Filming funerals – accuracy vs artistic license

Lights, camera, cue the hearse! How accurate is the representation of funerals in film and TV? Abi Pattenden takes us behind the curtain...

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Abi Pattenden, former President of the National Association of Funeral Directors

Because I have previous experience in drama, I understand that not everything can be accurate. There isn’t time to research the crux of every issue (although there are times when research obviously has to be done, particularly involving sensitive subjects such as sexual crime). I am always impressed by actors- particularly in soaps- being able to evoke complicated emotions in such realistic ways. One thing I do find difficult, though, is the way that funerals are often portrayed in an unrealistic manner.

-Warning- contains spoilers about films, details of soap plots, and links to external pages which we can’t take any responsibility for!-

Bugbear number 1: the weight of the coffin. Richard Curtis films are a particular culprit. In ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, the character of Gareth’s is ‘the funeral’. This scene is particularly remembered for John Hannah’s portrayal of Gareth’s partner, Matthew, giving a beautiful and moving rendition of W H Auden’s ‘Stop all the Clocks’, but these days is rather ruined for me by the fact that Simon Callow’s body (the character has just been described as ‘fat’ in Matthew’s eulogy) is apparently as light as a feather. You can judge for yourself here at just before the 4-minute mark.

Love Actually does a bit better, in the memorable scene where Liam Neeson’s deceased wife ‘says goodbye’ by way of the Bay City Rollers but this only leads me to bugbear number 2.

Bugbear number 2: family members carrying the coffin. In some cultures, this would be commonplace, and in the past, such as when Freeman Brothers was first trading as a funeral director, in the nineteenth century, it would have been the norm. However, there is a technique to bearing a coffin, and, in my opinion, it is such a psychologically difficult thing to do with close family that real consideration has to be given to it. It always seems to happen in films and TV, and I am always concerned that it leads bereaved people to think this is normal, or worse, expected, when it’s something that they really don’t want to do.

Bugbear number 3: the church funeral. ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ is a culprit here, too. Gareth is shown loving weddings but never struck me as the church-going type, especially not the very conventional, Church of England setup shown in the film. The epitome of this, however, has to be the recent death of Shakil (Shaki) Kazemi in EastEnders. Some of Shaki’s family are Muslim, practicing to varying degrees. His father is usually shown to be devout, his brothers less so, while his mother, is not Muslim at all. This year, he featured in a tragic and highly relevant storyline where he became the victim of knife crime and lost his life. The funeral itself was done very differently for a soap and the broadcast was interspersed with real-life testimonies of the families of knife crime victims. These members of the public were also seen within the drama’s action, holding up photos of their deceased family members as the coffin was carried through the Churchyard. However, I could not understand why the funeral service was taking place in a Church. Funeral services can happen anywhere and Walford has a large community centre ideal for the gathering of a large number of people. Perhaps I shouldn’t have objected, though, because it was followed by a burial in a churchyard, which would never happen for a Muslim, and so clearly the East End is a parallel universe anyway.

Bugbear number 4: random roles of funeral staff. This is different in different countries but, in the UK, there is nothing to say that the person who arranges the funeral will be the person who collects the Deceased person, or prepares them, or is with you on the day of the funeral. Although they may do all of these things and more. A particular dislike of mine is when the conductor (who is the person who is in charge of the funeral, and will have ‘paged’ the hearse away from the residence/to the funeral venue/both) is seen carrying the coffin or driving a vehicle.

Bugbear number 5: lack of cremated remains. People are always surprised by the amount of ashes a person can produce. I’m sure this surprise comes, in part, from films and TV where the scattering is always of a tiny amount. See this clip of the original Cold Feet about four minutes in, which is very funny in a black humour kind of way.

Bugbear number 6: unrealistic timescales and happenings. The list of examples of this is too long to mention, but EastEnders comes up trumps again, my particular favourites being when Kevin Wicks was cremated less than two weeks after being run over, incidentally during one of the busiest periods I can remember in my funeral career, and the recent funeral of Shaki (again) when, to ‘fill time’, his teenage friends were expected to give a eulogy to a packed church with no preparation or advance warning.

In the grand scheme of things, does any of this matter? Yes, and no. It matters a lot to people like me, who work in the industry, who try hard all the time to get things right, and for whom inaccuracies can be frustrating, especially when they are straightforward things. It is no effort at all to put some ballast into a dummy coffin, and how powerful might it have been to feature Kevin Wicks’ family grieving about the delay in holding his funeral? We also know that the public does notice what they watch. For example, the rise in popularity of willow coffins is often attributed to Emmerdale, whose long-standing character Seth Armstrong, played by the instantly recognisable Stan Richards, was buried in one following his death in 2004. I do worry that the portrayal of funerals can give the public unrealistic expectations, including over what they ‘should’ have or do. Yes, you can have a horse-drawn hearse and crowds of mourners all in black, if that’s really what is wanted, but it is by no means the only type of funeral. I feel that more realism, and diversity of what was shown, would have real benefit and hopefully start conversations about funerals.


Written by Abi Pattenden


November 21, 2018

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