On not having a funeral

When my mother died, just over a year ago, her body was not buried or cremated. It still hasn't been. Many years earlier she chose to donate her body, after its death, for medical education, training and research. As her children we ensured her intention was honoured.

Eventually there will be a cremation but that could still be a long time ahead. When consenting to donation a donor can stipulate a time limit for the use of their mortal remains. My mother chose not to state a time limit, signing her consent for her body or parts of it to be used for an indefinite period of time. This was generous on her part, but I have not found it easy - well, grief is always complicated anyway isn't it? 

We did organise a thanksgiving and memorial service for her at her church about 3 weeks after her death. It was good. She was a Christian. Her reason for donating her body was not because she did not want a Christian funeral. Apart from wanting what was no longer any use to her to be used for the benefit of others, she wanted to spare people attending her funeral from having to see a coffin. She often said, 'you won't have to look at my coffin at my funeral'. I think this was really about her problem with coffins at funerals - not ours. I find it helpful to see the coffin - it brings home the reality of the person's death. Not that I was in any doubt about the fact that Mum had died. Thankfully, I was present when she peacefully died. 

Although the thanksgiving service was all we hoped it would be and included many elements of a traditional funeral there was one thing missing - her body. Actually - that is exactly what Mum wanted - no coffin. (We had a ritual lighting of a thanksgiving candle instead.) I realized that there is something very traditional in me that says that without a coffin it can't be a funeral. And when someone dies you need a funeral. Well - we had one, yet it wasn't.

What is a funeral? A burial or a cremation is not a funeral. A dead person may be given either of those without the ritual of a funeral ceremony. But - a funeral without a coffin? Or without a burial or cremation? That did and still does feel somehow incomplete to me. So it was all the more important for me to attend the service at Southwark Cathedral on 16 May this year, organised by The London and South East Committee of Anatomists. This was a Service of Thanksgiving dedicated to all who donated their bodies for Medical Education, Training and Research in the London and South East area during 2013. 

I was surprised to see how long was the list of 2013 donors displayed on boards and printed in the order of service. The cathedral was packed with relatives, friends, medical students, teachers and 'spiritual representatives'. Mum loved singing (even after she lost her ability to sing in tune) and she would have so enjoyed the robust and praise-full hymns. The music, especially the two anthems sung by the choir of Kings College London, was superb. The prayers were fittingly inclusive. The address by the Revd Dr Jacqueline Cameron from Chicago spoke comfortingly and hopefully from the vision from Ezekiel 36: 24 - 28 of God removing the heart of stone and giving a new heart of flesh and a new spirit. I was so glad I went.

After the service I lit a votive candle in Mum's memory in front of the tomb of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Would Mum have approved? I have no idea. Probably not! Lighting of votive candles being not the Presbyterian tradition in which she was brought up.

And it was an added joy to walk out afterwards into warm London sunshine, having spent the previous few days in cold cloudy weather in Belgium. 

Image Credit: Photos, my own


  1. A very interesting post Nancy.
    I have a donor card and fully intend to leave anything useable to benefit whomsoever, but, I have to say I had never considered a time limit.
    My will and my funeral plan both ask that I be cremated and my ashes interred in the double plot in Aylesbury Vale Cemetary alongside John's.
    This has made me think about the need to stipulate an end to the 'harvesting' I believe it is called.
    Not comfortable thinking but I would prefer to have it set in tablets of stone so to speak, so that my stepdaughter and nephew have to make as few decisions as possible.
    Thanks for flagging this one up.

  2. Ray - I don't think you need to be concerned about time limit if you are an organ donor. My understanding is that if organs are to be 'harvested' post portem it has to be very soon after death. Donating a whole body for medical education is something very different from that. If you or anyone else wants to know more then an official starting point for UK information can be found at http://www.hta.gov.uk/bodyorganandtissuedonation/howtodonateyourbody.cfm

  3. If I outlive my husband, I could be in the same position as you were, Nancy, as he too has willed his body to medical research. I understand however that sometimes bodies are not actually accepted because of transport problems from remoter areas.

    1. Yes, there's no guarantee of acceptance when the time comes, depending on lots of factors, so it's probably wise to be prepared with a 'plan B'.


Post a Comment