About my funeral: we need to talk

As a United Church minister, Rev. Boyd Drake has walked with his parishioners through major life events like births, baptisms and weddings, only to be shut out of the final farewell.

Rev. Sharon Wilson of Windsor Park United Church in Winnipeg

Rev. Sharon Wilson of Windsor Park United Church in Winnipeg

As a United Church minister, Rev. Boyd Drake has walked with his parishioners through major life events like births, baptisms and weddings, only to be shut out of the final farewell.

“I’ve done services for people heavily involved in church and suddenly we’re doing a service in the funeral home,” says the minister of Kildonan United Church.

That’s because people may not tell their families about their wishes around funerals, burials and cremation, says Rev. Sharon Wilson of Windsor Park United Church, who recently hosted an information seminar for Winnipeg ministers about regulations around funeral practices.

Wilson encourages people in her congregation of 500 to fill out a one-page form detailing their hymn and scripture preferences, where the burial should take place and what kind of lunch they’d like after the service. She says that information is kept on file in the church office so families can refer to it when they need it.

“This is the simple, straightforward information one needs to plan a funeral. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that,” says Wilson, who has officiated at 17 funerals since last September.

“In this time where families are often so separated by distance, this is really a huge asset.”

Although some funeral homes offer prepaid funerals, it is a better idea just to record your wishes and save money in a dedicated bank account for funeral expenses, suggests the chairwoman of the Funeral Board of Manitoba.

“What you bought is not going to be the end product,” says Susan Boulter, referring to specific caskets or other features bought years in advance. “My advice to people is to write down your details.”

Boulter says Manitobans should also ask to see the code of ethics for funeral directors, implemented by the province last May, in order to inform themselves about what is and isn’t necessary.

For instance, embalming is a choice, depending on the circumstances, and funeral plans can be cancelled within 24 hours of signing a contract, except for services already provided.

“I’ll be really blunt. You don’t have to embalm. There are only certain circumstances where it has to happen,” she says, citing examples such as public viewing more than two days after a death.

“There are some options people think are absolutely necessary and they’re not.”

Funeral directors deal with families from many religious and cultural backgrounds and have to be neutral to serve them all, says Jody Kiefling Nicholson, manager at Glen Lawn Funeral Home.

She says she encourages people with religious affiliations to have their service in their house of worship, but sometime clients have no connection to a faith community.

“Some families who come to us don’t have a church base, they’ve never been to a funeral, and they don’t know what’s appropriate,” she says.

Boulter suggests the way to know what’s appropriate is to ask friends and family for recommendations for a funeral home and, once there, ensure all services and fees are laid out clearly.

“I think people need to be pragmatic about what their financial and emotional and religious restrictions are,” says Boulter. “Recognize it’s a terrible time. Just ask respectful questions and you should get respectful answers.”

Wilson has witnessed a decline in church funerals as people rely on funeral chapels to provide services and rituals around death. While understandable, she says, Christian churches can provide a supportive community to a bereaved family, along with the more practical features of an affordable venue for a funeral service and a lunch.

“That is the traditional way congregations have cared for each other,” says Wilson. “It is caring for the person who has passed away, but it is also caring for the bereaved.”