Arranging a funeral – a guide to what we can do ourselves: an interview with Philip Tomlinson

Interview with Philip Tomlinson


My ‘interview’ with Philip Tomlinson was conducted largely by email because of technological difficulties. Some months later I had the pleasure of meeting Philip and his wife Dorothy in their Timaru home. I recall a man with a clear sense of commitment, and a couple with a big capacity to care.


As happened often when I was conducting interviews for the book that didn’t quite make it – Re-Embracing Death – what Kiwi baby boomers are up to – one person introduced me to another. I was told about Philip and given his superb little book by a woman I interviewed about Death Cafés – Carol Wales.


Philip’s book is Arranging a Funeral: What you can do yourselves – a New Zealand Guide. The great thing about it is that he breaks the process down into seven clear tasks so that the reader has clarity about what is required in each, and what they and their support team may wish to carry out themselves. The tasks are:


  • Interim care of the deceased
  • Paperwork legally required
  • Transporting the deceased
  • Newspaper notices
  • Acquiring a coffin
  • Organising a burial / cremation
  • The funeral service



I call your great little book a booklet so people get an understanding of how small and user-friendly it is – all 24 pages of it!


I like the way you break down arranging a funeral into seven clear tasks; that makes it seem manageable to me, and gives order and clarity at a time when clear thinking will likely be a challenge. Would you like to comment on this?



Yes. First a comment on dividing the proceedings into seven sections: as a pedagogue I found teaching/guiding depends heavily on carefully grouping information. Seven, I think, is the maximum number of different things comfortably ‘swallowed in one bite’. Particularly when under stress with grief, the notion of manageable packages is important.


If a funeral is divided into, say, ten tasks, which it could be, folk may feel overwhelmed by the size or complexity. It is important to nurture grieving families as they read, not hand out information to them. A number of nurturing mechanisms are woven into the book. The overwhelmingly positive feedback received supports this claim.


The seven tasks cannot lie in a rigid chronological sequence, therefore the chart at the back, on who does what, gets it all together without needing to worry about sequencing things, another way of nurturing stressed readers.


As you say, it is important to have “order and clarity at a time when clear thinking will likely be a challenge”. The book has been written to cater for this challenge. Discussing the interim care of the deceased needed great care. We live in a culture that does not ‘touch’ such jobs. Reaching out to help a family ‘get there’, while at the same time giving factual detail, needed some thought. The book carries folk along gently, encourages rather than merely states. With a home-based funeral, folk need to sort out ‘where they are’, not just ‘what needs doing’. All details are there so that rest of mind prevails.


The paperwork to many is formidable and therefore the information on this has been additionally pulled together and re-collated at the end of the book – in one single chart. Again, nurturing the reader.


Throughout the whole book the reader is in a way gently encouraged. 



You say, in the Foreword of your book, “This publication [then] has one purpose: to guide you, in what you, as a family, perhaps with help from friends and neighbours, can do for yourselves.” What makes such a book necessary in your view? 



This final paragraph of the Foreword uncovers the issue of who needs the guidance! It can be said, that ‘guidance’ is parental and that one ought not to rush to use the word. I agree. However, I chose this word because of our culture.


A funeral director, with this title, sells his or her services, not ‘undertaking’, as an ‘undertaker’ nowadays, but controlling as a ‘director’. To direct reflects what folk under stress accept. In grief, consumers can be directed.


When I was a child things were different. The word used was ‘undertaker’, and the job ‘undertaken’ – at the direction of the client. Today the undertaker directs the client and is renamed the funeral director. I want to re-empower consumers with this book. Consumers, by virtue of our culture, tend to be directed. I wanted a word that recognised a slight need for direction, but released us from its burden. The word ‘guidance’ seemed to fit. It is not too authoritative, it embraces the thought of a flexibility that some funeral directors might dismiss and at the same time it is a reassuring word, suggesting that I have walked along the road in collecting up the information. I want to guide folk.


Funerals are typically a matter older folk think about. Younger folk subconsciously assume life has no end. Older folk have the end in sight and wisely accept and value guidance. The wording ‘guide you’ fits.


‘Guidance’ is the sole purpose of the book! As a guide it sells itself well – without ever being advertised.


Why else is such a book necessary? Radio, television and the world wide web are all the buzz but in grief they are limited.


I tend to feel that when facing grief and needing to make maybe difficult decisions, it is comforting to have a little book ‘on one’s knee’, to feel more ‘in touch’ with the author so to say. We live in a world loaded with data. When searching on the internet, there is no even vaguely defined end point. Data is not necessarily information and information is not knowledge. Even knowledge is perhaps limited in grief too for want of the capacity to exercise the often-needed wisdom in a family circle enshrouded with grief. Over the past decade and a half I have been repeatedly told that this little book says ‘just enough’ to carry one through the bereavement hurdle in a comfortable and restful way, exactly as I felt it was designed to do, without the burden of unwanted extra data.


Another answer to your question about writing is the sheer cost of commercial funerals, now on average $12,000 (Radio NZ, 2015). A Naseby man, who I interviewed informally, claimed that a Dunedin funeral company had told him that “a standard coffin” is $4,000. Do most really want to bury/burn $4000 today? Many lack money. This also makes my book useful. However, the book fully ‘accepts’ those who want to spend heavily.


A third reason for why this book was written this way is that I could not find a book like it. My bibliography has good references, but none are written in the format I prefer – a succinct, easy-read, ‘to-do’ book so that those who haven’t done (vital?!) preparation can still do their family funeral. This is happening too. Recently I was phoned from Auckland to be told, “Your book arrived after the death had occurred but we managed the funeral by following it”. I pause to say this is exceptional!



There’s a lot around these days about planning your own funeral; most of us have encountered the idea, even if we haven’t actually done it and let our families know what we’d like. But that’s not the key direction of your book. Why not?



Planning one’s own funeral has little to do with a willingness to face a (any) death. At one’s own funeral, one will not be ‘present’ and not have any responsibility; one will not know anything about it. There is no ‘control’ of it. Granted one’s ‘wishes’ can be made known to one’s family, a good idea too, but one’s last wishes can be (legally) ignored. The issue is that ‘planning’ one’s own funeral is a completely different topic to facing a (any) death and taking some responsibility.


The funeral industry likes the phrase ‘plan your own funeral’ and likes to have the ‘instructions’ left in the industry’s care. This can be a distraction. Planning one’s own funeral is seldom, if at all, to do with defining and shouldering responsibilities.


The fact is, our culture cannot face death. To get around it, we are encouraged to ‘plan’ (our own) funerals. If I am a woodworker and I make my own coffin, all well and good but I am not planning to take any active responsibility at my funeral because I will not be ‘there’. My book is about facing a responsibility – for those who choose to shoulder it.



You mention the healing virtue of personal participation in a home-based funeral. How does this contribute to healing?



This is such a huge topic! It needs a book! Again, a matter not everybody sees the same way – an obvious thing that is just not obvious!


Convincing the subconscious that the death has ‘actually happened’ is difficult, and participation in the funeral process is one way to get this message through. I understand the subconscious mind finds ways of dealing with issues that the conscious mind has not ‘handled’, but these ways are not always helpful to us.


Obviously, in some cases, such as a bad fatal motor accident, it could be best to get a funeral director to help, but in general the more we do for and at the funeral, the better we are placed to overcome the grief. When our son died, I took the funeral service, but at that time I did not know that the whole funeral could be home-based. I went around the streets day after day looking for our little boy. Deep down I couldn’t ‘believe’ he had suddenly ‘gone’. I could not ‘heal up’.


My book is based on journeying with those aware of the relationship between mental health and grief. It is not a book written to discuss the problem but a book written to solve it. It signposts an escape route from repressed grief. From my experience of watching and helping families run home-based funerals, personal participation ‘better’ places folk to ‘accept’ in their subconscious minds, that losses have in fact, actually occurred, and to begin to integrate those losses.


One woman told me that she had cuddled her husband’s cold body all through the night and said that some had been critical of her. I comforted her with the thought that if she was comfortable doing this, it was a very therapeutic pillar to her grief to have done so and suggested to her that one day she perhaps could re-educate her unhelpful ‘Job’s comforters’.


I just know that shouldering the responsibility gives rest of mind. I have seen it so often now. I would like my wife to handle my body if I die first and if she dies before I do, she has told me the same thing.



What difficulties are people likely you come up against in arranging a funeral themselves? 



The difficulties people are likely to meet in arranging a funeral are usually through a lack of preparedness. We are often just not ready to act and under shock we are benumbed into not acting. The question of adequate preparation is thoroughly outlined in my book. 



Why is it important to build a support network as you suggest, and how might we go about that?   



The importance of a support network is a matter of our attachment to our culture. We are social creatures. We need to have folk ‘with us’, particularly under grief. Isolation is hard to bear even without the stress of grief. 


I feel a support network can only be built by first of all obtaining a clear picture of how each member of the immediate family circle feels about having a funeral organised without any funeral directors’ help. One support in this is to discuss different roles people may feel comfortable to take. By looking at the different tasks involved in a funeral folk may realise there are roles they’d be happy to take, like writing newspaper notices, or acquiring a coffin, or transporting the coffin to the funeral.


So, obtaining the book is the first step. Then, if you think you can manage all or some of the tasks of a funeral, build a network of support; that way you’re much more likely to see it through.



Thank you, Philip, for your responses, and for your excellent resource.



Philip Tomlinson  Timaru, Aotearoa New Zealand


The book is available from Philip for $10 (NZ) including postage within Aotearoa New Zealand.     




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