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Wouldn’t it be nice to hear all the lovely things friends and family might say about us at our funeral? Isabelle Aron meets five people – some with a terminal diagnosis – who have done just that
Picture the scene: all your friends and family have gathered together to celebrate your life. They share heartfelt tributes about how much you’ve meant to them and they laugh together at memorable moments. Some use it as a chance to say the things they wish they’d said to you earlier. This probably sounds like a regular funeral, but what if there was one crucial difference? What if the person on the receiving end of this outpouring of love were still alive and able to attend?
Living funerals, which are also known as pre-funerals, offer a chance for people to say goodbye to their friends and families on their own terms and to celebrate their life while they are still alive. It’s not an entirely new concept. Living funerals started gaining popularity in Japan in the 1990s, where they’re known as seizenso (“funeral while living”), with the idea that it would take the pressure off family members or friends organising a funeral after someone had died. The practice has also taken off in South Korea. In 2019, 25,000 people took part in a mass living funeral to face their mortality and embrace living.
With the notion of living funerals still being relatively new, awareness of the benefits they offer is only now increasing. Last year, the founder of the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!, Kris Hallenga, who has stage 4 breast cancer, had a “FUNeral” that involved Dawn French delivering a eulogy as her character Geraldine Granger from The Vicar of Dibley.
Living funerals offer the chance to break with tradition and have an uplifting celebration. Georgia Martin, founder of A Beautiful Goodbye, which provides a living funeral service, has been helping people organise these events on a voluntary basis since 2016. “People think it will be morbid,” she says. “They picture a funeral in a church with a coffin and everyone wearing black. With a living funeral, however, nothing is set in stone. You can do whatever you want.”
There are many reasons why someone might have one. They might be terminally ill, or they might simply be getting older and want to celebrate their life and relationships while they still can. Georgia Martin says that what makes these events so meaningful is how they allow people to tell each other how they feel, so nothing remains left unsaid. “I think when you say these things out loud, it takes away an element of grief, because you’ve said everything you wanted to say. It gives you clarity that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Here, five other people who’ve hosted their own living funerals, share their experiences of their special day.
Michael, 47
I’ve become known as “the death guy” among my friends. My father died from Alzheimer’s when I was 13 and my family didn’t speak about what we were going through. That led me to launch a non-profit organisation, called Death over Dinner, to facilitate conversations about dying.
I didn’t plan to have a living funeral. It started as a weekend away for my 40th birthday. I emailed my friends asking them to save the date. A friend interjected and said, “We should throw Mr Death a living funeral for his 40th.” People started to get very excited. I didn’t realise how earnest it would become.
Around 35 of us gathered at a house in Point Reyes, California. I spent most of the day in silence. A massage therapist and a Reiki healer worked on my body. I was bathed and anointed with oils and dressed in white. I was blindfolded and led downstairs. Suddenly, I realised I was being lowered into a casket. No one had told me about that. Thankfully, it was an open casket – my friends had it made by a local carpenter.
I was taken into a darkened room. They removed the blindfold, but I didn’t open my eyes. I wasn’t tongue-in-cheek about it. I didn’t move an inch for three hours. A friend started crying inconsolably at the sight of me being carried in. Her crying set the tone.
The ceremony was led by two close friends. First, people talked about how they knew me, then they aired any grievances and, finally, people shared what they wished I knew about how they felt about me. It felt like a truckload of emotion. If you’re lying down and you cry without moving, your tears have nowhere to go. I had lakes of tears covering my eyes.
Afterwards, they submerged me in a hot tub, making it clear that this would bring me back to life. I spent 45 minutes hugging people and then I needed space. I’d had the most important people in my life tell me how meaningful I was to them. It felt amazing, but I wasn’t ready to party.
It’s an intense thing to submit yourself to, but if you have the mettle for it, it’s so powerful. And for people with a life-limiting diagnosis, it’s an extraordinary gift. I hope living funerals will become more common. They help you realise what’s important to you, why you’re here and how you can love better. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
Claire, 36
In May 2021, I found a lump under my armpit. The doctor didn’t think it was anything sinister, but I had an ultrasound to check. I could tell by the way the radiologist looked at me that it was bad news. She told me I had stage 3 breast cancer.
Since then, I’ve been having chemotherapy and I’ve had several progressions of the disease – it’s now stage 4 and incurable. At the start of last year, the doctors also found a small metastasis in my brain. Thankfully, they were able to treat it, but it was at that point that we started thinking about my final goodbye.
I was inspired by Kris Hallenga’s living FUNeral. It got my husband and I talking about what we could do. I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I wanted to make it not just about me. We decided to organise three events – two with family and one with friends. I wanted a chance to speak to everyone without it feeling overwhelming.
We described them as celebrations of life as some people would have been shocked if we used the term funeral. Along with the invites, we sent memory tree tags that people could write something on – a thought, an anecdote, a doodle. Creating the memory tree has been a big thing for me. It’s in our living room. If I’m feeling particularly down, I read through the tags.
We had three events over the summer last year. They were low-key, but all with a focus on fun. We went for walks in our local park, had picnics and played games. We also did a wine tasting at our house and asked people to vote for their favourite, which will be served at the wake, because I will still have a funeral. In the evenings, we went out for dinners at our local curry house and our favourite tapas restaurant. We brought the memory tree and picture boards with old photos. It was nice to have the opportunity to see people, but it was also emotional. People brought their memory tags. Seeing those brought home what the events were about.
I’d encourage those in my position, or older people, to give others the chance to celebrate you while you’re still alive. You deserve to hear how much people love you before you die. I think it should become the norm. Talking about death is almost taboo, which is a shame. People try to avoid the subject, because they don’t want to upset you, but it’s always on my mind.
My celebration of life events were a lovely outpouring of love. The main thing for me right now is making memories. I feel lucky I have so many friends and family who love me.
Mille, 87
When my daughter first suggested I should have a living funeral, my reaction was: “Is there something you’re not telling me?” I’m in relatively good health, although I’ve been finding walking harder and my hearing is deteriorating.
My daughter had recently trained as a celebrant – she couldn’t imagine doing a funeral, as it would be so sad, but she liked the idea of celebrating someone’s life in a happy way. I’d never heard of living funerals, until she mentioned it. She suggested it would be a nice way to celebrate my life.
I decided to have one after we went to a funeral for a family friend at the local crematorium. On the way home, we talked about how the whole thing felt like a conveyor belt; one family would be ushered out while another was led in. It seemed so impersonal. I said to my daughter that I’d like to be privately cremated and have a gathering of close family afterwards.
We had my living funeral on a beautiful sunny day in May last year in the orchard at our home. My daughter decorated the trees with ribbons, scattered rose petals and lavender on the ground and put out giant wooden mushrooms for the children to sit on. We live in the UK, but we’re Danish and most of our family is in Denmark, so it was a small group of friends. There was a cake-decorating table to keep the children busy, we played my favourite records on an old gramophone and had Danish pastries and coffee served on my wedding china.
The day was so personal and felt like an opportunity for me to share stories from my life. I was touched by how interested everyone was in my photographs. Even the youngest children asked questions – the black and white photos were a novelty for them and they were more interested in me than the cake table. My favourite part was going through my mother’s cookbook with my granddaughters.
My hearing has got worse since my living funeral and it’s not going to get better. The whole occasion made me feel more connected to everyone around me. Some people might not understand the concept of a living funeral, but it doesn’t have to be called that – you can call it whatever you like. The main thing I took from it was that life needs to be shared. It gave me the chance to share stories from my life that my friends didn’t know about. I felt that I was very loved.
Rob, 33
In February 2021, I caught Covid. I lost my appetite and had fatigue and brain fog. I thought it was long Covid, but I got a nasty rash, so I went to the doctor for a blood test. The next day they told me I had leukaemia. It was completely out of the blue. I kept hoping they’d got it wrong.
The doctors made it clear the prognosis was bleak. Since then, I’ve been in and out of hospital. In November 2022, I was told it was terminal. They said I had just weeks or months to live. That’s when I started thinking about having a living funeral.
I wanted to say goodbye to everyone while I was still with it. The funerals I’ve been to have always been sombre affairs. I wanted to do something more upbeat, while I was here to enjoy it – a celebration of being alive. I hadn’t heard of a living funeral before. I just thought: if people are going to say nice things about me, I’d rather be there to hear it.
I had my living funeral in January last year at Cattle Country in Gloucestershire, a local cattle farming theme park. It’s got big death slides, ball pits, climbing areas, outdoor trampolines, zip wires and lots of cattle. I went to birthday parties there when I was a kid.
The day felt celebratory. A couple of hundred people came – it was very moving having all these people there. I was surprised by the number of fond memories people had about me – things I’d forgotten, but that stood out for them. I didn’t realise the impact that I’d had.
I had a catheter and was on morphine, but I was determined to have a good time. At one point, I decided to go on the biggest slide. When I got to the bottom, there were about 70 people clapping for me. Somebody had shouted: “Rob’s going down the death slide!” and everyone came out to watch.
When I had my living funeral, I thought I had weeks or months to live. Now, I almost feel like I need to have another one, because I’ve lived so much longer.
I’d encourage others with a terminal illness to do the same. It’s a nice way to say goodbye. I know that I’ll have a proper funeral, but I wanted the main one to be a happy one that I could be part of. My advice to anyone with a terminal illness would be to make memories while you can.
Rob died in November 2023.
Gillian, 54
When I was 36, I was told I had six months to live. I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, but they’d also found something in my liver and they didn’t know what it was. The only way to find out was to have six months of chemotherapy – if it shrank, it meant the cancer was in my liver and I had six months to live. If it didn’t shrink, I was fine. All the doctors thought it was secondary cancer. I thought I was dying.
I wrote letters to my children about things I thought I’d miss: first boyfriends, them getting married and having children. I was so upset that they’d have to carry on without me.
I thought I wouldn’t see my 40th birthday, so I decided to have a party. I wanted to gather everybody together and show them that I loved them. The idea of a living funeral wasn’t really in my consciousness. I saw it as a celebration of life. Back then, people didn’t really talk about death. If I tried to, people found it uncomfortable. That’s why I said it was a birthday party, but there was an underlying feeling – people knew it would probably be my last.
The party was at our local cricket club and about 30 people came. People were apprehensive, you could see it in their faces. I wanted it to be a happy occasion, but it was bittersweet. My sister made a speech, which was quite emotional. Even though it was hard, I was glad I got everyone together.
After six months of chemo, I thought I would be told it was all over. But they said I was fine – the cancer wasn’t in my liver. I couldn’t believe it. Even now, I find it surreal. It’s almost as if it happened to a different person. If I had a living funeral now, people might feel they could be more open about death. Living funerals have become more of a thing. I think they’re a good idea – if you wait for a normal funeral, the person might never have known how everyone felt about them.
My advice would be to grab life while you can and let go of all the superfluous stuff. That’s what I wanted to do with the party. The main thing I took from it was that people cared about me. When I did make my 40th, it was a poignant moment. Getting older is a privilege. Every birthday is a reason to celebrate, because I’ve made it to another year.