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Farewell without a Funeral



The writer Anita Brookner, most famous for her award-winning novel Hotel du Lac, has done two things recently. One was very common, the other highly unusual. First of all, she did what we all do in the end: she passed away. But after that there was unexpected news: there wasn’t going to be a funeral.

It was an interesting decision. She must have made it while she was alive and we can assume that she gave it careful thought. Did she want to spare her friends and relatives the inconveniences that sometimes go with attending a funeral? Some of them would have had to travel a long way, take time off work, arrange for child-care, and so on. Or did she simply think her passing wasn’t an important event and so didn’t need any special ceremony?

That would be an unusual way to think, but whatever motivated her, her decision wasn’t unique. David Bowie also chose not to have a funeral. Perhaps that was a reflection of his modesty, because he could undoubtedly have been seen off by many famous people, from fellow musicians to Hollywood actors to politicians. There would have been huge media attention and thousands of his fans would have gathered nearby to say their own farewells.

He chose instead to be cremated in New York without any friends or relatives present. Again, he must have given this careful thought while he was alive. Like Anita Brookner, he was an intelligent and cultured person, familiar with the world’s culture and history. he knew how important this ceremony is in every part of the world for people of every kind of belief, religious or secular. And he must have attended many funerals for other people. But, like Brookner, he chose to go as quietly as he could. It was as though, after being the life-and-soul of a noisy party, he was slipping out of the house by the back door.

Anita Brookner was a writer, not a public performer like Bowie, but both of them had many friends and relatives, and both were wealthy, with more than enough money to pay for a funeral. That isn’t true of everyone: sometimes people have no funeral because there is nobody to attend it or no money to pay for it. In those cases, it’s a forced choice – which is to say, it’s no choice at all. As the cost of funerals rises and more and more old people lose touch with their relatives, direct cremations and direct burials have increasingly common. Those terms refer to the way in which the coffin is taken direct from a funeral home to a crematorium or cemetery, where it is burned or buried without a ceremony, keeping costs to a minimum and saving as much time as possible.

Most people wouldn’t think that it was a good way for someone to go, but it can be what someone genuinely prefers. David Bowie and Anita Brookner made that choice. There are no memories and no photographs of their funerals because no funerals took place. That’s unusual, but both of them were unusual people. They’ve proved it not just by way they lived and created art, but also by the way they chose to leave the living.

National Federation of Funeral Directors