Google+

Would you plan a DIY burial for your loved one?

I had no idea about burials laws until coming across Wendii Miller, a Cambridge graduate, who carried out her own DIY burial for her 98-year-old mother Doris, even digging the grave after collecting her corpse from Grimsby Hospital mortuary and driving her mother’s remains back to her to a burial site outside Harrogate.

Wendii, who drove her mother’s body in the back of a camper van for her friends to say a final farewell, recorded an extraordinary video of the burial and what led up to it.

I asked Wendii, a friend of a friend who teaches English to overseas professionals in Cambridge and advises on diets, to write about it for my blog.  She has also been asked to speak about her experiences at the Six Feet Under Convention which is being held in Bournemouth in September and explores issues around burials, including the life of an embalmer, the commercialistion of burials and offers a guided tour around a cemetery.

Wendii quips: “DEAD EASY might be the title for my talk in Bournemouth. I thought it a bit grim but The Natural Death Centre lady thought it great so I might go with it.”

The Natural Death Centre describes the legal situation regarding natural DIY burials on its website. It says:

Arranging and conducting a funeral without employing a funeral director is something that only a few families undertake, but those who have done so are invariably surprised by how easy and straightforward it was. If this is something that you are considering, we suggest that you contact the Natural Death Centre for free advice and guidance.

There is no legal requirement to use the services of a funeral director, but many families find the prospect of organising a funeral entirely without support from an undertaker very daunting, not least from a practical point of view.

Wendii’s story about burying her mother

Where do I begin? Well, I think in the middle… for that takes me into the Registrar of Deaths Office… which is where I inevitably had to go as soon as mother died. Time of death, place of death, occupation, her husband’s occupation… I answered the questions numbly, trying to remember what dad had done and what his middle name had been. Easy enough at any other time, but in this state of grief it was so, so hard to focus on form-filling. But eventually it was done, and the green burial certificate was handed to me.

Perhaps I ought to mention that the registrar and I hadn’t exactly hit it off. Possibly it was the smell of rebellion in her nostrils. She’d had an apoplectic fit as I entered her office because I’d photocopied my mother’s medical death certificate. “Why do you want a photocopy?” she’d snapped.

Personally, I think it’s fairly obvious why one wants a photocopy and it goes along the lines of… I want a photocopy because I want a photocopy. Simple!

But back to that bit of green paper.“You give this to the undertaker,” the lady registrar informed me firmly. And with my reply I was about to wave a red rag at a bull;

“I don’t have an undertaker,” I said.

She’d already reduced me to tears, and I had a feeling my misery was about to deepen. I need to describe the next few seconds in great detail or you will never understand what it was like in that office, dealing with officialdom. The registrar started to puff up, redden further, and little shivers, or convulsions, rippled through her plump body. I’d only ever seen anything like it in cartoons. Eventually, through gritted teeth, and out of a mouth contorted with utter indignation and, I think, genuine bewilderment, she hissed, “Who else are you going to give it to then?”

Flustered, I turned the green form over to scan the gobbledegook on the back. “I’m sure it says who to give it to, here, somewhere,” I mumbled, scouring the words. She just stared at me. I got more flustered and started reading bits out to myself, trying to understand the section this, subsection that stuff that danced through the tears at me. The registrar said nothing, just kept staring. “I think it says to give it to the landowner,” I told her. “It does, really, but I can’t understand this, can’t find it…”

I looked up at her, but she just kept glaring, offering no help, no information, nothing. Obviously, under the oppressive stare, and with the clock ticking towards her next appointment, I had to give up. I put my bit of green paper away in my pocket. She still said nothing, which if you think about it is truly amazing; a public official, dealing with a daughter grieving for her mother, has NO information to offer on this subject? Except of course…. to give it to an undertaker.

Unfortunately for her it is NOT TRUE that you have to give it to an undertaker, but her knowledge seemed to stop at that point. For her it was “Beyond here be dragons,” and she’d never gone that way before, so she had nothing to say to me. Well, that’s not true, she did try to flog me some Certified Death Certificates which I didn’t want. Instead, I asked for a plain photocopy of mother’s death certificate which I had just signed in her office, but she flatly refused that request. Bloody hell, everybody from car hire to your mortgage company will give you a copy of something you sign… but not this registrar. “No you CANNOT have a copy of what you sign,” she told me. “But you can BUY a certified copy,” she smirked.

“I don’t want a certified copy,” I told her.

“But you can’t do anything with an uncertified copy,” she spat.

“I don’t want to do anything with it,” I sighed. “It’s just for my records, so I know what I’ve signed.”

“Well, you can’t have a photocopy,” she reiterated, exasperated. “But if you don’t BUY certified copies NOW we’ll charge you MORE later,” she warned. Boy, was she doing the hard sell. But I didn’t buy any. And I’ve never needed any. If anybody, like the pension office of bank, asked for certified death certificates I told them they could buy one, for themselves, from the Registry Office… but they’d better hurry as the sale price obviously didn’t last long.

I think at this point I sort of gave up with the system. This was supposed to be about my mother, Doris, a lady of 98 years, who had died after a long illness. But NOTHING from the moment she died had been about her- it had been about raised eyebrows and being given misinformation and being pushed where mother and I didn’t want to go.

Dying, disconnecting the drip and oxygen, well, that had been easy compared to this. I left that office still in tears, and shaken, and confused. It took a call to a chap I know who is an expert on burial law to reassure me I was in the right and the registrar was in the wrong. So, gripping my bit of hard won green paper I went to collect mother.

From then on it was real easy, and a delight. The delight grew as the mortuary man wheeled Ma out into the car park for me and slid her into the camper. “Wanted a natural burial meself,” he told me, “but the folk there won’t dig me in with me football kit on, it’s synthetic, you see,” he sighed. So up the chimney stack it’ll go, polyester and all.

Three days I drove Ma around. She went to the beach, and saw her friends, and sat on hilltops gazing at the view. She was a corpse of course, and hard as a brick (rigor mortis, I guess), but the view was really for ME. She was dead, and those last years of suffering were over, for her, but not for me. I was beginning a process of grieving, and accepting, and driving Ma around was brilliant. I wish I’d taken her to a lot more places. There’s nothing wrong with having a corpse in the car or van, they don’t smell or leak or rot, well, not for quite a while, particularly in our chilly climate. My only problem was I’d laid her under a swathe of flowers on the floor, and had to step over her to get to the bathroom. I couldn’t help saying “excuse me, Ma, but do shift your foot.”

Digging her into the field, when I got her ‘oop north,’ was exceedingly hard work, and I sneakily got a bit of muscle to shift most of the rock we hit. Didn’t do it ALL meself, you see! You’ll see on the video I’d cocooned her in a natural cotton sheet and sort of slithered her down into the grave, where she lay at the bottom like a chrysalis. Made me feel good, like she might hatch into a butterfly on some other world, in some other time. Then all the soil went back in, and I learnt how to make lovely mud pies to get the turf to stick back on top like it had never been disturbed. Finally, wheelbarrow in hand, I left Ma to it, and wheeled the tools of the trade out of that field, over the tufty grass.

Why did I do it myself? Why so alone? Well, with no close relatives who needs a tombstone that’ll stand forgotten in some derelict graveyard. When I die, who’ll visit? No, we wanted a natural end, a return to the land, a recycling, in some sort of harmony with nature. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But we should all be aware we have the choice… and it is the misinformation that the authorities dole out that, all too often, removes that choice.

*This story has also been published on the Huffington Post where you can also follow many comments, and it has been ‘liked’ by more than 100 people on Facebook.


41 Comments

  1. Channel 5 are making a documentary about DIY burials and want to follow someone’s footsteps as they go through the process. They’ve asked me if I know of anyone about to die! Happily, no, I don’t. But if you know someone who wants to GO ON RECORD with a death, let me know.

    I could offer them MYSELF, only I rather hope not to die just yet.

  2. Wendii

    The BBC are coming to film me about DIY burials… so how many of you out there have had problems doing DIY burials, or getting the info or support you needed to DIY. Tell me… as I have the chance to pass the message on.

    • Wendii

      BBC 1 Breakfast show, Monday 25th June. I’m there waving a shovel and the green burial form and saying that’s all you need to conduct a funeral. And the BBC told me to watch Dispatches at 8pm Monday as it’s about the funeral industry and what they get up to.

      Necessary watching for those about to die.

    • Hi Wendii – did you see Channel 4’s despatches programme on Monday – food for thought. I loved your film and would like to introduce myself as a fellow filmmaker. When our son died last year we were faced with a similar dilemma of how to arrange a funeral without recourse to the conventional. How we did can be seen in the film we made – BEYOND GOODBYE – http://beyondgoodbye.co.uk/?page_id=19.

      Before Josh died I did have an idea that all was not well with the “funeral industry” and that many people were chosing to do it themselves, but before Mondays programme and before watching your lovely film, I had no idea what a nefarious hold the undertakers have over us in one of our most vulnerable moments. I knew that undertakers were unregulated but saw this as a mixed blessing. I have a friend who is an ‘independent’ funeral director whose mission in life is to help people “to reclaim their farewells” but who would probably be sidelined if the business was over regulated. That said what the business gets away with is truly shocking – and we have to change both the way funerals are sold and the culture in which they can operate with such disregard for human feelings. Is everything you did to bury your mother totally legal? Did you not need to get some kind of health and safety clearance from the local planning authorities? Are they not concerned for pollution of water tables etc? Anyway I thought what you did for your Mum was fantastic – I’m sure she would have enjoyed every minute of it. Watching your film has made my day – thanks Jimmy

    • Caught Radio4 piece,Saturday Live, lovely story, nicely told, emotion too. Well done for doing what you did.

    • Radio4 did a better job than Breakfast Show TV.On Saturday Live you got to tell the story.

  3. I loved reading this Wendii. Good on you for sticking to your guns, even though it was tough, and not being bullied into doing what you didn’t want to do.
    It sounds like a beautiful send off for your mum. xx

    • Wendii

      Thanks Kristie. I’ll cut a long story short by saying there was a sort of symmetry to that send off.. it was so often, in life, just Ma and me, so we needed that very private end. But how I wish people like the Citizens Advice Bureau and the DWP would stop giving out the wrong advice/instructions. It stops so many people from DITOW (Doing It Their Own Way).

  4. Paula Grosvenor

    Wendii

    I was so delighted and moved to read your account of carrying out a DIY funeral for your Mum.
    I too carried out a DIY funeral for my Dad. The difference was that my Dads wish was to be cremated so I could not avoid the Crematorium costs. His attitude to death was that when you die, all that is left behind is rubbish so why pay a fortune for a funeral and also line the pockets of the funeral companies.

    This is what he wrote:-

    It is very difficult pre-empting one’s own death. You find yourself thinking ‘I can do that bit’ followed by ‘no I can’t you bloody fool, you won’t be here’. I am pretty sure that I have covered all the things that you have to do. If I have missed something, sorry about that!
    There might seem to be a lot to do, but there isn’t really. Just pay the unavoidable expenses, death certificates etc.
    Perhaps it is asking too much but I would like to think that you can do whatever in light and laughter rather than doom and gloom. After all I am coming up to 80 years of age and I am tired now. ‘Life is but a holiday between birth and death’. We are born, we consume, we possibly procreate and we die’, the rest is just proper gander. Don’t spoil your holiday, as far as we know, we do not get another one.

    Once all the bits and pieces that have to be done are finished please scatter my ashes in the river at Hartfield.
    I feel that this would give you a sense of closure.

    Look upon it as replacing strangulating hymn singing etc.
    Nothing that I have written is telling you what to do.
    It is written in the hope that it will make the whole business easier.

    DISPOSAL OF THE LATE ME.

    If I die in hospital

    Obviously, I, or at least my body will visit the hospital mortuary.

    I have checked with the guy in charge of the mortuary, who informs me that, providing you supply him with a coffin, you can collect my remains for cremation, yourself.

    Providing that you have a couple of men to load same, onto the back of a pick up, or whatever to convey to the crematorium.

    If you feel able to go down this route, you must make a reservation with the crematorium first.

    (A bit like booking a seat for a pop concert).

    Although this is what I have been told, I suggest that you re check, especially if you purchase a cardboard coffin, (brochure enclosed) to ensure that this is OK.

    Telephone the Royal Surrey or whatever hospital that I have died in.
    The mortician will advise you.
    If I die anywhere other than a hospital, I would imagine that you would have no choice but to use an undertaker.

    Nevertheless I would think that you would be able to organise the transport of the late me to the crematorium.

    I have no option but to leave it to you.

    Last but not least

    I would like to go out to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

    After you have scattered my ashes then go and have a drink on me in the pub at Hartfield.

    In case the conversation flags in the pub.

    Use the following phrases.
    1. Well he had a good innings.
    2. I suppose he wasn’t a bad bloke.
    3. I could never understand him.
    4. He could be a thoughtless sod at times.
    5. He was a bloody raving lunatic in my book.

    • Wendii

      Paula, I’m delighted you managed to DIY most of it. Very naughty of the mortuary guy to insist on a coffin; it was illegal to put a precondition on collecting your Dad’s body.

      And your father, although he researched things, was under the impression you would need an undertaker if he did not die in hospital. NOT TRUE. Perhaps he had been reading the government advice sites, or the Citizens Advice Bureau website, all of which give highly misleading information. Their information, had I read it, would’ve completely de-railed mother and myself. Luckily for us, we never read it.

    • jerryK

      I like your old Dad. I’ll drink to him tonight with my mates.

      • Paula, I also think your dad sounds great. What a lovely letter from him. Although it brought a lump to my throat it made me smile too. I hope you found some comfort from it.

        Wendii, what a lovely daughter you are and a very strong and courageous person. Good for you and your mum to do it your own way. You are inspiring. Thank you for sharing the journey with us.

  5. Michelle

    I had to fly from Brisbane to London to luckily spend the last few days of my mums life with her. I had a couple of g&ts with her before she died, but die she did.

    As a single mum from across the world I had such a short time to make arrangements for her funeral, and did find myself in unholy hurry. My surviving male relatives went to ground and so had to arrange everything myself.

    By the time I’d realized that there were more suitable options I felt pretty much railroaded into a cremation that I was having second,if not several, thoughts about.

    In the end my mums funeral was more than acceptable. The service was conducted by good friends and a reverend that had known her for many years. But….

    I wish I had known more about her options. I wish we had spoken more about her wishes. But mostly I wish I had t had to leave the country the same evening.

    I don’t know how to grieve for my mum that for the last decade I’ve spoken to weekly on the phone and seen once a year.

    • wendii

      I wish I knew what to say, Michelle. I was nearly railroaded into a more conventional burial, or cremation, but to the day I died I would’ve regretted it. No consolation for you, of course, but, as you say, it went rather well in the end.

      I wish I’d known my mother more too… and the really odd thing is… we were actually together much of the time. But I still regret all the things we never got round to doing.

      You know, I think that’s why we all have to die, to finally lay to rest all the guilt and regrets and fears that each one of us has.

    • wendii

      Michelle, I keep thinking about you, and that grief you harbour. I feel for you because I feel the same, for Ma, and for my father, who died a long time ago. He was my dad, and always there, but I don’t think I was. Do you know what I mean?

  6. claudio

    Hi there. I’m asking myself if its natural to bury your own person. I ask questions. It’s peculiar to DIY something like this, isn’t it? I mean I reckon there are some things you don’t do yourself, right? right?

    • Wendii

      Dear Claudio, I think it’s more natural to look after your loved one yourself, even in death, than to abandon them to total (paid) strangers. But I know full well that many people simply cannot handle death, or perhaps they themselves are unwell. So I DO understand why some people will need undertakers.

  7. Ellee, what a fantastic story to publish for all to read, and Wendy you are indeed an amazing woman. thank you for sharing your mum, your grief and your courage.

    • wendii

      Audrie, thank you. Ma never expected to be shared so widely! She’s no doubt having a chuckle, somewhere, sometime, in space ‘n’ time.

  8. Dear Ellee, I have never met you, but I suspect you have a little bit of the devil in you too. Thank you for giving the burial video some air. I put it up on the ether so that Ma’s friends could watch it. Never thought google would pick it up and pass it on to so many. But I do want folk to know they can DIY a burial, if they wish.

    There’s no tombstone, not even a mark in the grass, but Ma will have her epitaph here.

    Wendii

    • Hi Wendii, I hope there’s not too much of the devil in me 🙂 I’m just a curious soul.

  9. jerry

    Weird. Should anyone be allowed to do it themselves? I mean, people will bury granny in the garden next. Or why not have a BBQ of dad’s spare ribs? Let the crows peck away?

    • wendii

      Er, actually, Jerry, you CAN bury granny in the garden. A lady I know has hubby under the marigolds.

      It’s not to be done lightly though, as you might have to shift granny if you move. A Home Office exhumation certificate will be needed, as the records have to be updated. Consider a long-standing burial field or woodland that is unlikely to be disturbed.

      • wendii

        Update: Jerry, it’s actually The Ministry of Justice that issues exhumation licences now, under Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857, but if granny is under the patio it is uncertain if they will or even can, by law, issue a licence. The Burial Acts apply only to active burial sites, Church of England and local authority land. Apparently, technically, they may have issued (and be issuing) exhumation licences that are actually invalid.

        The law is confused and confusing on this point, and one burial expert believes even the Ministry themselves are confused (and confusing).

        Bottom line, however, is if you get your licence, dig granny up quick and shift her, because you may be able to invoke the law to prevent anyone to order you to dig her up again and shift her back.

    • jerry

      OK, granny goes under the marigolds.

    • “Let the crows peck away?”

      Jerry, for those of the Zoroastrian faith, letting the crows [and vultures] peck away is not just considered normal, but correct. Parsi dead aren’t buried; they’re placed in the open air, atop of *Towers of Silence*. There are a number of very sensible reasons for this, which I won’t go into here.

  10. Pat Lea

    Quirky but I think she enjoyed burying her mother, which is helluva lot diffrent from most of us at funerals. Mostly funerals are misreble things, but this looks great. Take a picnic, shovel, tent, and make a week of it.

    • wendii

      I spent three days in that field. I think many people could’ve done it quicker, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Didn’t seem to be any reason to hurry. Time had stopped for my mother, seemed to stop for me too. I was happy that way.

  11. Well done to both of you
    This is exactly what we are trying to promote in that people can take control of their loved ones funeral, it does not have to be a mournful affair but a celebration of life, We have helped many customers but not always totally without a funeral director, some time just using their collection vehicles or other times using their mortuary to let the family wash bathe and dress their loved one, indeed only last week a family were filmed by the BBC at Respects Burial Ground conducting a DIY funeral and next Tuesday they are filming a DIY service because the man had no family and his friends are taking care of him, even down to burying him in a shroud, we should have some footage on our wed site very soon http://www.respectgb.co.uk or people can visit our open day at Bawtry this Sunday 11-3, once again well done Gordon, The regional Chair of Dying Matters North Lincolnshire

    • Hi Gordon,
      I’m not saying I would do something like this, but I do like sharing information on interesting topics which might not get much press.

    • wendii

      Support is always welcome, and I’m happy that you use the wording about taking control. It’s more than that… it’s about NOT LOSING CONTROL to a conveyor-belt system that seems to have no conception of the simplicity of offering people a choice. NOBODY I spoke to suggested I might have a choice. The ONLY person who was helpful was the wonderful mortuary technician who did, indeed, make it simple, natural, low-key. And my thanks must go to John Bradfield of AB Wildlife Trust, who knows the law, and had pre-warned me what I was very probably up against.

  12. Electro-Kevin

    Would I plan a DIY burial for my loved one ?

    Of course. But it would mean relaying the patio – again. 🙁

    • Electro-Kevin

      No doubt Mark Zuckerbrook has the same idea.

    • Who else is under the patio?

      • Electro-Kevin

        Perhaps my humour is just too subtle. I have great difficulty being understood.

        I find it hard to socialise in real life too, which is why I spend my time in a virtual world frequenting sites like this.

        As it happens I’m bang on the money about the EU as well as the Zukerberg suck-up fest. The EU Empire is an evil one and will sacrifice the poor Greeks (the cradle of democracy) for the sake of twisted ideology of the Germanics who thefted their gold in WW2 and won’t give it back – not even to make their precious single-currency and one-size-fits-all economy work.

        Yet it’s the break up of the British Union that is celebrated whilst German re-unification is lauded.

        Ellee. Why are you so reticent at this time ?

  13. Sheila

    I am glad this story had a happy ending! I too dread being left under a tombstone. Wendii is a brave lady. I hope that the unsympathetic registrar reads this and reflects on her behaviour.

    • DrjpDaSilva

      Absolutely fascinating. Absolutely.

    • wendii

      I think the registrar started thinking soon after I left, for some days later I got a call from the registry office telling me I could sign the green burial form myself, and another flustered call an hour later suggesting it’might be better, if I hadn’t already signed it, to get the landowner to sign it.’ I suppose they had been looking up burial law? Things may be better for those that follow me.

    • wendii

      The registrar DID go and get me some tissues because I was crying, so she wasn’t all bad, Sheila. And as for the being buried alive angle you mention, one of the many good things about having mother with me was that it really sunk in just how dead she was. I have no fears that any sort of terrible mistake could have been made… and mistakes have happened. No, I buried a corpse. I KNOW that in my heart and in my soul. No little worms of worry eating away.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Google+