by Louise Guthrie
“I’m so glad you’ve got such fantastic cake” says Louise de Winter, casting an approving glance at the majestic three-tiered Victoria sponge gracing the centre of the food-table at BBWI’s April meeting.
“Cake is so grounding and earthy, so of this realm. That’s why it’s good to have at funerals.”
“If you’re going to see a funeral director” she adds ”do take some cake. Lemon drizzle works well.”
If you have to face the Angel of Death, you ideally want her to look and sound like Louise de Winter, with her soft sweet voice and calm reassuring manner.
Standing in front of Borough Belles in her flowing dress, with her immaculately styled baby-blonde hair, Louise surveys the room with her warm twinkling eyes. This alternative funeral arranger looks anything but grim or melancholy, as she opens this evening’s talk not by alluding to the Great Unknown (aka Death), but instead by waxing lyrical about something comfortingly familiar (Cake).
And Borough Belles WI visibly relaxes….
Ms de Winter is as far removed from the Grim Reaper as you could possibly imagine (even if she believes that by embracing death, we can truly embrace life.)
A different perspective on life (and death)
Meanwhile the old Grim Reaper himself has been very public this year. It seems that hardly a week passes without some significant celebrity death, from David Bowie in the second week of January, to actor Alan Rickman a week later, and, today of all days, comedian Victoria Wood.
But Louise is not here to talk about celebrities. A former fashion editor, she launched Poetic Endings, her funeral planning service, back in November, to help shatter the taboo around death and to encourage people to think creatively about the kind of send-off they want for themselves and their loved ones. Louise works closely with families to create their very own bespoke farewell ceremonies.
The lady also hosts Death Cafes, where strangers come together to “discuss all matters of mortality over a cup of tea and a slice of cake”(not as morbid as it sounds). Death is part of living, Louise assures us. Death reflects life. Or at least it should do…
“When my granddad died a few years ago, that was my first first-hand experience of a funeral business.” she says.
“I was appalled by what I experienced. It was traditional, dry, everything about it was stuffy.”
Louise wants to demystify the funeral experience, to make it a more personal and healing event.
Tonight she presents us with a Q&A on conventions surrounding death, in order to bust a few common myths associated with bereavement. No, you are not legally bound to bury your loved one in a graveyard – you can lay them to rest in your own back garden. When you get your deceased’s ashes back, will they be mixed with anyone else’s? Not, these days, they won’t, there are strict controls. (Fear not, you won’t get anyone’s Grandad back in that urn apart from your own.)
And no, you don’t have to choose a typical Victorian-style service as plied by traditional funeral directors, or follow that old-style checklist comprising top hats, black limousines, and over-polished wooden coffins to embellish a solemn service with standard prayers and the usual hymns.
Nor do you need to stretch your over-wrought credit card to secure those top-of-the-range brass coffin handles to prove that you really truly did love your dear departed one. Would he/she really care to what state of glistening perfection those handgrips are buffed (all for the sake of a mere half hour journey?!)
(And yes, you are allowed to die without a pre-paid burial plan. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate.)
But even if we see straight through that musty old façade that is our local funeral parlour shop-front masquerading as a Portal to the Beyond (with its “other-worldly” array of dusty artificial flowers!), we’d still be forgiven for thinking that the great god “Co-op” (Funeralcare) has snatched the Keys to the Underworld from the clutches of Hades himself – or at least bought a majority share in Hades’ company stock.
Even your local family undertakers are quite likely to have been snapped up by one publicly-traded company, Dignity PLC. Death is a big business sector, and these two players dominate the entire funeral field. It’s an ever-growing industry (let’s face it, none of us are going to last forever.)
But no-one particularly wants a memorial service with a corporate franchise feel surrounding it.
Some are looking for economy, while others want to personalise the coffins of their loved ones, and there are also those who are concerned about the environmental impact of traditional burials. Hence we are now seeing a marked increase in the popularity of alternative types of memorial, like woodland burials, non-religious, and eco-friendly funerals with lovely (aesthetic) biodegradable coffins (look! no brass handles).
beautifully uplifting (and eco-friendly)
So where did Louise first draw her inspiration? She tells us that the best service she’s ever observed was no extravagant affair. In fact, it was so understated, that it barely felt like a funeral at all.
It happened in the height of summer, she tells us. A silver car arrived at the crematorium with no pomp or splendour. The person in the coffin was a man and his wife and daughter were the only mourners. For twenty minutes, they played “Moon River” on repeat. As their allocated time at the crematorium came to an end, his wife went up to the podium and pressed the button to close the curtains around the coffin. That was it.
This funeral wouldn’t work for everyone – it wasn’t supposed to, but Louise has never looked back since.
She has worked closely with a number of families on very low budgets – and no, it has never made for an inferior memorial. In fact, one of the best send-offs Louise has ever been involved in featured plastic flowers from Poundland (still in their packets!) and very little else in the way of exterior trappings. But sentiment ran deep, with kinsfolk airing their personally penned poetry rather than any stuffy eulogies.
So how does a 29-year-old maintain her own equilibrium with a daily working life of unadulterated mourning? After all, deaths can be very premature, unexpected, and down-right harrowing. Louise admits she can get very caught up with certain people’s heartache. So how does she rise above it?
“It’s not my grief.” she says “It’s theirs. I just hold the grief for them.” The job is not without its lighter moments. (Don’t we often honour our dead at funerals by telling funny stories?) But Louise admits she treads a very fine line, and has to maintain a conscious degree of professional detachment.
Death? Well, you just have to learn to live with it….
Now, where’s that slice of cake?
“Other-worldly” or just plain “Out-of-this-world”?