16 February 2021

Death becomes her

By Miranda Marshall, Director, Hayes + Storr.

Following my article of last month, I received feedback from a local rector, now retired, who was keen that I should point out that anyone making a Will and wanting to discuss and plan their funeral should not hesitate to speak with their vicar who would be happy to help them plan and settle the arrangements. He was kind enough to say that my last article about death preparations ‘rings very true and contains sound advice’ as well as being ‘very timely, given the unpreparedness with which so many people are currently facing their own death or unexpectedly coping with the death of someone close to them’.

The rector suggested to me that ‘it would be useful to local clergy were you to mention that they might want to discuss the actual funeral service while the person is still undistracted by either anxiety, grief or pain. Alternatively, to discuss with their local undertaker the details of a secular marking of their death.’ So, when thinking about a topic for this article, his wisdom came to mind.

I found what the rector said very interesting. Oddly enough, in my 30 years of practice, I have never had a conversation with a clergyman about how we solicitors can help take instructions for a funeral or even whether to point clients in the direction of their vicar. So, I asked whether it is so that any vicar is always happy to have the conversation?

We are back to the modern squeamishness about mortality. Of course, it varies so much from person to person, parish to parish etc. Even so, I shall in the future suggest to clients, where appropriate, that they speak with their vicar. If a funeral with a religious element is not wanted, then we are very lucky here in north Norfolk to have a very good independent undertaker in Wells who people can also talk to about their funeral plans.

This is a subject close to my own heart, as my own father died suddenly of a heart attack aged 58 in 1994. It happened with no real warning less than a week before Christmas on the pavement on Eastcheap, City of London. My mother was with him, as they had gone to London for a day or so and were on the way between a Church service and the theatre. Despite being a Churchwarden, my father had never told his family what sort of funeral service he wanted; so, we had to guess. He now rests in the churchyard in the Norfolk village of Salle in which he lived, where I was brought up and where he was Churchwarden.

I have over the years had requests to include in Wills some extraordinary funeral instructions: no women priests, highly individual (and to my mind, dubious) choice of music, only white flowers. In my early years in King’s Lynn the undertaker in full morning dress with top hat there would slowly walk in front of the hearse with a furled umbrella, stopping the traffic in every sense. There was even a horse-drawn hearse, with plumes, polished leather and brass, popular amongst certain fen folk. I was told that in the Fens, the grave must settle for a year before the tombstone can be set, as the ground is so soggy.

The title of this article, using the old-fashioned use of the word ‘becoming’ to mean ‘death suits her’ is taken both from John Ford’s utterly gory 1630s play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ and a high-camp black-comedy film with the same name (with a stellar cast list including Meryl Streep and Bruce Willis) of the 1990s. How to celebrate death in all is various forms and to all tastes! Your funeral is truly the last parade so, when we are allowed again to do so, plan it exactly as you want it to be.