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An illustration of a man in a coffin, raising a glass to toast his own funeralSian Butcher

'I attended my own funeral'

Why are more and more people choosing to hold a funeral while they're still alive?

Erica Buist
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It’s now possible to attend your own funeral. Yes, really. But would you want to?

Holding a ‘fake’ funeral can help to get a fresh perspective on life, face up to the inevitability of death and, in the case of those suffering from a terminal illness, give people a chance to say goodbye to loved ones. Oh, and just maybe listen to all the nice things people might say about you when you're gone. And, according to funeral celebrants, it’s a practice that’s gaining popularity in Britain.

Holding a live funeral (a funeral where the star of the show is still living) has already taken hold in South Korea and also in Japan (where it’s called seizenso). Could our interest in these ceremonies be a sign of a shift away from death being taboo? If so, it may be a positive thing for our mental health - a 2009 study found that thinking about death for five minutes per day, for just one week, reduced depressive thoughts.

The rise of living funerals is part of a bigger shake-up of mourning culture. People are moving away from traditional religious ceremonies to consider alternatives such as eco funerals, with some funeral parlours now offering biodegradable coffins. Earlier this year, Hollywood star Luke Perry was buried wearing a "mushroom suit". It's a special outfit made from organic cotton and mushrooms which the suit's makers claim can "reduce the body's toxic pollutants which are often released into the environment during decomposition and cremation".

You can even hire a “funeral wrecker", someone paid to turn up to funerals with messages from the dead (sometimes vengeful, such as telling people to leave, sometimes funny or loving).

This is in stark contrast to the strict rules around death and funerals that became especially rigid during the Victorian era. Back then, customs included the need for mourners to wear all black for an extended period of time, depending on their closeness to the individual - widows, for example, were expected to spend two years dressed that way – and decline social gatherings for a year. Mourners would often also keep a snippet of the deceased’s hair, or wear specific mourning jewellery.

David Williamson, the Spiritual Care Lead at St Leonards Hospice in York, is planning to introduce living funerals as a service to patients later this year. “I’m ordained in the Church of England and I’ve done funerals for 30 years,” he says. “I've always been amazed at the tributes that friends and relatives give to the person who's died and I often ask them, ‘Did you ever say that to the person when they were alive?’. And quite often they'll say no. So I've always wondered, is there a better way we can express what we think and feel about people when they are alive?”

He has found that in a culture like Britain’s, which is traditionally quite emotionally reserved, living funerals can “free people up to let their emotions out without feeling embarrassed or awkward”.

Georgia Martin, 28, started organising living funerals on a voluntary basis after an emotional moment at her grandfather’s funeral. “I remember seeing his friends there and feeling so sad thinking, ‘he would have loved to see all these people. Why didn’t we arrange this when he was alive?’.”

One year on, she has arranged six living funerals and says that while each one is different, she thinks they help both the dying and their families with acceptance. In her view, they have the edge over a traditional funeral where the guest of honour is, of course, dead.

An illustration of a man crouched next to his own headstone having Sian Butcher

“While everybody comes to your funeral after you die, you’re not actually there to hear all the things they love about you,” Georgia says. “It also gives you a chance to tell people, ‘it’s ok to move on when I’m gone’.”

For some, organising a living funeral for a terminally ill loved one can be a chance to feel useful during a difficult time. In 2016, Tom Honeywell, 24, helped organise a living funeral for his grandfather, who, after being told he had a month to live, became adamant he wanted one last celebration with his friends. About 80 people attended the event in Plymouth. There was a photographer, a photo booth with funny props and a stage where people stood up and gave toasts. Tom says: “I think it takes a strong person to do a living wake. You know what you’re celebrating; you know that you’re dying.”

While it might help the dying person to see friends for the last time, it can be painful to confront the reason why you’re all there.

“It was an emotional day,” says Tom, “It was surreal, celebrating his life while he was there. It made the fact he was dying feel more real. But it was his wish, and you could tell he enjoyed it. It’s a happy memory.”

While the majority of people who hold living wakes do so because they have a terminal diagnosis, some have them for more whimsical reasons. Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner (a non-profit organisation which encourages people to hold dinners to discuss tricky topics like death and dying), held one in Seattle to celebrate his 40th birthday. He and his long-term girlfriend had broken up just weeks before. Not wanting to be alone, he emailed 50 friends asking them to come and celebrate his birthday with him. Forty immediately replied saying they would be there and, among themselves, decided to throw their friend – fondly nicknamed “Mr Death” - a living funeral.

It started as a tongue-in-cheek idea but quickly became tinged with seriousness: far from the jokey ceremony they had set out to organise, Michael found himself dressed in white, in a custom-made coffin without a lid, where he lay for three hours. He was lifted up by pallbearers and taken into a darkened room, lit by a single candle.

“Their breath smelled richly of whiskey,” says Michael of the pallbearers. “They had to drink because they were freaked out."

One of his friends, though she knew it wasn’t real, cried at the sight of him motionless in a coffin and attendees gave eulogies. One friend said: “I fear that you never knew how much I loved you." Michael’s 15-year-old daughter ended the ceremony. “She put her hand on me and gave the most powerful eulogy of love, about what I meant to her. Everyone cried.”

An illustration of a woman giving her own eulogySian Butcher

Michael says he’s always had difficulty connecting with people and has had periods of loneliness in his life. But after the experience of lying in a coffin with no choice but to listen to how people felt about him, he says it has given him a fresh perspective. Now he feels like he as a “second chance” to improve his relationships and repair some of the mistakes of the past 40 years.

And it seems this trend has spilled over into festival culture. At the recent Vault Festival (as well as at Secret Garden Party, Bestival and Boomtown Fair in the past), an immersive theatre experience offered people the chance to indulge their slightly morbid curiosity about how their funeral might play out.

“We wanted to confront this Victorian culture where we only have certain options,” says theatre director Martin Coat, 38. “We’re told how to grieve, how to dress and behave – we wanted to challenge that, and send it up.”

After they came up with the idea of a live funeral experience, Martin and his colleagues built a graveyard, church and morgue as part of their set. Each ‘deceased’ person would then have a consultation to plan their funeral and choose some ‘hymns’ (mostly Disney songs or well-known hip hop tracks). Death would meet them and take them to the morgue for an ‘embalming’ experience, while the ‘congregation’ hung memories on a tree of remembrance. The ‘service’ would last 25 minutes with, Martin says, “often funny” eulogies from friends. Then the person would be placed in a coffin – with a hole so they could see out – and lowered into a 6ft (1.8m) grave.

While the show was meant to be playful, with memorable scenes including the ‘sacrifice’ of a teddy bear to bring people back to life, Martin confesses that sometimes it got a bit “egotistical” with people just keen to hear all the rose-tinted things people would say about them.

But, he says, there were also some truly moving moments. “Once we had an elderly couple who had already bought their own grave plots next to each other. They did it because they just wanted the other one to hear what they would say. That show really stuck with us all.”

An illustration of a man in a coffin, raising a glass to toast his own funeralSian Butcher

But not everyone agrees that using the term funeral is a good idea. David says people often find the word off-putting, preferring “end of life celebration”. Laura Green, who lectures in palliative care at the University of Manchester, says if she were to have one, she’d call it a “send-off party” – but Georgia thinks we shouldn’t be striving to avoid mentioning death. “You have to connect it to dying,” she says, “because you are.”

So does the advent of living funerals suggest we’re getting more comfortable with the idea of our own mortality? Laura thinks it might be down to a mixture of a freer culture and a more open conversation around end-of-life issues. An increasing number of countries and US states have legalised assisted dying, where people can choose to end their own life with medical assistance, over the past three decades (though the UK isn’t one of them) - and it’s stimulating conversations about making plans for the end of life. “I think that means that funerals become part of a conversation with the person who's dying,” says Laura, “rather than something that's done afterwards, by the families.”

In an increasingly secular society, we are often left to decide for ourselves how to form our rituals around death and dying. “There are more and more alternative ideas about what people want and funerals are fitting into that,” says Laura. In fact, Georgia says that when she tells people she organises living funerals, they are often upset they hadn’t known it was an option when a loved one was dying.

Whether or not the thought of attending your own funeral appeals, perhaps some people will be comforted simply by having the option. “There’s this odd expectation that a funeral needs to be quiet and solemn with lavender-scented candles and darkness,” says Laura. “But if you’re a party animal, you might want a party. People want to die in the way they’ve lived.”