Would you know where to start if you had to arrange a funeral?

1st October

At age 53 I am incredibly fortunate to have never had to arrange a funeral. So when I was invited to step through the doors of Wealden Funerals I took the opportunity to pose some of the questions that people might normally not want to ask.

Once inside, a black and white photo on the wall caught my eye of the Axell family and the team. It turns out that the family has been helping people with their funeral needs since the 1800s – apart from a period when the business shut for a while. It’s now under the stewardship of Nikki Axell who, after experiencing the funeral of a close friend, decided she could do a better job and re-launched Axell Eames 20 years ago which recently became Wealden Funerals.

One of the first things I learned was that at Wealden Funerals the word ‘coffin’ is never used and instead are called ‘beds’ – each with a special cushion for the occupant.

What I didn’t know was that, until a few decades ago, most funeral directors were also involved in the building trade.

Andy Kirk, Director of Wealden Funerals, explains: “It worked well as the same team could deal with the funeral needs as well as having the manpower to dig the holes for the ‘beds’ and the carpentry skills to build the ‘beds’.”

Andy joined Nikki at the company in his 40s and experienced a steep learning curve as he was completely new to the industry – although he had arranged one family funeral before starting his new career.

“I enjoy dealing with people, but I must admit that the first funeral I had to arrange completely on my own was scary. After that I gained confidence as I knew I could do it and since then I have learned that it’s very much about guiding people and letting them make the decisions.

“Although no formal qualifications are needed there are many laws and regulations funeral directors need to know and different rules for crematoria and burial places,” Andy explained.

Cremation is now the most common choice with 80 percent of people being cremated and, even if the deceased wish was to be buried in a churchyard there is limited space in the Heathfield area.

“It’s difficult to get a church burial space nowadays. The best option is via a family plot or burial history – but that isn’t always guaranteed unfortunately. We had a case a few months ago when the deceased had asked to be buried in the family plot and we found that the original grave wasn’t deep enough for two ‘beds’ so they couldn’t be buried with their loved ones. For the last 50 years graves have been dug deep enough for two beds on top of each other, but before that it wasn’t always the case. So before promising anything we always check the depth of the grave,” Andy said.

There are other options if you don’t want a cremation. For instance, there are non-religious burial grounds where you can have a gravestone and there are woodland burial grounds such as Theobolds Green. Many people choose to have a service at a church and then a committal at a burial ground.

Asked what the most unusual funeral is he has organised, Andy admitted that it was probably a New Age style one that included the blowing of cowhorns and deerhorns and a special priest. Some choices of music have also surprised him like the teenager who chose Five Finger Death Punch to be played at his cremation.

“A funeral is a personal ceremony and ever since day one a completely bespoke arrangement has been made to celebrate as they wish.”

Practically anything can be organised by the Wealden Funerals team such as motorbikes with side cars and horse and carriages. There was also a wake in the gentleman’s local hostelry that was attended by the deceased in his ‘bed’ who was taken to the crematorium afterwards.

Andy added: “Unfortunately death has become more of a taboo than it used to be. Now no one wants to think about it and perhaps it’s because people are less religious and there are more family break ups these days. The formality has gone too.

“Even though no one wants to talk about death we should ask about people’s wishes before they pass. In our experience, funerals either bring people together or create a rift.”

Andy advises that everyone should have a funeral plan that is separate to their will and as long as certain legal rules such as the ‘proof of death’ paperwork are complied with then you can have pretty much what you want – although there are certain things you can’t have in your coffin if you are being cremated such as alcohol. Burials at sea are no longer allowed unless someone actually dies at sea and they are in international waters. Scattering ashes at sea is far easier though and this can be arranged by Wealden Funerals.”

Wealden Funerals has launched a new, free service to help people plan their funerals. A person’s wishes can be documented and kept on file at Wealden Funerals. This limits the chance of family arguments and makes sure you get what you want as well as taking the pressure off the person making the arrangements. It’s not the same as the pre-paid funerals which the company also offers.

If someone is unfortunate enough to die while abroad Andy and the team can help with repatriation of either the body or remains.   Andy explains that transporting a deceased person back to the UK is extremely expensive as in some countries you require a lead lined coffin and it can take many weeks to complete the process. There are also different ways of doing things abroad. For instance, in Spain there are no refrigerated units to help preserve the body which can lead to lots of issues.

If you have never organised a funeral below are the main questions your funeral director will ask.

  1. Where did the person die? If they died in hospital or care home, the hospital should be given the name of the funeral director. If they died at home the funeral director will collect the body but they will need a qualified medical practitioner to certify the death first. Once the deceased has been collected the family will be notified by Wealden Funerals once they arrive at the funeral home.
  2. Has the coroner been involved? If the death is unexpected you should expect the coroner may to be involved
  3. Have you registered the death? This is something the funeral director will guide you through.
  4. Would you like a cremation or a burial?
  5. Where would you like the cremation or burial?
  6. Would you like a religious or non-religious ceremony?
  7. What type of transportation would you like for the deceased? And for the family? In the past there have been JCB diggers, open back lorries and tractor and trailers
  8. What colours would you like the funeral directors and the team to wear?
  9. What type of floral tributes would you like?
  10. What style of ‘bed’ would you like? For instance, wood or wicker?
  11. How should they be dressed? Sunday best used to be the normal, but now it’s anything the person would feel comfortable in such as team colours for football fans or leathers for bikers.

Other surprising things I learned during my visit were: you can have jewellery created from the ashes of your loved ones, lockets containing a piece of their hair and you can even have ashes tattooed into your skin as the ultimate way to remember someone.

At their premises on Heathfield High Street there is a mortuary and a chapel where relatives and friends can come and view their loved one. Nikki Axell has received specialist training to make sure the deceased looks their best for visitors. Ideally, she will be given a photograph and then will do a manicure, hair and make-up before viewing. These days embalming doesn’t take place unless really necessary and only when the method of final journey allows.

Wealden Funerals likes to do things a little differently and every person attending a funeral receives a special candle or a packet of Forget Me Knots. They also encourage grandchildren to write a letter to put in the coffin as a way of saying goodbye.

“We try to be relaxed about the process and not morbid. Most importantly, it should be all about what the deceased wanted not what the person arranging the funeral wants which is why it’s so important to talk about these things,” Andy added.

Wealden Funerals believes in education and welcome conversations from people who would like to understand the funeral process better – without any obligations. We also offer work experience places should school children be interested in something different.

Two men outside funeral home
Andy Kirk with Michael John Axell outside the recently re-branded offices in Heathfield