• The Villages Mag

Landmarks of Life

Shena Lewington is a celebrant and a member of Dying Matters, and she creates ceremonies which mark the Landmarks of Life, such as welcoming a new baby, marriage and funerals. Their aim is to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement, and to make plans for the end of life. Over several edition of The Villages Mag we have features article from Sheena, all of these are available here.


Time to say goodbye. Valentine’s Day is a time for romantic love, whether you are young or old, but if you would like to show just how much you care for your loved ones, you might be interested in a recent report on funerals. The study found that one of the things bringing comfort for grieving families was knowing that they were carrying out the wishes of the person who had died, even if only in a few simple ways. When the time comes for your friends and family to bid you a loving farewell, have you ever thought about what music you would prefer to be played at your funeral?

Those organisations who compile “top ten” lists report that the most popular choices for funeral music invariably include My Way (Frank Sinatra) and Time to Say Goodbye (Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman) but many families are opting for songs which have particularly poignant lyrics, such as Supermarket Flowers (Ed Sheeran), Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton) and In the Arms of an Angel (Sarah McLachlan).

Whether you are having a traditional church service or a secular ceremony, the familiar words of well-loved hymns can bring comfort to those with or without a strong faith. There’s something about being able to stand and join with others in song that unites people, and allows everyone to participate in the service. There are no legal words which have to be said, and no restrictions on having religious words in a non-religious ceremony (as there is in a civil wedding conducted by a registrar). So, it is possible to include hymns, prayers and readings from the Bible, even if the service is not being led by a vicar. I recommend choosing a hymn which is well-known so that people recognise the tune – Make Me a Channel of Your Peace is very lovely, but can be tricky to keep to the timing. Would you choose Abide With Me, The Lord’s My Shepherd or Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer?

Whatever you would like, whether it’s classical music, big-band sounds or gospel choirs, I hope you’ll give your family a bit of a hint in good time ….

Funeral rites around the world

Wherever you are in the world, all those who are left behind will mourn for their loved ones. But in different cultures, some ways of honouring the dead and for saying goodbye may be a little surprising to us here in the UK. Read on to find out more about funeral rites around the world.

You have probably heard of sky burials – where a body is laid out on the barren mountainside for the wind and vultures to carry away everything but the bones. In parts of Tibet, where pasture land is at a premium, and the ground is hard to dig into, this practice continues. It is a ceremony carried out with reverence, and based on the belief that the soul should fly free.

In some parts of China and the Philippines, another kind of sky burial takes place. Hanging coffins, often carved in advance by the occupant-to-be, are suspended from steep limestone cliffs. The local people believe that the higher the coffin is hung, the closer they are to their ancestors.

Every winter, the people of Shetland celebrate their Nordic heritage with Up Helly Aa bonfires. However, the fiery spectacle of Viking ships ablaze with a coffin on board is sadly just a Hollywood fantasy. A mighty chieftain might have been buried inside a boat with his possessions (sometimes with a sacrificed slave-girl for company on his journey to Valhalla) but the vessel would then have been covered with earth and rocks, not set alight on the sea.

In India, cremation on outdoor funeral pyres is a Hindu custom. It is believed that if a believer’s ashes are then released into the sacred waters of the Ganges, their cycle of reincarnation will end and they will reach Nirvana.

One tribe in the Philippines used to bury their dead in trees. This was symbolic of the circle of life - just as trees give life to the people through fruit and wood for their fires, so when a person dies, they give their life back to the tree.

These customs may be unfamiliar to us but it is important to know that the traditional funeral that we have in the UK is not set in stone. A funeral does not have to be religious. There is no legal requirement to wear black. Instead of a hymn, your friends could join in singing a song by your favourite artist. Perhaps the funeral director will be able to offer suggestions for how to personalise the final farewell, but it is up to the person organising the funeral to decide what is most appropriate and meaningful.

Many bereaved families have found some comfort in being able to carry out their loved one’s wishes - if they knew what they were. Whatever you would like, whether it’s a traditional service at your own parish church, a request for mourners to wear yellow, or for you to arrive in a motorbike and sidecar, why not give your family a bit of a hint in good time ….?

Words for a friend

Words for a grieving friend. Your friend or relative has been bereaved, but what can you write in a sympathy card to show how much you care and want to support them? Although you may be conscious of what “not” to say, such as “It happened for the best” or “At least he had a long life”, it can be very hard to write your own sincere expression of sympathy, especially if you have chosen a card that seems to have included the very words you would have written. Here are a few phrases that may be a starting point for your personal message of condolence:

We were deeply saddened to hear that ____ has passed away and are thinking of you all. I’m going to miss him so much, too. Sending our love and sympathy at this sad time.

I was absolutely devastated to hear the news of ____’s death. He was a wonderful individual who will be greatly missed everyone who knew him. I’ll always remember the many times he made us all laugh with his wonderful sense of humour. I am so very sorry, and am thinking of you and your children with great sympathy.

Thank you for calling to tell me the sad news about ____. He was a very special friend. Please accept my sincere and heartfelt condolences at this most difficult of times.

We are so very sorry for your loss. Our thoughts are with you and your family during these difficult times. Wishing you peace to bring comfort, courage to face the days ahead, and loving memories to forever hold in your hearts.

I will miss ____ so much. He was a dear friend whose company I cherished. I’ve made a donation to (the name of a charity) in his memory.

Please know that I am thinking of you and the rest of your family at this time. Always remember how much we love and care about you. I’m so sorry I can’t be there in person to give you a hug. I will give you a call next week to find out how you are, but don’t hesitate to phone me at any time if you want to talk.

I wanted to write and tell you how sorry I am for your loss. ____ was such a special person that no words are really adequate. She brought pleasure to everyone she met and will be sadly missed.

(If you are sure that the person you are writing to shares your religious beliefs ….)

We have just heard the sad news of ____’s death, and want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you over the coming days. May the Lord comfort and protect you, and give you peace. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

Finally, remember that although words of sympathy do bring comfort and will be much appreciated, there is one other thing that can help too, being there for your friend – it is the most important thing for someone grieving.

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