Dilemma: a funeral disagreement

Katharine Whitehorn / 04 March 2016

Agony aunt Katharine Whitehorn hears from a reader with concerns that her family is falling out over her sister-in-law's funeral choice.

Dilemma: humanist or church funeral?

My brother’s lovely wife is dying, there seems to be no hope of a recovery, and as if that wasn’t bad enough he and her family are totally at odds about what should happen when she goes. 

She has always wanted a natural burial with a wicker coffin, a humanist funeral, I suppose, and he’s determined to give her that. 

Her parents are simply devastated at the idea, and want her to have a church funeral service and a conventional burial. I see their point of view, but I do so much sympathise with my brother: who is right?

Katharine Whitehorn's advice

They both are, they are both expressing their own beliefs; all you can do is to try to get them to understand one another and somehow share their grief. 

The question of the coffin isn’t really the issue; a coffin is a coffin, wood or wicker; and your poor brother can only cling on to her wishes for the rest of it. 

But you might be able to make him see how absolutely devastating it is for parents to have their children go first; and that surely no harm would be done by having a Christian funeral service before the burial. 

For many people a memorial service some time later will do, but it sounds as if that would be little comfort for them. And you have more chance of influencing your brother than getting them to take a different view: at a time like this they will cling totally to their faith for all the help it might give them.

This is not to disregard the wishes of a dying woman. The living matter too and I am concerned about the appalling grief that must be suffered by any parent losing a child, which seems so totally against the natural order of things. 

If the girl is right in thinking that her death was her final end, she would hardy suffer from her wishes being disregarded; but her parents, believing as many do that the manner in which the dying person is committed to death can affect the hereafter, would have to live on with the conviction that they had failed their child in a fundamental way. 

Perhaps you could separate the actual burial from the ceremonies that some find crucial. My father, who opposed a religious funeral, had none at all because he left his body to medicine; but he would not, I think, have deplored the cheerful and lovely memorial service we organised for him later.

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