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DIY funeral planning guide

"Dying well, on your own terms, prepared and supported, can be your greatest subversive act" - Zenith Virago

Preparation is key

Making thoughtful preparations for your own death, or somebody else's, means that when the time comes, the people organising it will be as ready as they can be. Knowing someone's wishes in advance, and having a plan, means there will be less scope for confusion or disagreement, and the practical tasks will be easier to arrange. Conflict often arises when instructions have not been left, or there is no plan. If families don't talk about a foreseeable death, they will be possums in the headlights when it arrives, and that usually doesn't end well.

An excellent TED Talk on creating a better style of death, and how to walk through it with someone, is Disrupting Death by Zenith Virago, who founded Byron Bay's Natural Death Care Centre.

The best thing you can do to prepare for death is to talk about it. You can make your wishes known informally just by telling people, or by recording them in writing, to be kept with the other important legal documents which are going to be needed after death - documents like passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates, relationship property agreements, records of bank account details, investments and insurance policies etc. A memorandum of wishes can be attached to your will which states what you want or don't want to happen to you when you die.

Documents are important

Documents become crucially important when someone loses their health, is approaching death, or has died. The links below go into considerable detail about some of the documents which are relevant:

You will need to involve a lawyer when making your will and setting up Enduring Powers of Attorney. However dealing with someone's decline and death will be much easier for the people doing it if these documents are in place. When writing your will (and when pre-planning your funeral) choose your executor carefully, and discuss with them what you want to happen, for both your will and your funeral. Things get a lot more complicated for everyone if you don't have a will and nobody knows what you did and did not want.

It All Matters offers assistance with formulating an end-of-life plan.

Dealing with the finances and property of a person who has died is a separate issue from arranging their funeral. However it will usually be the responsibililty of the executor or relatives to close bank accounts, cancel passports and insurances and so on. So attaching this information to your will, or at least recording it somewhere and telling someone where to find it, is a great idea.

The NZ government End of Life Service provides a centralised platform where you can make your wishes known regarding your preferences for end-of-life and after-death care. This information is able to be accessed by other government agencies, medical professionals etc. Please note, however, that the information on this site regarding what to do when someone has died is sadly lacking in resources for the DIY'er. I am trying to redress this situation with them.

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End-of-life care

A sad fact of society today is that many people live alone and do not have family, friends or community to rely on as they approach their end of life. The NZ Hospice service does wonderful work taking care of people who have a terminal illness. Organisations such as Compassionate Communities and NODA in Rotorua are also going some way to redressing this situation but there is still a great deal of need out there.

If you do not have a wide circle of friends and family, or they are not physically able to help with practical steps such as dressing and moving a body, you may still be able to carry out a home funeral with the help of a death doula. There is also a growing movement in NZ to develop community support networks around death, and many fledgling organisations are springing up around the country, for instance this one in Upper Hutt. The Death Cafe movement may be another good starting point. The Funeral Guides' Collective are in the process of forming a national organisation which will extend their existing model of guidance and support for communities who wish to carry out home funerals to many more areas around the country. The sooner this happens the better.

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What type of ceremony?

Assuming you do have support in place, you need to decide how you want to respond to someone's death, be that with a funeral of some kind, or any other type of ceremony. What kind of ceremony might be appropriate, if any? Where will it be held? It can be held in your house, someone else's or at any venue which is agreeable to you using the facility for a funeral gathering. You can decide virtually every aspect of the ceremony. It can be anything which feels meaningful to you and the dying person. Make sure the details are known and recorded somewhere, or that the people who will be involved have discussed it and are all on the same page. Don't be a possum!

A funeral (where the person's body is present) is usually held on the same day as the burial or cremation, but a memorial service (where the body is not present but their ashes or other memorabilia are) can be held at any time afterwards. Some kind of gathering is usually a chance for people to come together to share whatever emotions come naturally - and personalising this as much as possible is the whole point of DIY. Decorate the casket, choose the playlist, reminisce and basically have fun with it, in whatever way you or the person who has died would have wanted. There is absolutely no need to observe the kind of "false piety" which is rampant within the funeral industry. That's just there to facilitate the upselling. Just be real, and as compassionate towards yourself and everyone else as you can be. It's your funeral - you may as well make it the once-in-a-lifetime-experience that it is.

A printable document to guide you through some of the practical issues to think about if you are planning a traditional funeral can be found here.

How others have done it

Some very good videos on after-death care and ceremony can be viewed here. If you are contemplating holding a funeral at home I strongly recommend that you watch these videos to get a really good idea of what it can look like and ways you can plan for your own situation.

Some people also choose to have a "living wake" before they die. Why not have the party beforehand and hear what everyone has to say while you are still alive? An article on one person's experience can be found here.

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