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I couldn’t say I was surprised when my cousin finally passed away. He had lived life without much concern for what tomorrow would bring, and 53 years at that pace had finally caught up with him. His body had been relenting. His life in the fast lane left little room for the vagaries of day-to-day family interaction either, and at times that had alienated people.
He had never married or had children and both his parents had died prematurely. Much of our family live outside the UK and so, when he fell ill and his health began deteriorating quickly, the list of people rushing to his bedside wasn’t as long as we would have liked it to be. It was largely down to my father and me to maintain a vigil.
After a week watching the very best efforts of the amazing intensive care staff in two London hospitals, we had seen no real improvement and we quickly came to the realisation that it was a matter of ‘when’, and not ‘if’, he would die.
Then, in the early hours of one Friday morning, we were taken on a slow walk down a long corridor by a team of well-meaning and professional doctors. They invited us to sit in a rather sterile but comfortable family room and under bright fluorescent lighting we all confronted the full gravity of the situation that my cousin was now in. The time had come.
The doctor’s politely and sensitively informed us that all treatment avenues had been exhausted. The medical opinion was clear, but the final decision was ours. Selfishly, I was pleased my father was there with me and it wasn’t something that I had to face on my own. We both knew that he had reached the end of the road but when you have to actually call time on someone’s life I don’t think you would be human if you didn’t waver.
We requested that a chaplain be sent for to give him the last rites and, with typical attentiveness, the hospital obliged. Our Irish Catholic heritage looms large at times like this, with tried and tested rituals outlining how to respond until the initial shock and sadness subsides which is a comfort for those left behind as much as for the dearly departed. Then, as the machines were stood down, there was a surreal few minutes while we waited for nature to take its course. Empathetic nurses offered tea and kind words at every turn.
Dazed and confused
Funeral planning began immediately. As we stumbled dazed and confused out of the ICU, I was handed a ‘bereavement pack’ by the intensive care nurses; with leaflets on grief counselling, sheets explaining what needed to happen next, and various funeral companies advertising their services. I was informed that my cousin would be transferred to the hospital mortuary while a decision was made about whether a coroner’s inquest would be necessary. On this occasion, I was assured this was just a formality.
Over the next 24 hours, tough conversations followed, letting people know what had happened and getting a sense of who was willing to contribute to a funeral and to help to sort through his affairs. We were greeted by harsh words from some, and silence by others but, by the end, a small coalition of the willing had been established.
My cousin was not a wealthy man. Living week to week was his preoccupation, and he wasn’t someone who set his horizons further afield than that. He didn’t have a funeral plan, no insurance, no savings, and no investments.
The family members willing or able to contribute agreed that a balance would need to be struck between being true to our traditions and culture, and staying mindful of the cost. Everyone had families to think of and we hadn’t anticipated budgeting for a funeral in 2019. A combination of dignity and practicality would be vital, and it fell to me to make arrangements, find an appropriate funeral director, and to notify the relevant authorities.
Life and death admin
The next day, I was back at the hospital where I was issued a pink medical certificate confirming the cause of death. This is an important document as without that pink slip you are unable to register the death with the local authority. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you must ensure that a death is registered within five days (in Scotland that period is extended to eight days).
The hospital also provided a green slip. This document is to be passed on to the funeral director once they are appointed. Without it, they would not be able to take my cousin out of the hospital mortuary to transfer him to the funeral home in preparation for the funeral.
Once those documents had been provided, I then needed to make an appointment and to take myself off to the offices of the local authority to formally register the death. Death certificates are not issued free of charge, and I was advised by family members who had been through the process before to make sure I bought four or five when they were issued. Trying to get hold of them afterwards is difficult and even more expensive, and many companies and institutions will demand a formal certificate when closing down a deceased person’s affairs.
Once the death certificate had been prepared, I was able to use the government’s ‘Tell Us Once’ service to notify many departments all at once including HMRC, DWP, the Passport Office, DVLA, and the local council. Unfortunately, this useful option is not available in all parts of the UK (see the list here where it’s unavailable). In doing this, I registered myself as the executor of my cousin’s ‘estate’ which largely meant that any further correspondence would be sent to me.
The cost of dying
Once the process of notification had begun, attention turned to the funeral. The last thing you want to do when it comes to an occasion such as this is haggle or penny pinch. Equally, costs can spiral quickly if you don’t look around at your various options and make hard choices. As the recent SunLife ‘Cost of Dying Report’ shows, the cost of funerals is rising exponentially and is at an all-time high.
It was quickly agreed that a cremation would be most appropriate. We wanted to return my cousin to the village in Ireland where he had been born and raised but the process, practicalities, and cost of transferring his body across the Irish Sea made the option of doing that a non-starter. However, the Catholic faith does allow for cremation provided the ashes are buried. It was decided that he would be buried in a family plot following a religious ceremony in Ireland and a small service in London to send him on his way.
I then set about looking at the options for cremation. I counted out several high-street funeral directors simply due to high costs. The next option we considered is what is known as a direct cremation, the option David Bowie had selected for himself. Essentially, that does not include a formal funeral or any pre-funeral events, thus reducing the costs associated with a traditional funeral.
That was by far the cheapest choice available, and services like Pure Cremation seemed to offer a dignified and sensitive option. However, with a small group of family and friends based in London and the rest of the UK, we decided we wanted to give them the opportunity to pay respects and to have a short funeral service with my cousin present.
After a while, I was made aware of a service offered by London’s Brent council (the borough my cousin lived in). Unlike the stereotypical ‘paupers funeral’, Brent Funeral Service offered a flat fee low-cost funeral. While it was ‘no frills’, it offered a viable option without compromising on dignity or quality.
After sending an email to them on the weekend, my phone rang 15mins later with a kind and patient funeral advisor on the end of the line ready to talk me through the process. A meeting was quickly arranged and, with the addition of some very reasonably priced add-on costs (e.g. a hearse), a date was booked.
With this package, however, there were certain restrictions around the time and location of the funeral – such as, it needed to be on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday between 9 – 10.30am, the service could only last 30mins, and could only happen at certain appointed locations. Funeral advisors Matthew and Caroline were on hand to help us build a fitting order of service that was in keeping with our traditions and the rules set out. The decision of location was made easy as one of the locations allowed was exactly where we wanted to hold the service anyway.
Once that peace of mind was assured, it became clear that it would be more cost effective to buy an urn directly from a wholesaler. A quick search online meant I was able to find a suitable company called Urnswithlove.co.uk that offered a selection of urns that they could deliver for a reasonable price, too.
Transporting the ashes
The last piece of the puzzle was working out how we would transport the ashes over to Ireland. While I made these arrangements, my father had since gone back to Ireland with the intention of bringing my mother back with him to attend the funeral in London. He was comfortable taking the ashes and the urn back home with him afterwards.
A quick search of Ryanair’s terms and conditions showed that, provided he was able to produce a death certificate, a certificate from the crematorium (which costs around £20), and a letter from me granting permission for him to transport the ashes on my behalf, he could carry my cousin’s remains with him back on the flight home and return him to his final resting place.
Although, it hasn’t been a pleasant process, I was relieved that the funeral was far better attended than I had originally feared it would be. We gave my cousin the dignity and sense of occasion his life merited, and stuck to our traditions and rituals. We did the right thing by him and kept the costs down to way below the average too by being clear on what we wanted and not allowing emotion to overtake rational decisions.