In preparing this chapter, I have drawn on the professional expertise of a solicitor, David Wright, and a funeral director, Paul Littleproud, for whose help and advice I am extremely grateful. I have also drawn on my own experience as a clergyman of the Church of England for many years, and as the older child of two parents, who are both now deceased.
At the time of death
You may have some say about where you choose to die. In the case of a death that is foreseen, you may be able to decide whether you want to die in hospital, in a nursing home or at home. It will depend on the nature of your illness and the requirements of treating or caring for you. Most people will say that they would rather die at home. Sometimes this is possible with the help of visiting carers or nurses to supplement the care of family members. In other cases, it may be necessary for us to be in hospital or residential care. For some of us, this will not be a choice that we have the chance to make. A sudden death, at home, in the street or even abroad, means that someone else will have to cope with the consequences for us.
If you die in hospital or residential care then the process of confirming your death and certifying its cause will usually be straightforward. If on the other hand you die at home, someone with you or finding you will have to summon help as soon as possible. Depending on the time of day, they should telephone your doctor or dial 111, for someone to attend. If, of course, there is any doubt about your state, living or dead, then someone should immediately telephone 999 for an ambulance.
If a doctor or paramedic attending the home certifies that you have indeed died, then there is no need for an ambulance to be called. Your body can be taken straight to a Chapel of Rest by an undertaker, and prepared there for your funeral. In times gone by, people would commonly be washed, laid out and prepared for burial by a neighbour or a friend, and kept in the house until the funeral could take place. But such a practice is rare today and the job is usually entrusted to a professional funeral director.
If you have the misfortune to die in some public place or abroad then there is no alternative but for someone to call for an ambulance and let the medical services take over.
Obtaining a Medical Certificate
Death creates a good deal of work and expense for those who are left behind. Immediately, they will have to go through various legal formalities to do with obtaining a doctor’s Medical Certificate which records the cause of death. The process of obtaining such a Medical Certificate will be more or less easy for our relatives, depending on whether we died in hospital, under the recent care of a General Practitioner, or neither, as in the case of a sudden or unexpected death. In the last case, reference will have to be made to the Coroner and there may have to be a post mortem and an inquest. This may delay any funeral by several days or even weeks. Meanwhile, the body will have to be kept in a mortuary or chapel of rest. It may be a good idea to contact a funeral director immediately, without waiting for the issue of a Medical Certificate. It can sometimes take several days to obtain this Certificate and meanwhile provisional funeral arrangements can be put in hand.
Registering a death
Once a Medical Certificate has been issued, it must be taken to the local Registrar. Contact details for the Registrar’s Office can normally be found in the telephone directory or online. It is a good idea to telephone the Office to arrange an appointment for registering the death rather than simply turning up and having to wait a long time. If you are registering the death of a close relative or friend, this can be a very emotional, even painful occasion so it is wise to ask someone you know to accompany you.
The Registrar will register the death and furnish copies of the entry in the Register for the purposes of winding up our affairs. A copy of this entry – which is customarily called the ‘Death Certificate’ – will be given to the person notifying the death. It is possible, and usually sensible, to obtain, for a small fee, further copies which may need to be shown as evidence of the death to banks and pension funds and similar organisations, some of whom do not accept photocopies but insist on an original certificate. There is also a scheme by which the Registrar can arrange for you to ‘Tell us once’: this enables the Registrar to notify all the necessary government agencies on behalf of the person registering that you have died. This will save a great deal of work. The Registrar will also issue a ‘green form’, authorising Burial or Cremation. With this in hand our next of kin can begin to make or confirm arrangements for a funeral with the undertaker or funeral director.
Finding a Will
As soon as possible after our death, someone needs to find the Will and start to act in accordance with its provisions. These may include instructions or wishes with regard to the funeral, as well as longer term arrangements about the disposal of our property. If there is no Will, then someone, usually a relative or solicitor, will have to begin the process of applying to the Probate Registry for a grant of Letters of Administration in a case of intestacy. When it comes to the disposal of our property, the services of a solicitor are essential whether we left a Will or not, in order to make sure that what is done is in accordance with the law and is beyond legal challenge, either immediately or in the future. There are various people who will guide those who are left behind through these various stages of settling our affairs – the doctor, the Registrar, the funeral director, and the solicitor but the whole process will be easier and smoother if some of the issues have been discussed while we are still alive. Our wishes and thoughts about these things are important and should be made known, which is another reason why we should talk about dying before it is too
Lasting Power of Attorney
Our first conversations or thoughts about putting our own affairs in order should be around the drawing up of a Lasting Power of Attorney and the making of a Will. It is sensible for anyone who has acquired either a family or some real estate to do both, however young they may be, and however far off their death may seem. Most of us have financial responsibilities with regard both to our property and to those dependent on us. During our lives we attend to these things ourselves, but there will come a time when we can no longer do so, either through the deterioration of our physical or mental capacities or through death. We need to recognise that such a deterioration or death may occur gradually over a longer or shorter period time, or come suddenly, like a thief in the night, and therefore make sure that we act before it is too late.
So long as we are able, we decide what to spend, what to save, what to give away, and to whom. We fill in our tax returns, pay our bills, and manage our own bank accounts. If there comes a time before we die when through incapacity we cannot do these things, someone else will have to do them for us. The way to make provision for this is through a Lasting Power of Attorney. By signing such a document, we authorise someone we trust to deal with our affairs in a way that is in our best interests, and hopefully in the way in which we would wish them to be dealt with, had we still been able to do so. The person we choose to do this may be a relative, perhaps a spouse, or a friend, or it may be a trusted professional such as a solicitor or accountant. But it is important not to wait before doing this, especially as we grow older, in case some medical or physical accident occurs out of the blue, depriving us of the ability to create such a Power.
Making a Will
The way we order our affairs after death is by way of a Will. If a person has left no Will, it is called an intestacy.
Some years ago, a lady in her eighties died; she was a single lady with only distant relatives who had never been involved in her life. She owned her own house and had a substantial estate. A member of her church, who was a retired solicitor, was asked to make a search for the Will. On gaining access to the house, it soon became clear that the lady had been an inveterate hoarder; every room in her house was covered in the accumulated detritus of the last years of her life. It took many days of searching before the conclusion was reached that she had never made a Will: she had died intestate. The result was that the estate passed, not to the friends who had cared for her and had been close to her for many years, nor to the church or a charity that she might have wished to support, but to those distant relatives, some of whom had never even known of her existence.
A Will can only be made by someone who has the mental capacity to do so. This is another reason for thinking, talking and doing something about it before it is too late. The services of a solicitor are invaluable if we want to be sure that the Will is drawn up in the proper form, properly signed and witnessed, and phrased so as to avoid legal ambiguity. There are many complications about making a Will, for example, leaving property to an underage person such as a grandchild and making arrangements for the legacy to be properly managed until that child comes of age, or taking steps to minimise Inheritance Tax in a way that is honourable and legal. Minor alterations can be made to a Will later by signing a Codicil, but this must be signed in the same way as the Will itself. A Will can always be revoked by destruction, or by making a new Will. But it is always wise to seek the advice of a solicitor. Again, the telephone directory, Yellow Pages, a local directory of business or the internet, will supply a list of suitably qualified practitioners, but a word with friends may be useful in identifying a solicitor who is friendly, efficient and affordable.
In recent years, and in the light of modern medical advances, some people now also consider making what is known as a Living Will or an Advance Directive, which is a document specifying the treatments that we may or may not wish to undergo in the case of a terminal illness.
We have treated this subject at greater length in chapter three, Difficult Decisions.
Many of these issues could and should be addressed long before the end comes. It does not in any way hasten the day of our death to make a Will and to talk to our loved ones about what we want to put into it. A discussion with a husband or wife is the least we can offer to someone who has spent the best years of their life with us. A family discussion involving children and even grandchildren can also prepare the way for a division of our property that will satisfy those we leave behind and not lead to quarrels and jealousy.
One last thought: it is no good making a Will or a Lasting Power of Attorney if they cannot be found when they are required. If they are held on our behalf by a solicitor, the name and address of the solicitor should be made known. If we keep such documents at home, let us put them in a safe place and then tell at least one trusted person exactly where they are to be found; not just in a particular room, but indicating whereabouts in the room they are kept. My father, unlike the old lady whose story you have just read, left all his papers in a drawer in his bureau, and told me where to find them, before he died.
Planning a funeral
The first question that has to be decided is whether we want to be buried or cremated. The Roman Catholic Church once forbade cremation, but has since changed its teaching and now permits it. Beyond that, in a Christian or secular culture, it is a matter of individual or family preference. Some people prefer the idea of a grave in which their bones are laid to rest and over which can stand a suitable memorial. Some especially like the idea of burial in a churchyard, though this is increasingly difficult as churchyards fill up. But in making such plans for burials and memorials, beware! There are usually strict rules both in churchyards and municipal cemeteries about what may and may not be done to mark a grave or commemorate the departed. It is wise to check with the relevant authorities before making firm plans. From the point of view of those who are left, some families like to have a grave to visit and perhaps to tend. For others this would be an unwelcome responsibility. For some a known and visible grave helps them to recognise the finality of death. But for others it works the other way and hinders them from letting go of the dead. In any case, in a heavily populated country where there are so many pressures on land use, many people appreciate the practicality of cremation.
There still remains the question of how to dispose of our ashes. There is no legal reason why they cannot be kept in a jar on the mantelpiece or in a box at the bottom of the wardrobe, but most people would prefer to have their ashes either scattered in a favourite spot, or interred in a cemetery or churchyard. There will be considerable costs involved in either burial or cremation, and the relative costs may be a factor in the decision that we, and our next of kin, finally make. As with the business of making a Will, it is often useful to discuss these options with a professional, in this case with a funeral director or undertaker, even before we have died.
Whatever our wishes, the costs of a funeral can be considerable. The most basic funeral now costs in the region of £3,000. This does not include the cost of the funeral wake or party for the mourners after the ceremony, nor the cost of any sort of memorial. A number of organisations offer pre- paid Funeral Plans. It is well to research the different options on the market. Beware especially of plans that tie you into using a particular firm of local undertakers. You may move before you die, or die away from home, in which case it may be expensive or inconvenient to use the services of the funeral director with whom you have taken out the pre-paid plan. On the other hand, there are other organisations that arrange pre-paid funeral plans which can be taken up with a network of undertakers all over the country from which you can choose at any time.
The funeral service
There will be many decisions to be made about the funeral when the time comes, some of which we may wish to make ourselves, rather than leave them solely to those who we leave behind. Cremation needs to be discussed as mentioned above. Religious services vary according to the faith community concerned, as we consider in the section below. A secular service or ceremony is certainly possible, and if we have spent our lives without entering a church or chapel then it is probably more honest to die in the same way. On the other hand, for an observant and faithful member of a Christian church or of any other religion, a funeral according to the rites and ceremonies of that faith is entirely appropriate and a comfort to those who mourn.
A Christian service will involve a choice of hymns or songs or other music, perhaps also of readings and prayers. Not only the undertaker, but also the Christian priest or minister, should be consulted about the appropriateness and practicality of such requests. The practice of reading passages of prose or poetry, or playing particular pieces of music associated with the deceased person, has become quite fashionable. Whether these are appropriate in the context of a faith-based service in which the focus is on God and the hope he has set before us, needs to be discussed with all those involved, and particularly the priest or minister. We ourselves may want to contribute to these choices before we die, and these are things about which it is helpful to have had conversations with those who will be responsible for carrying them out.
A secular funeral usually consists of a number of friends and relations paying tribute to our qualities in life, and reading passages of poetry or prose that meant something important to us or to them. Likewise, pieces of music may be played that in some way recall our lives or had special associations for us. These features of a secular funeral are also an increasing part of religious services. Whether this is appropriate in the context of such a faith-based burial or cremation, in which the focus is on God and the hope he has set before us, is another matter to be discussed with all those involved, not least the priest or minister.
Other funeral arrangements
There will be many more practical questions that the undertaker will need to resolve with our relatives, many of which may never have occurred to us in life. The business of going to our final rest, like everything else in 21st- century Western life, is now heavily commercialised. We can depart not only in a black motor-car, but alternatively in a horse-drawn hearse, or on a motorbike and side-car, or even in a VW camper van. We can have a plain wooden coffin, or a psychedelic one, or a straw basket. Perhaps more mundanely, we can be dressed in a plain shroud or gown, or in clothes of our own choice. We may want to decide what we want the mourners to do about flowers or donations in our memory, what notices we want to be put in the press, what sort of a memorial, if any, we want: a stone in a cemetery or churchyard, an entry in a Book of Remembrance, a tree planted or a seat dedicated. We may be entirely indifferent to some or all of these matters, or we may have very clear ideas about them. Either way, we should make these wishes known before it is too late.
Other religious communities
For those who belong to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other Asian communities, there are often specific requirements about the treatment and disposal of the dead. For example, for Muslims, who form the largest non- Christian religious community in Britain, cremation is ‘haram’: forbidden. For Muslims it is imperative to arrange the burial as quickly as possible after death. This involves clearing all financial matters for the deceased (such as debts), arranging a ritual bath, and wrapping the body in simple white cloths to symbolise the leaving behind of all earthly possessions. Post mortem examination to establish the cause of death represents for Muslims a desecration of the body, and, since it can rarely be performed immediately, it also represents an unwelcome delay of the burial, but may in some cases be a legal necessity.
Other religious communities, including Muslims and Jews, often have their own funeral directors, people who are familiar with their own religious or ethnic customs and can advise and arrange appropriate obsequies. Even within these communities there are those who are more or less observant of the traditional ceremonies, and they too need to discuss their wishes with those who going to be left behind, before it is too late.
‘Before it is too late.’
This is a phrase that has occurred many times in this chapter, and it sums up the burden of it. There are many things that we ought to do in preparation for our own death while we still have the power and capacity to do them: making a Will and a Lasting Power of Attorney; thinking and talking about our funeral.
Ruth had spent her life as a pastoral counsellor, a calling for which she had a special gifting. In her fifties she had developed cancer. At first, therapy had seemed to be successful. But after some eight years the cancer returned and her consultant advised that she had only a few months to live. In fact she lived another two years, in which time she and her husband Andrew, himself a hospital consultant, spoke often of what lay ahead. Both were committed Christians and while they grieved at the idea of being parted they faced the future with a firm trust in God and in being reunited in the world to come. As for her funeral, Ruth had very clear ideas about where and how she wanted to be buried: she wanted to be buried in the country churchyard in which many of Andrew’s family already rested, and where Andrew could be buried beside her when the time came. A visit to the parish and a conversation with the vicar revealed that this would be possible and so plans were made.
As the end drew near, Ruth and Andrew talked together about the funeral, discussed the hymns and the order of service. Ruth wanted some of her previous clients to be invited as well as family and friends. As someone who had counselled them in life she wanted to help them to let go of her in death, and to rely instead on God who is an ever-present help in trouble. She had helped them to live well and now she wanted to help them to die well. Ruth also wanted her funeral to include a celebration of Holy Communion, an unusual though not unheard of part of the last rites in the Church of England. Ruth herself believed that the service of Holy Communion was the most effective means of healing, both physical and emotional, available to Christians because of the intimate connection that it brings to Jesus the Healer, and indeed to the great company of those who rest in him.
Andrew and Ruth invited the funeral director whom they had chosen, to visit them in the days before Ruth died in order to make the necessary arrangements with him. This man confessed that only on a handful of occasions in a lifetime as an undertaker had he been invited to discuss a funeral with the person he was about to bury. But he remarked that he considered that it was extremely helpful, to him, to the person approaching death, and to the next of kin, to have had such a discussion, and he wished that more people would take such forethought and have the courage to talk about their death while they can.
In this book we have been encouraging people to talk about dying, and not least is this important in the context of putting our affairs in order, while we still have time. Below are some of the practical questions that we need to ask ourselves and possibly to ask other people near to us, especially as we and they grow older.
- Have you made a Will?
- Do you know what a Lasting Power of Attorney is?
- Have you thought about what sort of a funeral you want?
In my own experience it is not a morbid or depressing exercise to take the practical steps that will make life easier for those we leave behind whenever the time comes. On the contrary, it sets me free to enjoy the rest of my life, knowing that I have done all I can to smooth the way for those who will have to deal with my death whenever that comes. Be it sooner or later, I am free to go.
Citizens Advice Bureau can offer help and advice with any of these matters, either via their website, https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/relationships/death-and- wills/
or on the telephone 03 444 111 444 or in person at your local Citizens Advice Bureau.
There are many websites where information and advice can be found about putting your affairs in order before you die, for example:
Making a Will: www.gov.uk/make-will/overview