Whilst the school summer holiday period has recently ended, many people still have exciting trips booked throughout the coming seasons. Here, Abi discusses what to do if you have been advised that a death is likely whilst you are away…
Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals for our local communities in Sussex and Surrey for over 160 years. As funeral directors, we consider ourselves experts in our field. We are proud of the care and professionalism we offer to local people from our offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint. We are often contacted by members of the public who have questions about a specific aspect of funeral service, and are very happy to give advice and the benefit of our long experience. Today, Manager Abi Pattenden discusses a potentially difficult and sensitive matter: ‘What happens if we have booked a holiday and then are told that someone’s death is imminent?’.
It might surprise some people to learn that prospective clients do contact funeral directors to tell them that a death is imminent and ask about next steps for when the time comes. Of course, we are all different and one person’s idea of practical planning might be distasteful to others. However, there are times when pragmatism has to come to the fore, and one of those is when a prognosis comes in conjunction with a planned event – holidays being the extreme of this due to their significant cost, potential long duration away from the local area and possible difficulties in progressing matters from further afield.
Assuming you are given some bad news, and do have that long-planned break on the horizon, let’s talk through some of the possible considerations when making a decision as to cancellation, deferring, or travelling anyway.
The first thing to consider is how likely it is that the death is imminent. Hopefully, you have been kept abreast of the patient’s condition until now. Why is there now a sudden change? Who has given you this information and how well do they know the patient and the pathway of their illness so far? Has this happened before? Some illnesses do take the form of sudden drops in condition or what seem like irrecoverable troughs. Charlotte Church, writing about her grandmother’s last days for The Guardian revealed that said grandmother was nicknamed ‘the boomerang’, living eight years longer than the four years she was expected to and being thought to have breathed her last at least once before her death. Freeman Brothers has, on more than one occasion, carried out a funeral for a person whose death has come months, or even years, after their family was told to expect the worst in the very near future.
It is difficult to talk about practicalities when thinking of someone’s life as ending imminently, but another point of consideration should be where the person is being treated, and how likely this is to alter. For example, if they are in a nursing home, would they need to be moved to a hospital if their illness were to deteriorate? If they are at home, can the appropriate standard of care be guaranteed? The location of the death has significant bearing on how easy (or not) it is to deal with the aftermath at a distance. For example, the nominated funeral director can collect a person who has died from a local nursing home and care for them until the family is able to make the funeral arrangements. However, many hospitals require a signed document (often called a removal authority) to be provided before a person who has died there can be collected. The thought of a family member in a hospital mortuary may prompt very different feelings than thinking of them in the funeral director’s Chapel of Rest.
All deaths have to be registered, and – where a death is expected – this should take place within five working days of the death having taken place. 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. While the likelihood of legal implications for a delay in registration is small, the offence of concealing a death and ‘preventing the lawful disposal of a body’ is far more serious.
Practicalities around funeral arrangements mean it is quite hard to arrange everything from a distance and then just return a couple of days beforehand. If there is a formal funeral service, the content needs planning which usually requires discussion with the person who is officiating and the service venue may have timescales for receipt of contact. For example, the main provider of visual tributes (where a photo montage is played to music) for crematoria requires the content for those tributes 76 hours before the service is due to take place. Cremation services require the completion of specific paperwork which needs to be signed by the person taking responsibility for the funeral arrangements, and this paperwork needs to be with the crematorium a certain length of time ahead of the service.
Of course, a lot of this is dependent on family circumstances. There may be other members of the family who, while not the person who would usually have fulfilled these parts of the funeral arranging, are willing to ‘step into the breach’ and can consult with you from a distance to seek your input. Funeral directors are able to provide advice on the decisions that need to be made, and emails and the internet make communication across countries easier than it has ever been before.
The difficulty comes when you, 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 – if you aren’t able to delegate some or all of this to others then it does slightly alter the decision-making process. If this is the case then it’s time for some really honest thinking. There is no way to make these questions easy, and no one can help you with the answers, but here are some of them.
How close are you to the person who is expected to die? Are you used to seeing them most days? Have you been highly involved in all their treatment up until now? It may sound hard, but a distant relative, who you hardly see, but have a responsibility for, may feel like a very different prospect from one of your parents or siblings. Also, there is great variation in feelings about the prospect of the death which depend on the illness itself. If this has happened very quickly, there may be more of a shocking aspect to the bad news. With conditions such as dementia, it’s not unusual to hear a family member express that they feel like the person they know 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, and all of 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. This is for you and you alone. It’s understandable that people may feel there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to proceed and it does sometimes feel as if our advice is being asked for in the hope that we might make someone’s mind up for them. Unfortunately, all of this is very personal and we can never understand the extent of your priorities and feelings in such a circumstance, although the advice might give 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, as is likely, 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 produced 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 funeral.
Tel: 01403 254590
If you have an urgent query, please call 01403 254590. This number is answered by one our staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is the quickest way to reach us.
Tel: 01403 785133
25 & 27 Brighton Road
Tel: 01293 540000
126 High Street
Tel: 01273 831497