Do-it-yourself funerals

As a baby boomer, Gail McJorrow found herself attending a lot of funerals and was prompted to write a guide after going to lots of bad send-offs, and only the occasional good event.

Her book, Better Send-Off, is designed to help you, your family or friends plan a ceremony you would like with the emphasis on celebrating a life rather than focusing on death.

There is also a step by step process about what you need to do when someone dies, from the Department of Internal Affairs, including the following:

  • Let authorities know, ie doctor or 111
  • Obtain a medical certificate of cause of death
  • Register death to obtain certificate of death (separate to above)
  • Organise a funeral, either a burial or cremation
  • Cancel benefit/passport/driver’s licence, let IRD know
  • Execute the will

You must register the death with Births, Deaths and Marriages offices within three working days of the body being buried or cremated.

There are a number of websites which can show you how you can organise a funeral for a loved one, and links to those are below.

Gail McJorrow

Ms McJorrow said the funeral of her father-in-law had a real impact on her.

“My father-in-law was 85 and ready to go, he’d had a couple of strokes and he’d lost the ability to drive and he was ready to part so it was a celebration of his life.

“But when you turned up at the funeral home, a guy was standing there arms clasped in front of him, there was organ music playing, a sterile beige-coloured chapel and all the pews were sitting facing the front.. with a big mahogany casket up there.”

She says her father-in-law was an earthmoving contractor and she thought the casket should have had a big tractor painted on it.

The hushed service, where you didn’t speak to the next person, also didn’t strike the right note for Gail. (pictured right)

“I thought, ‘He was 85, he wanted to go, this is so wrong’. My mother-in-law is a really private person and I remember looking at her face and thinking it was so overwhelming for her.”

A private family event

Ms McJorrow believes funerals are no different to planning a wedding, especially with people celebrating the life that was lived, but there’s a much shorter timeframe to organise a massive event.

Her book was used by the family of a close friend who died of cancer, in a hospice.

“The boys came in the family van and picked up the casket, came home, picked up the eiderdown to put her in, went to the hospice and they all put her in the casket themselves,” she says.

“They brought her back home, knew to get dry ice on the way, the coffin was painted with all this art and all her beautiful artwork was around her.

“I remember going up that night and it was just amazing.. seeing her there in her own house. Everyone spent time – the family laughing and crying, and just seeing how connected and intimate it all was, it seemed so natural.

Empty Coffin at Marae

“Then they took her themselves in the van to get cremated privately with family members and a few close friends.”

The writer wants to dispel a few myths, including about who can run a funeral.

“Anyone can run a funeral, you don’t have to be a funeral director – the two biggest myths out there – most people think that a) you need a funeral home and b) that you need to be embalmed.”

Ms McJorrow says even the legal paperwork is not difficult to sort out.

The funeral celebrant says it’s important to take the time you need.

“Death is not an emergency; you can take as much time as you want – it’s six weeks from when someone dies in Sweden to when they have the funeral.

“There’s this perception it’s all got to be done in three to five days – there is no hurry. You can take as long as you want.”

Cheaper caskets are available

“If I just talk from the heart it would be that the death experience is a similar sacred journey as a birth experience.

“You only get it once so take the time to think long and hard about how you want it to be. Pre-planning helps the family who are left to have peace of mind that they’re doing what you wanted, and it just makes life so much easier for them.

“The other thing too is by embracing your mortality, you can enjoy life more.”

Personalising the service

Have the service at a venue that meant something to the person who died – golf club or yacht club - the place you have it at will set the tone.

Some funeral homes, but not many, will sell you just the casket instead of the whole service.

Bring flowers from your garden - it gives a sense of connection

Bring a plate instead of having catering

Have a dry funeral - you don’t have to provide alcohol

There’s usually someone in the family who will step up and be honoured and privileged to lead the ceremony, if you ask them.

If the thought of organising a funeral yourself is not what you want to do, contact the Funeral Directors Association of New Zealand, and they will help you with your planning.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Office for Seniors.