Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers has been serving Sussex and Surrey since 1855 and our teams in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint have a combined wealth of many years of experience of arranging and conducting funerals. An essential part of a funeral director’s role is to help the client making the funeral arrangements to personalise the whole experience, with the aim of creating a bespoke goodbye which they feel reflects the person who has died. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this aim more challenging than ever before. In this blog post, Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers, discusses these experiences and shares the ways in which Freeman Brothers has been able to help people in spite of the difficulties everyone has experienced around funerals and bereavement in the last few months.
At Freeman Brothers, we have always tried to work with customers to understand not only their requirements, but also the reasons why a particular part of the funeral arrangements might be requested. The more we understand our customers’ wishes, the better we are able to work with our customers in personalising the funeral service and making it best reflect the life and preferences of the person who has died.
Sometimes, this can be quite a simple action which can nevertheless have a striking result. For example, a customer might choose a willow coffin and decide to have it customised with a particular colour. By finding out that this colour has a special significance, we can suggest additional features to the funeral. For example, it may have been the favourite colour of the person who has died, and so we could suggest requesting that the congregation wears something in that colour, and perhaps provide ties for our staff to wear. Alternatively, we might find that the colour relates to a particular sports team and see if the family would like to reflect that love of sport – maybe by using flags or scarves, or a team song.
However, the sky’s the limit, and some requests require more planning than others, as for this funeral we carried out in February, where the coffin was carried on a flat-bed truck. As that funeral shows, Freeman Brothers has been carrying out such activities far in advance of the recent COVID-19 pandemic which we have all been living through. However, because funerals have seen such significant changes in the past few months (because of regulations which included limited attendances and social distancing), we have seen a marked in crease in the numbers of families who have sought to make the funerals they are arranging more bespoke.
This has manifested itself in a variety of different ways. For several years now, it has been normal that most families choose the majority of the music for the funeral service. However, one thing the team and I have noticed is the increase in this music being something created by families themselves. Where once we might have had live musicians or a family member instead of a professional organist, we now have many families recording themselves singing or reciting poems, and finding long-forgotten favourite pieces which pre-date modern recording methods – these can then be added to a venue’s music system.
We have also seen a large number of people make arrangements to have the funeral broadcast over the internet, or to be made available to be watched afterwards by those who couldn’t attend. This was a service that was growing in popularity before the pandemic started, and it’s obvious why this kind of facility has been so helpful in recent times – it brings people who normally would have been able to travel to the funeral, but couldn’t because of recent restrictions, closer to being able to experience the farewell.
An increasing number of people have also been choosing to add extra customisation to parts of the funeral which would already be quite bespoke. For example, floral arrangements, which are in essence something that the family chooses for themselves, have been becoming increasingly diverse. We have had plenty of families picking flowers themselves to create personal tributes which have often been suited to the less formal, smaller funerals which have been necessary. Families have also been giving their florists very different briefs to those they may have done before, and this has fitted in with a general trend we have seen in recent times. Becky recently wrote a blog post about a funeral we arranged where flowers play a large part and the brief that was given to the florist there wasn’t in terms of choice of flowers or colours, but instead about a mood – in that case, a hedgerow, meadow feel.
This ties in with our other experiences. We know that some people who died will not have expressed their funeral wishes in advance, but even those who had made the most detailed plans would not have foreseen the ways that funerals may have had to change – and some people will have seen their meticulously-chosen arrangements face a large degree of curtailment. Instead, people have been forced to think more about either the very general – the overall mood of the day, for example – or the very specific, perhaps listening to several versions of the same piece of music to find the one they like best, or tracing the perfect photo from distant family for the Order of Service.
However, most of these experiences relate to the funeral service itself, but we have also seen an increase in arrangements where meaning has been sought throughout, or ways have had to be found to make a part of the funeral accessible where the service itself cannot be. For instance, in April, Freeman Brothers arranged a funeral for a much-loved local postie, who would normally have had a large celebration with many of his colleagues present. This wasn’t possible, but we worked with the local postal service to ensure a cortege of post vans could see him off. You can see the procession that resulted here. In July, a motorcyclist’s funeral had a true biker farewell, but this was made all the more poignant by the fact that his friends couldn’t attend the service itself and so their accompaniment of him to his service, which can be seen here, was their opportunity to say goodbye.
Like many of my colleagues, knowing we have been able to facilitate something so moving, with lasting significance to the participants, gives me a real sense of pride. Knowing we are able to make a difference, and work together with bereaved people to create funerals they can look back on as a positive experience in spite of the challenges beyond their control, is something which gives us all a lot of satisfaction. There is no way of knowing when, or if, funerals will return to how they once were conducted. However, if something positive can come out of the pandemic, and we can learn to be more creative and innovative for our bereaved clients as a result of being compelled to do so at present, then that is something to be glad for.