Austin's Blog

 

Looking Back on 2020

December 22nd, 2020    Author:

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s a good time to sit and reflect on everything that has happened. No one could have predicted how this year would play out. No one could have been prepared for the loss, the heartache, the grief.

Here at Austin’s we have done our utmost to assure you of our continued support and compassion throughout this pandemic, despite the ever changing rules and restrictions. We’ve been caring for bereaved Hertfordshire families for over 300 years; here’s our story of 2020…

We started the year on a high, reporting on Claire’s epic arctic survival challenge in aid of Home-Start Hertfordshire who help support struggling families in our community. Thanks to everyone who supported her, Claire raised a brilliant £5,000 after a week of -10 degree temperatures 150km south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden!

Back at home, the team were busy taking in people’s Christmas trees at Harwood Park to recycle into new coffins.

It was at this time that we also introduced Cruse Bereavement Care as our 2020 charity of the year. Cruse exists to enable anyone suffering bereavement caused by death to understand their grief and cope with their loss. Little did we know back then just how many people would need additional support this year in these most challenging of circumstances.

Then, in March, as the cherry blossom was in full bloom and looking beautiful at Harwood Park, the UK went into its first lockdown.

It was a difficult time for everyone. We stayed open with all funeral arrangements being made over the phone to begin with, as we asked people not to come into branch for the time being. Only close family members were allowed to attend funerals, hugs were no longer safe or allowed, and mourners had to stay six feet away from each other. Coronavirus had changed funerals beyond recognition, but we supported everyone as much as possible and shared information on how to grieve for a loved one when you can’t say goodbye in the ‘normal’ way.

Despite difficult times, we received some lovely feedback from people. One lady talked of her late husband’s funeral in April: “It was different, special and intimate with just the Reverend and myself. Nevertheless, it was a special service and I was able to say a very personal farewell, which I am certain would not have been possible with a large congregation. I will treasure this always.”

Behind the scenes we were also helping to move PPE supplies to colleagues around the country and supporting the Hertfordshire Coronavirus Disaster Relief Fund, which had already raised over £20,000 by early April.

By the end of the month, Stevenage Community Trust’s ‘Stevenage Helps’ appeal had attracted donations of £26,966; £10,000 of which was specifically to support the over 60s. It had also approved 46 grants totalling £14,870 for local charities, voluntary organisations and directly to families in crisis, helping many hundreds of local people directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

In May it was more important than ever for us to help promote Dying Matters Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Week. Thankfully by June, the number of mourners allowed to attend a funeral were slowly increased and by mid-summer this number hit 30, where it has since remained.

Acutely aware of the negative impact of these restricted numbers, we started to offer a streaming service at Harwood Park where families can have a loved one’s funeral service streamed to their wider family and friends, or those unable to travel. Harwood Park itself has also stayed open throughout for individuals to visit for quiet reflection.

Another family who organised a funeral with us in July said: “Given the restrictions and life-changing circumstances we find ourselves in you all went the ‘extra mile’ and the family can’t thank you enough for leading us through all the decisions and practicalities.”

From early August our branches and Chapels of Rest reopened via appointment only. Whilst our staff offered a heartfelt service over the phone in earlier months, we know some people much prefer to talk through arrangements for funerals in person, so it was good to be able to reopen with all Covid secure measures in place.

When the second lockdown hit in November, funerals were not hugely affected. A lady who’s mother passed away in late October just before lockdown said: “Though there was a lot to deal with before the funeral could go ahead at such a difficult time. Austin’s staff in all areas of the process were very professional and respectful at all times and nothing was too much trouble… We have used Austin’s before for family funerals, but during this difficult year, the staff have all gone above and beyond what was required of them, which made the situation for us a lot easier.”

Now, as we near the end of the year, we’re pleased to say our new Funeral Arrangement office in Hoddesdon High Street will be opening in January and are delighted to confirm that we have now taken ownership of 74A High Street, Stevenage. Over the coming months, we will be working to transform this building into an exceptional Bereavement Centre for Stevenage and the surrounding communities.

We’re sure you’ll agree that 2020 has reminded us of the value of community, love and support – as well as what we can achieve when we all pull together. Merry Christmas to you all and we wish you the very best for 2021.

Funeral flowers and floral tributes

November 23rd, 2020    Author:

Celebrations or commiserations, happy times or sad, flowers do a wonderful job of saying what we sometimes can’t find the words for. They are a symbol of hope and love; in the words of French artist Henri Matisse, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Throughout history flowers have been used to celebrate and mourn our loved ones. We wear a beautiful red poppy to remember those who have given their lives in battle, while the pretty blue forget-me-not flower is long-associated with dementia.

Of course, floral arrangements have always been part of funerals. Years ago they had more practical uses, mainly to cover the smell of decaying bodies. It is believed one of the first known uses of funeral flowers was in the Shanidar caves in Iraq. Here, skeletons were found covered in deposits of wildflowers, including hollyhock, thistle, cornflower and grape hyacinth.

Today, flowers are a token of the love and respect for the person who has passed away, and a comfort for the family left behind.

 

Choosing funeral flowers

The flowers you choose for a loved one’s funeral might have a personal meaning – perhaps they always had a vase of tulips on their windowsill, or you remember the scent of roses in their garden.

If you don’t have a personal association, or if the floral tribute is for someone outside of your close family, you might want to choose flowers based on their symbolism. For example:

  • Lilies: a traditional funeral flower that is thought to represent the soul of the deceased returning to a peaceful state of innocence.
  • Roses: popular flowers for funerals that come in a variety of colours, but red roses are typically chosen by the spouse or partner to signify their love.
  • Gladioli: a traditional funeral flower that makes wonderful standing fan sprays
  • Carnations: fragrant and long-lasting, pink carnations are often chosen to symbolise the enduring love of a mother or grandmother
  • Chrysanthemums: yellow flowers can represent hope and happy thoughts.

 

Personalising your funeral flowers

The Co-op recently carried out a survey to find the most popular flower types chosen for a funeral. The report showed that roses were the top choice, followed by lilies, carnations, sunflowers and daffodils. They also found out that a quarter of Britons would like a personalised floral tribute at their funeral.

This could reflect their favourite hobby, sports team, a much-loved pet or something else entirely! In fact, florists up and down the country have had a number of out-of-the-ordinary requests over the years, from a dartboard to a vegetable patch, and handbag to a packet of Werther’s Originals!

 

Sending flowers to family and friends

It’s not uncommon for people to only request family flowers at a funeral, so before you send any on the day itself, make sure to check the funeral announcement carefully. Charity donations in lieu of flowers is fairly common, but remember you can always send a floral gift to their home before or after the funeral if you would like to.

You could send a bouquet or wrap of cut flowers, but bear in mind that some homes can get overwhelmed with flowers in the first few weeks. An alternative idea is a potted plant or planted basket.

A potted hydrangea looks beautiful and can be moved outside and planted up in the garden too. Orchids are stunning and always give a lift to any indoor space. With a little TLC, plenty of potted plants can keep bringing joy to the recipient for years to come.

 

Alternatives to flowers

Plant a tree or shrub: You could plant a tree or shrub in memory of the deceased and as a long-lasting tribute to them. A rose that can be planted outside is also a nice thought. You could send this directly to the bereaved, or plant it on their behalf.

Seed cards: These have become quite popular as wedding favours but are an equally nice idea for a funeral. Send a packet of wildflower seeds with your condolence card for the recipient to plant in the weeks or months ahead. When they look out onto the wild flower display they’ll always have a memory of their loved one and feeling of support.

Send a photo: This is a good way to share a special memory too. Send a photo you have of the deceased along with a story about it. If you don’t know what to say to someone, or what to write in the card, then this can really help get your feelings and emotions out.

Gift of time:  Whether it’s over the phone, on Zoom or in person, taking the time to talk to those grieving will mean so much to them. You don’t have to send anything physical for them to know you’re thinking of them. You could also offer to go shopping or run any other errands.

Food basket: Food can be of great comfort, especially a home-cooked meal delivered to someone’s home or a thoughtful basket of goodies that they can dip in and out of when they fancy. It’s often the last thing on people’s minds when they are experiencing loss, so having someone take care of the odd meal for you is a great help.

We’re here to help with any questions or requests you have about floral tributes so please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

 

Funeral customs from around the world

October 20th, 2020    Author:

The way we view death is often influenced by the society and culture in which we are brought up. Here in the UK, death remains quite a taboo subject in many communities, with fairly traditional customs surrounding it. We’ve talked about this taboo lots of times on our blog, as well as how to tackle it through various initiatives to get people talking and thinking about death. Not as something to fear, but as a natural part of life.

We’ve also talked about how funerals don’t have to follow the usual ‘format’ if you don’t want them to; that they can be personalised and include contemporary elements alongside the more traditional. Many of the traditions and customs that are still alive today date back to the Victorian era; a time when society followed strict ways as to how to mourn someone. They’ve shaped how many of us picture a traditional church funeral today: a somber affair; everyone dressed in black; a slow procession behind the hearse; and a wake following the burial or cremation.

In cultures where death is seen very much as a natural part of life, or a continuation into the afterlife, there tends to be a more celebratory feel. Does this perhaps make it easier to accept, and maybe even not so painful, for those left behind? Is the fact that we are so ‘shielded’ from death partly to blame for the taboo around it?

Take the Mexican Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, as an example. Festivities take place over two days in a literal explosion of colour! It is a celebration of the life of deceased family members and a way to show their love and respect for them. All over the country there are parades and parties, costumes and face painting, as well as singing, dancing and offerings made to deceased loved ones.

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago, initiated by people who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. It showed that the dead were still part of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit and temporarily returning to Earth during the festival.

Here are some more stories from around the world that show how different cultures view death and how they approach funerals.

 

Indonesia

In Tana Toraja in eastern Indonesia, the deceased person’s body is kept in the family home. They are laid out in special rooms where they are seen as simply ‘asleep’. They are cared for and taken out, remaining part of family life, until the family has saved up enough money for a big, lavish funeral. These funerals will involve the whole community and are a real celebration of life, during which sacrificial water buffalo will carry the deceased’s soul to the afterlife.

Ghana

In Ghana, people often work on their own coffins, or have them made, before they pass away. They aspire to be buried in coffins that represent something special in their life – a hobby, their work or something symbolic to them. If you’re a fan of Karl Pilkington, you’ll remember him trying out a giant Twix as a coffin! There are also fish, cars, cameras – anything and everything!

 Madagascar

Once every five or seven years, the Malagasy people go to their family ancestral crypt where the bodies of their loved ones lie wrapped in cloth. They exhume the bodies and spray them with wine or perfume. It’s a lively event with music and dancing, where they talk to the deceased, tell them their news or ask for their blessings. The ritual is called ‘famadihana’ or ‘the turning of the bones’ and keeps them connected to their loved ones.

Mongolia and Tibet

Many Vajrayana Buddhists in Mongolia and Tibet believe that the soul moves out of the body after death, leaving the body as an empty vessel that is no longer needed. The body is therefore placed on a mountaintop and exposed to the elements and wildlife, including vultures, so that it can be returned to Earth. This practice has been around for thousands of years and is still widely done.

Louisiana, USA

In New Orleans, Louisiana, you’ll find the jazz-tinged funeral procession. Mourners are led by a marching jazz band. The music starts quite sorrowful and slow and then moves upbeat after the body is buried and the celebration of life begins.

Customs and traditions aside, wherever you’re from and whatever your beliefs, you can create the funeral you want. Whether that’s to have your coffin ride alongside a Harley Davison or have everyone wear something yellow! Talking and being open about death and funerals makes it easier for everyone when the time comes. 

Read the blog about personalising your funeral HERE

Overcoming your fear of funerals

September 22nd, 2020    Author:

If you’ve ever felt anxious at a funeral, you’re not alone. There are many different reasons why people might feel stressed or nervous in the lead up to the funeral of a loved one, friend or acquaintance.

Necrophobia is a specific phobia of death, or things associated with it, such as funerals, coffins and graveyards. Most of the time, however, our worries and nerves are linked to other things such as social anxiety or difficulty expressing emotion. It’s important to remember that anxiety is among the many emotional and physical symptoms of grief, and nothing to be ashamed of.


Why do I feel anxious about funerals? 

Any one of the below reasons could apply to you. By understanding what it is that is making you feel anxious, you can find ways to help yourself feel better.

The feeling of sadness: Attending a funeral is like facing your grief head-on. Whether it takes place days or weeks after the person has passed away, it is always on your mind as you move through the early stages of the grieving process. You may feel anxious about being surrounded by sadness and mourning on the day and worry how you’ll cope. Or you may be concerned about feeling awkward around other people’s sadness and not knowing how to react to them.

Fear of death: You may be worried about specific elements of the funeral, such as an open coffin (not particularly common in the UK) or the coffin being lowered into the ground or taken to the crematorium.

Public speaking: If you have been asked to do a reading at a funeral, or are putting pressure on yourself to read the eulogy, then your stress levels might be quite high. Funerals can (in normal times) have hundreds of mourners, so it’s no mean feat if you’re not a confident speaker.

Social anxieties: They say some families only meet up for weddings and funerals, so it’s possible people you haven’t seen for quite some years will be at the funeral. Knowing how to approach them, what to say and how to keep the conversation going can all be reasonable fears after time apart.

Fear of regret: Of course there’s also the worry that we avoid things to reduce anxiety on the day and then regret it later. Many people choose not to speak at a loved one’s funeral and then wish they had a few months down the line. Try not to be hard on yourself and never feel that you are letting anyone down.

Saying goodbye (again): If someone’s death has been quite long due to illness, or you’ve had to wait a long time for the funeral, it can feel like you’re saying goodbye all over again. Attending the funeral can feel like digging up lots of emotion for a second time.

Ways to cope with funeral anxiety

If any of the above sound familiar to you then there are things you can do to help combat the anxiety.

First off it may help to remember that everyone at the funeral is in the same boat, and many will probably have similar emotions and concerns. This also means that they’re going to be preoccupied with their own grief and not, as your anxieties may lead you to believe, focused on others’ and how they’re coping with the day.

Here are some simple steps to stop your anxiety taking over:

  1. Find someone to support you – Having a shoulder to cry on really does do the world of good. Try and sit with someone who you can share your feelings with and let them help support you through the day.
  2. Don’t pile the pressure on – Even if you have a role on the day, such as reading the eulogy or a pallbearer, remember that it’s OK not to be OK. Everyone will completely understand if you have a few tears, or need to pause for a bit to collect your thoughts.
  3. Break the day down in your mind – If you’re struggling to see through all the ‘brain fog’ then think through what the day might look like in your head and see yourself moving through each of the parts. If you notice something feels particularly uncomfortable then pause for a bit until you feel calmer about the situation. This will help to have a clearer mind and make your anxieties feel more manageable.
  4. Look after yourself – Practice mindfulness techniques to help you soothe your thoughts and breathing. Run a hot bath or light a candle and try and relieve the stress and tension you have been feeling.
  5. Do what works for you – There’s no ‘one size fits all’ here. Do what you need to do to understand and accept your feelings and find coping strategies that work for you.

You needn’t let nerves and fear stop you from paying your respects or saying goodbye to someone who’s played an important part in your life. Open up to people, talk about your anxiety and let them help you find ways to cope.