantheons. Glasgow has its own city of the dead up at the Necropolis and I wouldn't mind getting a berth there but sadly there is no room as it is full of wealthy Victorians. I might go and join my granny in St Conval's graveyard with its good view of Barrhead. Or I could be buried at sea so that certain folk can't dance on my grave.
But it will most likely be the crematorium. My bone dust will be mixed with the ashes from Monte Cristo Havana cigars which I had smoked earlier. Some will be buried in Glasgow Green, if the city council doesn't mind. Some are going up in a spectacular rocket off the beach in Barcelona.
The cost of cremation is about £600 whether you have a service or not. With the added cost of a coffin and the fees for forms, I reckon the funeral comes in at well under £1000. Which leaves a tidy sum over from the usual funeral director's bill for the party. I won't be there but I fancy an opulent room in one of Glasgow's magnificent Victorian buildings. The banqueting hall at the City Chambers will do nicely. The catering will be done by my many lovely nieces. There will be endless music from my Spotify favourites list. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Michael Marra. Caledonia and Mother Glasgow. There will be windows for those who can sing and maybe a karaoke moment for those who can't. There will be an open mic for contributions of short speeches. There will be lots of dancing.
Such plans may only come to fruition assuming all is well that ends well. The circumstances of death may be too distressing to put together the perfect funeral. Even in the case of a natural death, families may prefer to leave it all to the professionals regardless of cost. However you go, it is better to be prepared. I am not going to buy one of those insurance policies. I have set up an individual savings account, or funeral ISA, to cover those final expenses. I will sign up with finalfling.com and get my personal safe deposit box to store copies of my will, my final wishes, and details for next of kin to track down paperwork for pension, banks, council tax, Inland Revenue and all the rest.
Then I can get on with the business of living.
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