The recent death of HRH Prince Philip, and the subsequent reporting on both his life and his funeral, have brought the subject of death and dying and how we react to it, talk about it and mark it, to the fore.
Whether you’re a senior royal, a ‘humble commoner’ or anywhere in between, the fact is that you are going to die one day. And when you do, your loved ones will most likely want to hold some sort of ceremony to say goodbye. Whether that’s held at Windsor Castle or your local crematorium, there are similar decisions to be made – and the good news is that most of them are not cost-based.
So, inspired by the events, the eulogising and the gossip that has surrounded Prince Philip’s death, here are some thoughts that apply to everyone who is dealing with death and funerals…
Arrive in style
Whilst a hearse is the usual form of transportation of a coffin to a ceremony, it’s not the only option. Prince Philip customised the Land Rover that would take him to his final resting place. It felt like a refreshingly unconventional decision, especially for a family who are constantly in the public eye, and dictated to by protocol.
If Prince Philip can be unconventional, so can you! In my work as a celebrant, I’ve seen people arrive at their funerals on a tractor, in a horse and cart, in a motorbike sidecar, in a converted vintage Citroen van, in a VW camper, and in their own tradesman’s ‘white van’. You can also bring a coffin in an estate car if you’d like to. There are no ‘shoulds’ – just what’s right for you.
Make your wishes known
Prince Philip was involved in his funeral preparations and made it known that he didn’t want a fuss made. Accordingly, there was no eulogy or tributes but there was music that he had requested (including one piece that he specially commissioned for the occasion).
Whilst you might not necessarily be in the position to commission a piece composed for you, it’s certainly possible to have a hand in planning your own funeral. Indeed, talking about your wishes, even many years before you’re likely to need them, will help your family greatly when the time comes.
You can talk about the music you would like played, whether you want to be buried or cremated, what you’d like people to wear, specify a reading you like perhaps, and consider who might be best to read it.
Of course, whilst the funeral will be about you, it will be for your loved ones. They will be the ones who need to say goodbye in a meaningful way, so it’s helpful to frame your decisions as suggestions rather than commands!
Lay family politics aside
There was much speculation and conjecture about how the rift between Prince Philip’s grandsons, William and Harry, would play out on the day of the funeral. But the fact is that family politics should have no place in a farewell service.
Where there has been conflict, feelings naturally run high, and this is added to by grief.
Over the years I have been a celebrant, I have worked with several families at war. It can be especially difficult for them to organise the ceremony – to agree on arrangements and to reflect everyone’s view within the words, but a good funeral director and celebrant can help with that.
Remember that the most important thing in the funeral is to say a farewell to the person who has died – it is not a place to air grievances. Sometimes, I have seen this happen anyway, and it has ended badly (spectacularly so on one occasion…) Points might have been scored, but neither ‘side’ would have wanted that for their loved one.
Also, from a personal point of view, the grief of being at the funeral of someone dear to you can often be overwhelming. Adding vitriol to the mix, or planning to get a barbed comment in somewhere just adds to your own emotional pain. Set it aside, if you can, for the day. Sit separately and focus on your memories of the person who has died. There will be opportunities to clash swords again soon if you really need to.
The importance of legacy
I’m not a royalist so, whilst I felt for the Queen and her family, I didn’t feel particularly connected to the death of Prince Philip.
On reflection, however, I started to realise what an effect he had had on my life. Whilst I was at school, like many, I did the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Whilst I was ‘heavily encouraged’ to do the bronze award (a rainy, blister-infested horror story of ten-ton rucksacks, leaky tents and misery), I ended up doing the silver award because a friend wanted me to keep her company. Whilst it was still a pretty dire experience, our friendship became really strong from being forged in its fire. I started my gold award but didn’t finish it, for reasons lost in the mists of time (but probably involving a boy drama or somesuch). However, the parts I did saw me meeting Prince Philip very briefly (who gamely feigned interest in our hastily-planned project) and going to the beautiful Bavarian Alps on an ‘exploration’. Top tip folks – opt for the exploration over the expedition – there’s a lot more writing but a lot fewer miles!
We stayed at an army camp in Bavaria and a chance encounter with a patient and insightful squaddie who was based there saw me conquering the 5 Peak Challenge and actually changing my life. Thanks to him, I had a revelation that day that has affected every decision I’ve made since. And all of that was down to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. I might not have got that gold award but I believe I came away with something entirely more valuable.
I’m sure that HRH wouldn’t have been aware of my existence but, thanks to his, I am who I am today. And that’s the power of legacy.
Until I made that connection last week, I hadn’t felt affected by Prince Philip’s death at all, but I ended up watching his funeral with gratitude for what he had created.
You might not have created an awards scheme, but your legacy will include who you influenced and how that rippled out across time. Even if it’s as simple as teaching a child to tie their shoelaces or baking cakes for all the family occasions, that’s your legacy. If you’re planning a loved one’s funeral, reflect not only on their life but on their legacy – what they leave behind.
Don’t just look at the ‘headline’ achievements
Prince Philip was a highly decorated sailor who had many honorary titles and was, of course, Prince Consort to Queen Elizabeth II. They are the headlines of his life.
We might think we ‘know’ him through press coverage (or watching ‘The Crown’!) but who he was in his personal life is, well, personal. He was a husband, a dad, a grandfather and a friend. The Queen described him as her ‘strength and stay’.
At funerals of people who have achieved great things in their life, of course, it’s important to reflect on those. But it’s also important to go deeper: to talk about who they were when they got home; about what made them laugh; about who they loved and how they showed it.
Prince Philip didn’t have any tributes at his funeral, but if he did, and if his family had been able to say goodbye in private, I’d like to think that these things would have been talked about, as well as the medals he won.
‘Service and sacrifice’
A lot has been said over the last few weeks about Prince Philip’s glittering career path in the Navy, and how he gave it all up to love and support the Queen. He has been called ‘a man of great service’ many times in the press.
All of this is true. However, what has saddened me in hearing these words over and over again is that I doubt they would have been said for a moment if he were a princess marrying a king.
This isn’t HRH’s fault, I know, but I have conducted funerals for many women in their 80s and 90s who did exactly that and were never recognised for it. In fact, I have helped to tell the stories of many women who were excellent scholars, mathematicians, teachers or artists who ended up having to give up their careers when they got married (which they were expected to do). There was an actual ‘marriage bar’ in place in many professions until the 1960s, which meant that married women could not work, and societal pressure added to that too. And all these promising young women with all their skills went on to support their husbands, raise a family and keep a house, with no further way to express their talents.
Prince Philip should absolutely be applauded for his love, support and service to his wife for 73 years, but let’s take a moment to applaud the many generations of women who have done the same with no recognition whatsoever.
Let’s be honest, Prince Philip was known for some massive racist, sexist and generally offensive gaffes in his time. It was reported widely and he observed once that he had become a caricature of himself as a result. Yet, when he died, the language changed completely. He was a ‘joker’ who ‘spoke as he found’. ‘Not everyone understood his sense of humour’.
This happened to the television presenter Caroline Flack when she died too. The press went from bullying her to making her a tragic symbol overnight.
It happens with everyone. There’s a long-held tradition to ‘not speak ill of the dead’, but many people do the opposite and sentimentalise them instead.
At a funeral, it is sometimes very important to address a negative aspect about a person in order for their family to feel heard and validated. It doesn’t have to mean that you dissect their every fault – sometimes just a nod is all that’s required. After all, there’s nothing healing about sitting through the funeral of a ‘whitewashed’ loved one whose behaviour was apparently angelic, if it was anything but. We’re all human and we can address that in a sensitive but honest way.
Lockdown funerals make everything harder
Even if you’re royal, you can’t escape pandemic restrictions.
Losing someone you love is tough enough at any time, but since Covid hit us, it has made everything much harder. As a funeral celebrant, I have been heartbroken to see many a widow or widower sitting alone in their pain during these past months, but the picture of the Queen sitting by herself brought this image to the nation.
When you are grieving, hugs and shoulders to cry on are needed by everyone, no matter their status. To lose your partner of 73 years and to be alone at his funeral, watched by the nation, is about as far as you can get from a healing experience.
This situation is pants. However, restrictions will be lifted in England (keeping fingers crossed) on 21st June 2021. Until then, do check out my post about ways to commemorate a loved one’s death when you can’t attend the funeral and consider the option of celebrating their life later in the year.
Whoever you are, whomever you’ve loved, you have choices when it comes to funerals. If you’re in Sussex and you’re looking for a celebrant to help you, do get in touch.