Ending Life Well. A podcast series for carers

Ep 15 - Funeral Planning

June 07, 2022 OCH Season 1 Episode 15
Ending Life Well. A podcast series for carers
Ep 15 - Funeral Planning
Show Notes Transcript

Making some choices in advance is crucial, and can help your patient as well. Don’t leave this planning to the last minute, we’ve got lots of tips on how a funeral can be run.
An interview with Clark Campbell, a fourth generation funeral director.

 Ep 15: Funeral Planning

Kia Ora and welcome to The Ending Life Well Podcast. This podcast series for carers focuses on advice and practical solutions for carers who have been thrown into the deep end looking after a loved family member or friend in their last days, weeks or months of life.

Our episode today is Funeral Planning

Denise
Hi, I'm Denise van Aalst, a senior palliative care nurse and educator with Otago Community Hospice. Today I'll be talking with Clark Campbell, a fourth generation funeral director. We're going to discuss funeral planning and what's helpful to know in advance. Hi, Clark.

Clark
Hi, Denise, how are you today?

Denise
Good. Clark, thanks for joining us. Funerals are something that people often really put off, you know, they don't want to think about in advance. And then, of course, lots of decisions have to be made in just a few days, so it's really helpful, isn't it, if people start thinking about this in advance.

Clark
Yes, it is Denise, for two main reasons, really, I think. We still have a funeral service or celebration of life, in quite a tight timeframe, from when someone passes away to the date of the actual funeral, or service of remembrance, or gathering – whatever that might be. And the two reasons: it's good to maybe have a chat with family members at some stage is it really takes the pressure off the people who are left behind in the decision making process. 

And secondly, the person who has passed away is more likely to get what they would like, if they've explained it to someone before they've passed away. It's totally understandable why this is the subject that isn't spoken about as it comes closer to the time particularly when you're elderly. But now in contemporary society, it's becoming more acceptable to have a chat and pass on a few key wishes, or as many detailed wishes as a person would like.

Denise
Are you seeing more of that Clark, people coming to meet with you and make a plan of what they want in advance?

Clark
I am. I'm seeing a lot more of that than when I started my career and a lot more than most of my father's career. It's still really low in New Zealand and Australia. I think only 6-10% of people pre-plan or make arrangements for their funeral before it happens. But as you know, Denise, it's going to happen to 100% of us, so it's one of the few certainties in life.

 Denise
Yeah, so you might as well make it the way you want. And Clark, on that, the way funerals are has changed a lot, hasn't it, over the years – not just with COVID, which has had its own impacts but just in general, funerals seem to be a wider variety than they used to be.

Clark
They're far more personalised, and unique to that individual than what they used to be. So a lot of society now, while we still have many different ways to celebrate religion and culture, we're all very different people, and we have many different avenues to acknowledge the person who's passed away, what they meant to us and what their life was all about. 

I think it's been a real positive change in the last 10 years, 15 years, to give everyone the celebration of life that they want, and that their family wants, so they've become really diverse. I still believe as a little bit of a traditionalist, that there's a few key elements that still need to be in there – a little bit of ceremony, a bit of structure, acknowledgement of the deceased, procession, and just personable stories and sharing. 

Denise
So Clark, let's go through what are some of the things that are involved. What are the things we need to think about if we're planning a funeral?

Clark
One of the key things family members find really helpful to know about before a person passes away is whether their final disposition may be burial, or cremation. Another one of the key things I think, is perhaps who might officiate, whether that's a member of clergy, a celebrant, or a family member. Those are then sort of padded out with other decisions around perhaps having a cup of tea or gathering afterwards or not. It's older than time, the gathering of people and sharing stories. I find from my experience that has as much value as the funeral service itself.

Denise
I'm often saddened Clark, when I've come across people who have chosen not to have a funeral for whatever reasons to them. I'm aware that when my mum died, for me, there was a great deal of comfort in meeting people and hearing stories about my mum afterwards at the cup of tea. Things that I actually didn't even know about my mum that I heard there, and that gathering together really did bring a great deal of comfort.

Clark
While a private funeral service has its place – and take this with a grain of salt because I'm biased. I'm a funeral director – a funeral has always been a public sort of gathering for a few thousand years,  where the community has gathered, probably had a bit of ceremony with someone saying what the deceased meant to them, a procession down the main street to the burial grounds or the funeral pyre. And it's the first step in acknowledging what has happened. 

And when that's taken away from the public forum, into a private forum, it's very difficult to make a list of people whom that person touched throughout their life. You may leave off the dairy owner that the gentleman had a wee chat about the horse racing results on the weekend, every Monday morning, and that dairy owner may not have the opportunity to acknowledge what that relationship meant to them, and also to pass on his condolences to the family and share that story that perhaps the family didn't know. That's very difficult in a private environment.  

Denise
But we just don't always know, do we, as you say, the lives that have been touched by somebody? We're not always aware of the other lives that people may have touched.

Clark
Yes, regularly, in the time of sharing at a funeral service, we've had a person get up to speak when there's an open part on that funeral service for people to share, and the family members or next of kin have learned something about their grandfather, grandmother, mother or father that they never knew. It was really enlightening for them, and that was a big positive that they got out of the funeral experience.

Denise
I'm just going to go back to some of the basics really, Clark. You touched on one of the important things to know in advance is whether somebody's for cremation or burial. Now, routinely, it used to be burial, and I think now there's far more cremation, isn't there? And some of that will probably be a cost factor, because there's quite a difference in cost between those two.

Clark
Yes, there are. It differs in every district in New Zealand, the gap between how much it costs to be buried and how much it costs to be cremated. And in my experience, it does seem to be a little bit of a cost driver, but again, in most rural parts of New Zealand and smaller towns, the cost factor between burial and cremation are quite similar, so it's a legitimate choice. 

Denise
Following on from that, some of those decisions that family are going to have to start and make, or can be made in advance, comes down to simple things doesn't it, like the casket selection.

Clark
Yes Denise. That that takes pressure off the family decision making if perhaps granddad or grandmother had decided what casket or what music they would like at the funeral service, then the guidance that is given is invaluable at the time, from what I see. A funeral is ultimately for the living or the people that are left behind, but it's really good to get a balance of what the person would have liked, and also what the family and people left behind need. But we can always find a balance to give both parties what they would like. That's what I found as well. 

Denise
Clark, you touched on music. And I guess that's really quite important isn’t it, because what's really going to set the tone for a funeral, is the style of music that's been chosen.

Clark
Yeah, people are as different as you and I, and everyone has their differing musical tastes. And again, sometimes you haven't had your ears switched on, or listened to what granddad or grandma likes, musically, and it's quite handy to have that discussion and perhaps record it down before time and then people will get a song that reminds them of the person or that the person requested themselves. 

Music has always been part of a funeral service, for the last 150 years. It's traditionally been hymns, and what people have wanted played at the funeral to sing along to. But as the generations get younger, the singing has got worse. So we listen to music more than we do sing it these days.

Denise
And of course along with music, what's become quite popular is the slideshow, isn't it – photos of somebody's life. Has that become almost routine now?

 Clark
Yes, it has. So we might have a time of reflection, which is some photos timed to a special piece of music as a focal point, so the officiant is introducing the photos. And I think it's a really good way of rounding out verbal tributes and memories with something that is a picture tribute, or adding some colour and visuals to what's been said. We get some great photos. Again, camera technology in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s was really, really good. And if you're lucky enough to have pictures from back then it's amazing seeing a person who perhaps was older in age, what they used to look like when they were younger. Grandkids are blown away by how good looking their grandparents were.

Denise
Some of the other things that people might want to be thinking about Clark, is embalming – whether someone would be embalmed or not? Are you seeing changes in that happening?

Clark
Yes, we are. So now we need to be a lot more transparent with what's going to happen when someone comes into our care. And one of those questions or decisions that needs made, is whether people are going to come and see their loved one again, and if it's okay for us to prepare them for viewing. Most often this involves embalming, which has three key factors to it, as it's to improve the presentation of the person who's passed away. Quite often their complexion can change, and also some of their facial features. But also, it's to make them safe to be around for people who want to come and visit them, especially if there is going to be a period of time between when the person passed away and when the funeral service might be. We can do some wonderful things on the embalming front. And it really does make the person look more like the person people remember and create a better memory picture for people.

Denise
But it's not essential?

Clark
It's not essential. If we're going to have quite a small timeframe between when someone passes away and a funeral service, we don't have to embalm at all. It is a choice. And people choose not to for a variety of reasons – some of them might be ecological reasons or invasive reasons, or they don't see the need for it, so it is a legitimate choice.

Denise
There's actually quite a lot of choices, isn't there? And one of the other ones is the clothes. What is this person going to be buried or cremated in? Do you find there's much discussion about that?

Clark
Yes, there is Denise. Actually over the course of my lifetime, because I grew up on site here at the funeral home, so I can remember everyone was in night wear when I was a small boy, so men in pyjamas and, and women, in their nighties. Before my time it was an actual shroud that was part of the casket side set. I don't remember that. 

But then it was pyjamas, and then it was very formal wear, so even if perhaps a farmer wore a suit three times in his life for his three children's wedding, he was put in a suit, and women were dressed up to the nines. And currently now people are in more clothing that they would be comfortable with,  and also that their families are used to seeing them in. But again, I reckon that's another very important part of personalising the experience. So if your dad was a comb carrier, he might as well go with a comb. If he was a jeans and shoes person, then he should be in jeans perhaps. But all of the clothing needs thought of, so that's underwear and jackets – everything that a person's comfortable with. 

It is another key point to think about, and perhaps get organised or have a plan before the time because laying your hands on these items, if family members are spread far and wide geographically, can be a little bit pressure-sensitive when the time happens.

Denise
We have one of the shortest times in New Zealand don't we? It’s commonly three or four days between a death and a burial or cremation but it can be much longer in other countries.

Clark
In my father and grandfather's time, it was almost a rule – it was three days later after death. That has spread out a little bit longer now I find, to around about a week or very close to that. But there's no need for us to do things that quickly if people want a longer period to make decisions and get the funeral perfect, because you only get one chance at a funeral. But I still find in our culture, we do do this process very quickly. But again, with pre-planning, if some of those bigger decisions are made, it can be a worthwhile period of family time reminiscing and sharing memories about their loved one that's died.

Denise
And certainly choosing those photos if there's going to be a slideshow can involve a lot of discussion, a lot of memory sharing at that time. 

Clark
I ask people at my first arrangements as one of their first priorities, to start thinking about the photos, because it can be a little therapeutic, going for a wander down memory lane, with each photo of the camping trip for the last 25 years, or whatever that might be. So it's always a big job if you've got boxes and boxes of photos to go through. But it's also a good family sharing time. 

Denise
You'll be pleased to know Clark, that working in palliative care when it's appropriate, it's often something I recommend to families to start even earlier on, because I know how long it can take once those discussions and memories start happening.

Clark
Yes, you're quite right. And now everyone has a camera on them in the form of their phone, so there's possibly a lot more photos.

Denise
Clark, things like funeral notices – now traditionally they've always gone in the daily paper. Is that still the most common place that funeral notices are recorded?

Clark
That is on the decline, I’ve noticed from some of my funeral colleagues up and down the country. We're not as big newspaper readers as we once were, and now there's other different forums where people are finding out their news and that could be social media, or texting or whatnot. It's not compulsory to put a notice in a newspaper anymore but it still is a good idea to inform the general community that one of their community members is no longer with us. 

There's no rules or anything for what you write in the newspaper but there are some key points there to help identify the person so that the people reading it have got the right William Smith that they think it is. And that can be identified by perhaps where they grew up, you know, ‘formerly of Dunedin’, and perhaps their age, and again, their family relationships, so who their wife and children are.

 Denise
So we do sometimes talk about the thinking twice about listing the names of the 15 grandchildren and great grandchildren, because those column inches can start to add up for the cost, can't they?

Clark
Yes, very quickly. And then if you would like it in multiple papers it can be quite an expensive exercise and you’re right – if you have added prolifically to the national census with 20 or 30 grandchildren, then maybe you might want to cover that as ‘a loved grandfather to many’. Again, it's about giving choices and each individual family may want to put in their own personal notice to acknowledge their grandparent, which is also a choice as well. 

Denise
Clark, there's some technicalities that need to be addressed with a funeral too, isn't there, such as registering the death. Do you help with those things?

Clark
There is a legal element. So when someone passes away, much like you have to register a birth and a marriage, we're also legally obliged to register a death on the day of the cremation or burial, and that's gathering information about the deceased. That's very basic information about where they were born, and their parents and marriage details, and also the ages of the children along with several other questions. 

What I am finding now is, people aren't quite as knowledgeable about the generations above them as they once were. But again, that's something that can be pre-organised ahead of time, and also be the starter of a conversation with someone as well, to find out your grandmother's maiden name, and what your grandparents did. And then what happens there is those details are sent off to Births, Deaths and Marriages, an official certificate is compiled, sent back to the funeral director, who then forwards that on to the family, and perhaps an executor. And that's the legal document that's required for winding up that person's affairs. It takes 10 working days. 

Denise
So Clark, the information that's needed for that can be quite surprising – that you need to know the maiden name of the mother of the person who's died. So it's helpful to start gathering that information in advance. Is there a place that people can go to find what information they're going to need?

Clark
Yes, there is. There's a couple of places that you can find to access these questions so that you can answer them. There's an official association of New Zealand called the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand and that'll have all of the legal questions that are required at the time of death to complete a death certificate. And any of your local funeral directors in your town will also have pre-arrangement booklets where these key questions are, that can be written down and pre-recorded at an earlier date. Sometimes I recommend that you maybe fill that out telling a loved one where it is in your home, and then that information is recorded and can be easily accessed.

Denise
Clark, are there any other decisions that people are needing to make – things that they need to think about in planning a funeral?

Clark
Another important one may be venue – where you would like to have this event? It is really nice when you get a personable experience, perhaps on a person's farm where you can have a funeral, the person's church, or the funeral home. But do put some thought into that. I think that's really important to have a discussion about.

 Denise
And it's a great idea, having it at a venue that's actually personal. And it might be the local rugby club, it could be at a community hall. It doesn't have to be a formal place, does it? There's no legal requirement for that.

Clark
No, there's not. There's a couple of practical requirements, and that is, it needs to be big enough to hold the expected people that are attending. And then there's a few of the logistical elements like TV screens and sound systems, but they can all be very easily organised by the funeral director or members of the community. 

And it really is nice if that place is relevant to the person who passed away, if they were the president and long term standing committee member of the local Bowls Club, then what could be better than having it at the Bowls Club, and rolling on to the bar afterwards where they were seen many an evening.

Denise
Absolutely. Another thing I've just thought of Clark – pallbearers. Is it still a feature of modern funerals? 

Clark
Pallbearing or a person to carry the casket is still a question that is always asked. It's always been an honour being a pallbearer at a funeral service. You do need a minimum of four pallbearers. And then depending on how many times we're going to carry the casket, we can include 12, 18 people, if we're going to carry the casket multiple times. 

And also, traditionally, two generations ago, it was men. It doesn't need to be men anymore. The casket doesn't need to be physically carried, it can remain on a casket trolley and be wheeled if there's any concerns about physicality of people. But if I'm told ahead of the time on who's going to be part of the pallbearing or procession, then I can facilitate including those people in some way, shape or form.

Denise
And Clark, that facilitation is quite a key thing, isn't it? Because legally, we don't have to use a funeral director to conduct a funeral. We could do this all ourselves, but that takes quite a lot of planning and forethought and coordination.

Clark
There is no legal necessity to include a funeral director in making funeral arrangements, organising a celebration of life, or organising the burial or cremation of a person in New Zealand society. Again, it gets a little bit back to that culture of doing this event quite quickly, and making all of those decisions with a limited knowledge can be very stressful, if your timeframe is from when the person passes away to when the funeral service or final disposition is. But again, there's no reason why people can't do it themselves with a bit of planning and useful resources, which any funeral director will be happy to provide people with as well.

Denise
Do you find perhaps that there's a bit of a blend these days where people are doing a few things for themselves, but perhaps using funeral directors to just coordinate the basics, but they're doing some of the extras – the personal things?

 Clark
Very much so. Like we alluded to earlier, venue, and family and community helping with organising the venue, is a good inclusive way of people feeling part of the process and honouring the person by doing work or organisational things towards the final funeral or send off. Another one we have regularly is providing vehicles to carry the casket in. Sometimes that was the person's own vehicle, or a son, or daughter. Sometimes there's a clever grandchild on the IT front who might provide the service sheet. Sometimes when you're using another venue, like a rugby club and whatnot, people can gather and make food. And again, that's part of the community side of things, of getting together, and I imagine there's a few stories shared while the food's been prepared. But yes, in New Zealand, it's very unrestrictive, to what you legally need to do to organise your own funeral. 

There is a couple of technical aspects around when a person is for cremation, about getting a medical referee organised, so that the cremation can take place. But again, if you know where to look and access that information, and you're organised ahead of time, it can be DIY in true New Zealand fashion.

Denise
I think that comes back really to the point that you made earlier then, that funerals are about the person who's died, but they're for the people who are still here.

Clark
Yes, a funeral should be a unique event to that particular person, and a gathering and acknowledgement of what has happened for the people that have left behind.

Denise
It’s a lovely way of looking at it. Clark, thank you for discussing that today. I really appreciate your time.

Clark
Thank you, Denise.

Denise
And thank you, listeners, for joining us.

This podcast was brought to you by Otago Community Hospice with support from Hospice New Zealand. If you found this discussion helpful check out our other episodes of Ending Life Well, a podcast series for carers. You can also find more resources for caring for a person who’s dying at otagohospice.co.nz/education