In her twenties, Louise Winter suddenly walked out of her job with one word in mind: death.
She went on to retrain as a funeral celebrant, set up wildly popular Death Cafes in New York and London, and began helping people plan their own funerals through her company Poetic Endings.
On a bright March morning at Farewill HQ, we talked to her about the state of modern funerals, and why she’ll never buy a black suit.
So, the big question: what made you want to get into funerals?
My background is quite varied. I went to fashion school, I lived in Paris, I lived in New York, and eventually ended up in marketing. Then I pretty much had a complete breakdown and decided I never wanted to do a PowerPoint presentation ever again. The thing I had in my head when I walked out of my job was one word, and that was ‘death’.
Had you been to many funerals at that point?
My grandad had died when I was 25, and that was my first experience of a funeral. It was kind of hilarious in how dreadful it was. We used the local funeral directors, who were half-funeral directors, half-builders’ yard. (In fact, lots of funeral directors originally started out as hardware merchants — they were the only people around who could make coffins.) So I found myself going in a limo to this strange part of town to a crematorium, which looked like a 1950s grammar school. The funeral was carried out by these very stuffy funeral directors, and the coffin bearers looked like they should be in coffins themselves. We listened to Frank Sinatra and sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ before going out to the funeral terrace where lots of people I didn’t know came up to me and said ‘Ooh, that was a lovely service’. Then we went to the pub and had whiskey and sausage rolls. And that was the standard British funeral.
And so you decided you wanted to do things differently?
Yes, I went off to funeral school to train to be a funeral celebrant — which is someone who isn’t religious, but isn’t atheist, and works with families to create the service they want. I thought it was going to be this wonderful Harry Potter-type place, where people in Victorian clothes would teach you to walk properly and talk with the bereaved. Instead, I was told to buy a black suit from Marks & Spencer, and taught to introduce myself to funeral directors by writing very formally on expensive letterhead and making them lots of lemon drizzle cakes. I didn’t go down very well, as I argued with pretty much everything they had to say. I didn’t buy a black suit, I still don’t own a black suit, and I don’t make any lemon drizzle cakes.
What do you think is wrong with the current funeral model?
The worse time to get someone thinking about funerals and funeral directors is when their husband has just died, when they’re faced with a mountain of paperwork and overwhelming grief.
A lot of the work I do is public awareness. I started off running Death Cafes in New York, where literally hundreds of people in their 20s and 30s turned up to talk about death over tea and cake. I also ran a week called Life, Death, Whatever, where we filled a National Trust House with subversive references to death. And I edit the Good Funeral Guide, where I get in trouble for asking awkward questions. None of the work I do is morbid or filled with traditional symbols of death. It’s about getting people in touch with how they’re feeling, and empowering people to get what they need out of their funeral. Louise began by setting up Death Cafes in London and New York. So, what’s the process when someone dies? Does the family call you? So funeral directors usually call me to arrange the service. At that point I can go in and do something special. Sometimes it’s quite standard, at other times it can really be quite extraordinary.
I did a funeral when the family came to me directly before they called the funeral director — which is the best outcome. We ignored the crematorium and went to an outdoor centre, overlooking the water with London in the background. The family were highly musical and poetic, and wrote the whole funeral themselves and performed it as an open-mic set. If they had just called a standard funeral director first, they probably wouldn’t have been able to create that.
Do you have a favourite funeral?
My favourite funeral ever cost a grand total of £5 in additional creativity. It was for a man whose wife had died. They had both been into 1950s’ rock and roll and lived a really simple life. It was difficult to know what to do for the funeral. Eulogies and hymns were completely inappropriate. But when I visited his flat and he went to make me a cup of tea, I realised he had all these fridge magnets with poetry on that he’d collected from the seaside. They meant a lot to them as a couple, and so we decided to make pretty much the whole funeral out of seaside fridge magnet poetry and plastic flowers.
It was probably the most touching and special funeral I’ve ever done, because it was exactly what he needed to begin processing his grief. So funerals don’t have to be expensive. A lot of the work I do is about bringing the cost down and making people realise that spending a lot of money on funeral hardware isn’t necessary, unless you really want it. Above everything, a funeral needs to be meaningful and relevant for the people affected.
Part of our job is to help people plan for their deaths before the fact. To what extent do you find that people actually make plans for their funeral?
I pretty much launched my whole career doing funeral preplans. Not just asking people what music they want to have played at their funeral, but figuring out who they were in life and how they want to be remembered.
The first thing I do is get them to talk about their lives. What has their purpose been? Who have they loved and lost? Who will they leave behind? Who will their death affect? That usually takes quite some time for them to answer. Then I start asking them more standard questions about funeral planning. Do you even want to have a funeral? Do you want a direct cremation? Are you aware there are different kinds of funeral directors? How do you want your body to be taken care of? Do you want your family to bury you in the back garden? What should your funeral feel like? Should it be a celebration of life, or should it be something more traditional?
Is there always a tension between what an individual wants, and what their family wants?
Absolutely. I did a funeral for a man who died in his early nineties and the family planned the whole funeral, and at the last minute they found his funeral plan on a tape under his bed that he’d made 25 years before. We had to completely replan the whole thing, and it was really hard for the family. They’d got in touch with the funeral they wanted to give him, then had to scrap it for something that felt forced and out of date. I remember doing a funeral plan for a really intelligent lady — a doctor in her eighties — who halfway through completely changed her mind. She decided her funeral should be none of her business. So we rewrote the piece of paper in her will to say, “I give you permission upon the event of my death to do whatever you feel you need to do — and by the way I’d like to be cremated.” And that was it. Photo by Avril Furness
Apparently the major source of stress after a death is people not knowing if they’re doing the right thing?
If families are getting very caught up on “We’re not sure what they wanted”, I try to move them away from that and ask “Who is this funeral actually for? It’s ok — let’s do the best we can with what we know and serve your needs as well as honouring the person who has died.
If you could redesign the funeral service experience, how would you do it?
If people call me first rather than the funeral director, then we can concentrate on the important part of the funeral which is the ceremony. Then I can refer people to the right funeral director. Because otherwise the emphasis is on the hardware — it’s on selling limos and coffin upgrades and flowers. If it goes the other way and the funeral director books me, it’s sometimes too late and the family have been sold a load of stuff that they may or may not want. I can try and work with that, but if a family had known there were other options they probably would have done things differently. The perfect way to do it is to have an open and transparent conversation before it happens, rather than finding a tape under the bed! A funeral plan with no conversation about it can be really unhelpful.
I reckon the world in which you are called first would be a much better one.
Absolutely. And we’re seeing a real shift from old funerals to the new ones. Our generation — the start-up generation — are really getting in touch with how they feel. Embracing yoga and mindfulness and refusing to work in the city for 40 years in jobs they don’t want to do.
I guess it comes down to the question: what’s a funeral for?
A typically British funeral can take up to two weeks to actually happen, and I get a lot of people saying “I just want this to be over and done with.” That’s a really unhelpful funeral. If done well, a funeral should be part of the grieving process to allow people to acknowledge that a death has happened and begin to process that. And if funerals aren’t doing that, we should stop having them. Especially as they cost so much money. Don’t treat funerals as a box to tick; they should never be a formality.
What’s next for you?
So I’m writing a book. I do a lot of public awareness work, and I’m continuing to do funerals. I keep going in the hope that behaviour will shift, and more people will call me directly rather than funeral directors. It’s long and it’s slow and it’s frustrating — in fact, everything in the death industry changes really slowly. But we are seeing things changing. The Order of the Good Death is a big movement in the States, and websites like Funeralbooker, About The Funeral and Dead Right are bringing the process of comparing and booking funerals online. I’m interested to see where this will go. But I’m just continuing doing what I’m doing, and hoping that each family I work with can understand the power of a good funeral. Really, I’m a troublemaker and I’m unusual and and I ask awkward question and I kick up a massive fuss when things are wrong! Part of what I do is for the greater good. But it also helps me on a daily basis to live a better and more fulfilling life.