Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The company remains independent and family-run, and now has further offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, and Hurstpierpoint. Members of the team are always encouraging of the idea of discussing funeral wishes with those likely to be making arrangements whilst we remain able to have such conversations. Following the recent death of HRH Prince Philip, Becky looks at the impact his advance funeral plans could make on the rest of the nation…
The British Royal Family are an event manager’s dream – trust me, I am one. They are, by necessity, a great example of the idea that what can be planned or arranged in advance is done – why leave more than the essentials to the last minute?
Some will argue that this is an issue of resource – the family’s privilege means that they are able to specify almost anything, which is something that not all of us can accomplish. But this is a conflation of issues; just because something is decided in advance does not mean that it is complicated or expensive. I admire this practical approach, and it’s something that I like to practice myself.
For many life cycle events, there are always going to be fixed requirements: if you’re getting married, there will need to be two people who wish to be married (who also aren’t already married to anyone else!), there will also need to be witnesses, an officiant, and an approved venue. In the case of a funeral, there are fewer requirements: paperwork must have been completed in advance, and a means of handling the Deceased person’s body decided upon, including an appropriate vessel (usually a coffin, but some circumstances permit a shroud or similar). Beyond the absolutes, decisions must be made about care of the Deceased person, transportation for them and any mourners, and content of the service (plus whom should be leading it).
For the Royal Family, this is, as I previously mentioned, about necessity. It is the family of our Head of State, which means that there are issues around protocol, notoriety (and therefore, media attention), and security. For many of us, these are considerations we do not need to make, but the fact remains that, upon Prince Philip’s death on 9th April, plans could immediately be put into action without any input required by his closest family members and friends, leaving them free to process his death as they chose.
Everything, from how the news would be announced to the media and members of the international community, to how he would be cared for and where he would rest, to which vehicle would convey his coffin to which venue for the service, was already decided. Whilst details were released steadily to the general public, his family were under no pressure to act, safe in the knowledge that they would be able to assemble on the appointed date to give thanks for their relative’s life.
That the Royal Family plan things in advance is well-documented both in fact and fiction. The most recent series of Netflix’s The Crown contains scenes set in 1988 where the Queen pragmatically discusses the fact that funeral arrangements have already been discussed and agreed for several then-living members of the family, including herself, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Prince Philip. Although the conversation is imagined, that their funeral arrangements would have been planned by this moment in time was correct – particularly as the Queen herself would have been 62, her mother 87, and Prince Philip 67.
The media has recognised that plans for Prince Philip’s funeral have been adjusted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – just as for the rest of us, attendances at funerals in England currently remain limited to up to 30 guests, all of whom must wear face coverings unless exempt, and in a COVID-secure environment. Although it is well-documented that Prince Philip’s desire was for a – by Royal standards – simple funeral, with a moderate attendance (estimated to be 800 guests), this still represents a significant curtailment, as it has for many within the UK during the last 13 months.
I’ve found some of the finer details of Prince Philip’s requests – which have only been made public following his death – really interesting and, for me, they serve as a reminder never to make assumptions. I had guessed that a ‘simple’ Royal funeral would still involve a similar arrangement to those of Diana, Princess of Wales or Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose processions involved gun carriages. So I was surprised to learn that Prince Philip had, in fact some years ago, not only specified that he would like to be conveyed to the Chapel via Land Rover, but that he’d also helped to design the vehicle.
As a man who was keen on country pursuits, I feel that this is a fitting tribute, and a lovely piece of personalisation for the funeral arrangements. It’s also something which the general public can borrow from: whilst most of us cannot design our own vehicles, it is entirely doable to hire something other than a traditional hearse. During the last few years, we have arranged for a variety of vehicles, from a motorbike hearse to a lorry, plus a Volkswagen camper van and a Ghostbusters car! There are many options now, and this is something that we will gladly discuss with any person making funeral arrangements with us, or indeed taking out a pre-paid funeral plan.
It’s also something which is indicative of the diversity of our experiences: many things come to mind when we consider Prince Philip, from his role at the forefront of the development of carriage driving as a sport, to his role in the Navy, and his standing in society. Any of these aspects could have played a role in his decision regarding a vehicle in particular, but it was clearly his love of the outdoors which won out.
Whilst the strictness of Royal protocol is one way of avoiding debates and arguments about arrangements, it isn’t the only element which has played a part during the last week. Protocol dictates decisions such as who would be invited – and even in what order they must enter the venue – and how arrangements should be conducted on the day, but it doesn’t necessarily cover particulars such as music choices, specifics of any floral tributes, or requests for donations to charity.
The latter has, in fact, been made by the Royal Family: as Prince Philip’s death occurred when the UK remained under the strictest of lockdown restrictions (albeit by merely three days), members of the public weren’t technically allowed to visit Royal residences in order to pay their respects. Due to this, Buckingham Palace requested that the general public make use of an online book of condolence, and donate to charity if they were able to do so, in lieu of visiting to lay flowers.
Prince Philip had spent several of his final weeks in hospital, and with his funeral arrangements already decided upon, his family were able to spend this time instead preparing in other ways for his death. In this beloved public servant’s final days, he has set one more example of how best to conduct one’s affairs – speak to those around you about your wishes, so that they are prepared to carry them out when the time comes.
The funeral of HRH Prince Philip will take place on Saturday 17th April 2021.