Finding Alice – is there fact within the fiction?

Jen recently enjoyed watching ITV drama, ‘Finding Alice’, but how accurate are the events depicted? Spoilers ahead!

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Jennifer Bolt, Funeral Support Assistant at Freeman Brothers, Crawley
Funeral Support Assistant, Jennifer Bolt

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in 1855.  The original Horsham office remains the company’s main base, with further branches now open in Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint.  With over 165 years of experience, the business is a great source of expertise, with the team members’ interest in funerals extending into popular culture.  Jennifer Bolt tells us more…

A sudden, unexpected bereavement can be enough to knock even the most stoic realist for six. Finding yourself in an unforeseen situation, making arrangements and answering surreal questions, all while dealing with your own grief, can leave you emotionally and physically drained. But how much more challenging can this be when you find yourself with no authority, no money and no Will or funeral plan to help?

This very challenge faced the lead character in ITV’s offering, Finding Alice. Beginning on the night of her partner Harry’s sudden death, our heroine (played by Keeley Hawes) struggles to come to terms with the loss of her spouse and the unearthing of various family secrets. With the death itself shrouded in mystery, it’s not long before Alice and her daughter find themselves under police scrutiny and at the mercy of Harry’s grief-striken parents.

A man with little time for formality or tradition (it’s clear this was part of his charm!) Harry neither married nor made a Will and, without provision for his funeral, Alice finds herself powerless, moniless and at risk of homelessness. The plot’s intrigue is therefore interwoven with Alice’s somewhat unusual attempts to secure the funeral she and daughter, Chloe, want for this beloved man.

Harry’s parents, who are legally responsible for disposing of their son’s body because of the couple never having married, want to have him buried in a local cemetery. Alice finds it cold and unfeeling, opting instead to bury him at home.

Despite starting out with the best of intentions – approaching the council for permission to proceed – Alice finds Harry’s family, who need to sell the property and are concerned for its value and saleability, resistant. Undeterred, Alice – aided by a mortuary technician she befriended during her visits to the chapel of rest – smuggles the body out of the morgue in a borrowed van and brings it home to be placed in a cardboard coffin, purchased online.

In a scene reminiscent of ancient Egyptian funerary rites, Alice and Chloe (aided by friends and Harry’s sister) decorate the coffin. The kitchen table serving as a bier and watercolour paints in place of enamel and gold leaf, the image is weirdly domestic yet no less ceremonial, loving and respectful than if he were a pharoah about to be sealed in his tomb. The strangely-comforting domesticity continues with a funeral service held in the living room before Harry is laid to rest in the garden. The grave – left unmarked – appears like a flowerbed that none but the keenest observers would identify as anything but.

Alice, whose mental health is by now stretched to near-breaking-point, eventually resorts to camping next to Harry’s grave: council workers could – at any time – arrive to dig up her partner’s body by force. The scene is harrowing, and highlights the fear and anxiety experienced by families in the face of a sudden and unexpected death.

It’s a credit to the writers that this poignant and original storytelling leaves viewers thinking, ‘Thank goodness I’m not in her shoes!’ But just how unlikely is Alice’s story? Manager, Abi Pattenden, helps us to sort fact from fiction…

Nothing can stop you burying someone on your own land other than practical considerations. You don’t need planning permission but it’s recommended that you check the proposed site is not near any water courses. The presence of a grave should be notified to the Land Registry – this is where practicalities need to be taken into account. It may feel perfectly natural that someone is buried in your garden; others may disagree. You may face adverse opinions from some (as with Harry’s parents) and the value of the house could be reduced. When selling the property, the new occupants would have the right to remove any memorial that was installed and may not want to allow visiting rights; you should think about what would happen in this instance. We have helped with burials on private land but the area chosen could be parcelled off, retained and accessed directly if the wider property was to be sold.

I was intrigued to discover that the drama – which I haven’t yet seen – features Harry being ‘kidnapped’ before his burial. As explained above, Alice is only able to take Harry with the collaboration of the mortuary technician. In theory, anyone can collect someone from a mortuary with the correct authorisation documentation pertaining to that location (which varies). There are no rules about requiring a specialist vehicle so the borrowed van is suitable theoretically – although bespoke vehicles are constructed to ensure a Deceased person is less likely to move; less likely to be damaged in transit. Most mortuaries would be unlikely to release a body to anyone without the proper consent. Alice doesn’t have this, as Harry’s parents are ostensibly arranging the funeral and so would authorise the release of his body.

Linked to this, there is the question of who is responsible for arranging a funeral, and who makes the decisions. This is grey area; legislation has not kept up with the passing of time and diverse relationships we increasingly see today.

If a Will has been made, it is the Executor’s responsibility to arrange the funeral. Funeral choices expressed in Wills are not legally binding so the Executor should be someone trusted to carry these out; they may abdicate responsibility. When someone dies ‘intestate’ (without a Will), things can be more complicated.

The term ‘next of kin’ is often used in these circumstances, perhaps with the (incorrect) assumption that everyone has at least one person closest to them, or that people who are equally close to someone will agree. Someone’s estranged spouse may be ‘closer’ to them than their cousin, but if the cousin has supported them through treatment and had conversations about wishes for funerals, they might better understand what is appropriate. Equally, someone who dies may leave behind siblings, equally close to them in relationship but with different ideas about a suitable funeral.

Someone must take responsibility and, however this is established, they will instruct the funeral director or otherwise ensure that the body is disposed of legally, via burial or cremation, which is the only requirement. There is no obligation to ensure everyone is happy with the decisions made.

One would hope that, in reality, a family in Harry’s circumstances would deal with things differently. His parents could have taken Alice’s views into account and reached a compromise. A creative funeral director will listen to your requirements and suggest how differing viewpoints can come together. For example, Alice might talk with Harry’s parents about his burial place, intending to find a more suitable venue, or compromise through developing a better understanding of the others’ viewpoint. Indeed, I would also suggest exploring if Harry really had to be buried or if a cremation could take place, splitting the ashes so both parties could bury them in their chosen place; this wouldn’t be appropriate if the desire for burial was for religious reasons.

Finding Alice has used dramatic license, but the difficulties Alice encounters are illustrative of issues which people do experience when funeral wishes aren’t clear and/or families are in conflict. It shows the importance of discussing funeral plans and making sure that anyone you are close to either knows what you want, or knows who should be deferred to in these matters. The drama sounds interesting; I am going to try to catch up with it soon!

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Written by Jennifer Bolt

Funeral Support Assistant

March 17, 2021

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