Some opt to forgo funerals, others say services are ’for the living’
When it comes to matters of mortality, Bill Taylor says he is “in no hurry to go,” but there’s one thing he’s sure of: when the time comes, he wants no formal service held to mark his passing.
“It’s written into my will — no funeral,” he said emphatically.
Bill Taylor is pictured at his Toronto home. Taylor, formerly of the Toronto Star, wrote about his decision not to have a funeral years ago and is sticking to his plan. — Photo by The Canadian Press
Self-described as being “totally anti-religion,” the Toronto-based journalist said the notion of having a funeral strikes him as “entirely pointless” for a number of reasons.
“It’s a lot of expense for nothing,” said the candid Taylor, 66. “You buy a casket and you take it away and you either bury it or you burn it.
“You go through all of this ritual with hearses and limousines. And I notice at funerals I’ve been to, unless the death has been really unexpected or (under) tragic circumstances and then nobody mourns, it’s a get-together, it’s a party. And that strikes me as well. If you’re going to have a party, have a party. But don’t hang it on my death.”
Both of Taylor’s parents died in England a few years ago and had pre-planned their funerals, including the hymns they wanted included. Both opted to be cremated, with each service timed precisely to 45 minutes.
“My dad in particular chose a long hymn. They could only have three verses because they had to be in at a specific time and out at the specific time. And as we were coming out, the next funeral was waiting to go in,” Taylor recalled.
“It was a conveyor belt. It had no significance, it had no resonance, it meant nothing. And I thought: ’I want no part of this.’
“If you want to have a drink in my memory, go and do it. But don’t waste your money putting me away. Do it the cheapest way possible,” he added.
When actor Gary Coleman died in 2010 at age 42 after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the attorney overseeing the estate of the late “Diff’rent Strokes” star revealed that Coleman’s 2005 will specified he wanted no funeral.
The document trumped a 1990 will where Coleman said he wanted to be remembered in a wake conducted by people who had no financial ties to him and “can look each other in the eyes and say they really cared personally for Gary Coleman.”
Coleman’s remains were cremated at a mortuary in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, a move that had been held up by legal wrangling for nearly three weeks after his death.
A glance at obituary notices posted online from across Canada reveal many others who lived lives outside of the public spotlight and have outlined similar requests for no funeral services.
“There are some, and not large numbers with us — in fact, it would be a small percentage — that would not want a funeral with us. And I’m totally respectful of that,” said Faye Doucette, is owner of the Belvedere Funeral Home in Charlottetown and president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada.
“I guess I don’t see it much different than if people don’t want a wedding or if they don’t want a reception after something. To me, it’s just their choice.”
Doucette said it used to be the case — particularly in Prince Edward Island — that the funeral service was traditional with a specific format. Today, that simply no longer applies.
“Often I hear people say they’re not going to have visitation or they’re not going to have viewing because they don’t want to put the family through that. So if they do say that to me, I just simply explain ... why it might be helpful to the family, and well, they just never thought of that.
“Really, the funeral is for the living,” Doucette added. “Whether it’s as simple as bringing the body to us and cremating, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a funeral service. But it’s for the living — it’s not for the person that’s gone.”
Taylor said his wife is in total agreement with his decision not to have a funeral and that his friends would also be understanding of his wishes, adding that he simply doesn’t want “any fuss.”
As a former longtime staff member at The Toronto Star, Taylor said most of the funerals he’s attended have been in a professional context and he found them depressing.
“I think we’re at a really interesting time where a lot of the rituals and rites and ceremonies that we’ve traditionally used aren’t necessarily working anymore,” said Barbara Densmore, a professional celebrant and wedding officiant on Vancouver Island who presides over celebrations of life and memorial services. “We’ve got a whole generation of people and a cultural change, a shift away from organized religion, and we don’t necessarily have anything to take its place.
“Whether it’s because of religion, because of the impersonality of a lot of ceremonies, a lot of people don’t necessarily see their value. They haven’t been to a ceremony that held value for them. And so therefore, they don’t necessarily see the process as one that they want for themselves,” she added.
Still, like Doucette, Densmore sees the funeral as a rite of passage moreso for those mourning the dead than those who have passed on. And for those seeking a twist on tradition, they can bring their unique approach to memorializing their loved ones.
She recalled a celebration of life ceremony she led in a hall honouring a man named Bob, complete with Mexican food, Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts that he loved.
“He played accordion so we had accordion bands, we had bluegrass, and the whole thing just flowed beautifully, and it’s just like he was there.”
The family also wanted to capture the essence of Bob’s practical joker personality.
With a straight face, Densmore told those gathered that “somebody’s going to get a big piece of Bob.”
As it turns out, a raffle was held for one of his more unconventional possessions: a stuffed pheasant.
“The fellow who won it he was a new Canadian. He was probably the only person in the room that really thought it was a treasure, so it was amazing that he got it,” Densmore recalled.
“The son walked over, handed the pheasant to him and deadpanned: ‘Congratulations, pheasant dreams.’
“Everybody fell over laughing. But the thing is, I think that’s the kind of ceremony people are longing for, but they don’t know how to get out of the box and into something that is more personal and more real.”
With files from The Associated Press