Funeral Arrangements vs Pre-Existing Plans

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been carrying out funerals for our local communities in Sussex and Surrey for over 165 years. We are proud of the care and professionalism we offer from our offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint, and of our teams’ expertise. We are often contacted with quite specific questions relating to […]

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Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors staff member Abi

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been carrying out funerals for our local communities in Sussex and Surrey for over 165 years. We are proud of the care and professionalism we offer from our offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint, and of our teams’ expertise. We are often contacted with quite specific questions relating to funerals, and will always advise and offer the benefit of our long experience. Today, Manager Abi Pattenden discusses a difficult and sensitive matter: ‘what happens if we have booked a holiday and then are told that someone’s death is imminent?’.

We are all different, and one person’s pragmatic decision to plan ahead might seem inappropriate to another. It will therefore surprise some people to learn that funeral directors do receive contact from people wanting to tell them that a death is imminent and ask about next steps for when the time comes. Practicality is sometimes essential, and one such occasion is when a prognosis comes in conjunction with a planned event. Holidays are at the extreme due to their potential long duration and possible difficulties in progressing matters from further afield, as well as costs they will inevitably have incurred which may be hard to recover.

Assuming you are given some bad news, and have that long-planned break on the horizon, let’s talk through some of the possible considerations when making a decision to cancel, defer, or travel anyway.

The initial consideration might be what is meant by a death being ‘imminent’. Hopefully, the patient’s condition is well understood- are changes to it expected? The source of information about someone’s condition should be considered- how well do they know the patient and the pathway of their illness so far? Have you been given information like this before? Some conditions come with what seem like quick changes, but this does not always mean an irrecoverable trough. Some years ago, Charlotte Church wrote in The Guardian about her grandmother’s last days and revealed that she was nicknamed ‘the boomerang’ due to her frequent returns from supposed near-death states. She ultimately lived eight years longer than the four years she was expected to, during that time being incorrectly thought to have breathed her last at least once. Freeman Brothers has, on more than one occasion, carried out a funeral for a person whose death has come months- or even years- the worst was expected to happen in the very near future.

If you think someone’s death will be soon, talking about practicalities can be hard, but there is much to consider. For example, where the death may take place. Can a suitable level of care be provided for someone living in their own home? If a person is living in a nursing home, would they need to be moved to a hospital if their condition worsens? The location of the death has significant bearing on how easy (or not) it is to deal with at a distance. For example, the nominated funeral director can collect a person who has died from a private house or residential home and care for them until the funeral can be arranged. Hospitals used to be more problematic, with many requiring a signed document (often called a removal authority) to be provided before a person who has died there can be collected. Since the pandemic, this has changed in many cases, and electronic means of authorisation are now more widely accepted- nevertheless, some liaison will be necessary, and this may be more difficult on holiday.

Registration is another consideration. There is a hierarchy as to who can register a death, with close family members being preferred, and so this might be problematic if there is no-one else able to fulfil this duty. Where a death is expected, registration should take place within five working days of the death having taken place- although in practice, this timescale sometimes cannot be met and the likelihood of legal implications for a delay in registration is small. Nevertheless, the offence of concealing a death and ‘preventing the lawful disposal of a body’ exists, and is far more serious.

It can be difficult to arrange a funeral from a distance and then just return a couple of days beforehand. If there is a formal funeral service, the content needs to be planned- this usually requires discussion with the person who is officiating. There may be fixed timescales. For example, providers of visual tributes (where a photo montage is played to music) for crematoria require the content for them at least 72 hours before the service is due to take place. Cremation services require the completion and signing of paperwork by person taking responsibility for the funeral arrangements, and this needs to be with the crematorium a certain length of time ahead of the service.

Family circumstances will play their part. Other members of the family- even if they might not have been the default person to act in this capacity- may be willing to ‘step into the breach’, and pass information and questions at a distance. Funeral directors are able to provide advice on the decisions that need to be made, and emails and the internet make communication across countries and time differences easier. But if the person who is planning on going on the trip, is the person who will need to arrange the funeral if the death does occur, then the situation is different, and it’s time to be honest about your feelings. Some (admittedly difficult) questions which might help you in this would be:

  • How close are you to the person who is expected to die?
  • Are you used to seeing them most days?
  • Have you been very involved in all their treatment up until now?

It may sound unfeeling, but the death of a distant relative, who you hardly see, but have a responsibility for, may be a different matter than that of a parent or sibling.

  • What is the illness the person is suffering from?
  • How long have they been ill?
  • What has their decline looked like until now?

A sudden piece of bad news may well feel more shocking than in cases of longer or more gradual illnesses. For example, it’s not unusual to hear a family member of someone with dementia express that they feel like the person has died already, which may lessen the impact of the prospect of the actual death. If an illness has been long, and painful, an imminent death may be viewed as an upcoming release- this changes the complexion of a decision completely.

The ultimate question – which no one can answer for you – is how you will feel if you decide to go away and the person dies, compared to how you felt if you changed your plans and then it didn’t happen. People may feel there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to proceed. Funeral Directors might feel that our advice is being asked for in the hope that we might make someone’s mind up for them. Unfortunately, these decisions are personal and no-one else can understand your priorities and feelings, although others’ thoughts may help to sway a decision one way or the other.

What is most important with a decision like this is a realistic appraisal of the likely outcomes. If you would be devastated if the person died while you were away, or if cancelling your once-in-a-lifetime trip is unthinkable then you have your answer. If the reality lies somewhere in between, you will have to weigh your decision up until the balance tilts in one way or the other.

Freeman Brothers has a funeral-planning resource which may also be helpful in this situation. If you or anyone you know would like to discuss their wishes in advance, filling out one of our ‘Big Deal, Small Talk’ leaflets could help with the decisions which need to be made in order to arrange a future funeral.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


May 22, 2024

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