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Time.

Einstein showed us that it was not absolute, but relative; that we move through time at different speeds depending on how fast we are moving through space, or if we are in a strong gravity well.

The nature of time was one of the things my father and I used to discuss and debate – he believed that it was an artificial human construct, I that it was a fundamental element of the universe – and we debated that sort of thing right up until he ran out of it. Appropriate really, because after my Dad passed time seemed to speed up significantly.

You never think about these things, but the time between when a person passes and when their funeral is held goes by in an instant, understandably; burying the dead quickly is important for many reasons. The consequence of this is that when making arrangements for a funeral you are usually short of the precious commodity of time, and so you might get a send-off for your loved one that, in retrospect, wasn’t exactly what you (or they) were after.

Thankfully, my Dad had been to a good solicitor and sorted his estate planning, so that part of it happened smoothly, which was of great comfort, especially to my Mum; but if we can do that for the legal side of things for our clients, perhaps we could also assist with the personal?

Solicitors, out of necessity, have a lot more experience with this area than most, and maybe we can provide a more holistic service to our clients than just getting the legal side sorted.

With that in mind, here are four lessons I learned from my Dad’s funeral that might be worth passing on to clients, so that every aspect of a difficult time can be as comforting as possible.

Plan it

I don’t mean the standard stuff about having an insurance policy to cover the costs, and knowing what the departed wanted done with their remains, I mean plan all of it, and well in advance. Have that difficult discussion with parents and siblings who are moving into their twilight years. What songs do they want? Who do they want to be there? Private or public, or no service at all?

We knew what songs Dad wanted, and how he wanted it to work (like the Australian flag on his coffin, as was his right as an ex-soldier, and where he wanted his ashes scattered), but plenty of people find themselves at a loss at this point. Nobody likes to discuss these things, but better they are done early so that when the unthinkable happens, you don’t have to think too much about it.

Film it

When my wife’s grandfather passed away, she and her siblings were deeply upset; they had been close to him all their lives. Despite her state of mind, my wife sang at his funeral, a brilliant rendition of On Eagle’s Wings (with her sister equally excellent on the accompanying piano) and it struck me at the time that I wish I had filmed it.

Similarly, I have watched a couple of friends give beautiful, heartbreaking eulogies for their parents, which my friends will never get to see, because filming funerals generally isn’t done.

Because my Dad’s funeral was during the pandemic, it was streamed online for people who could not attend, and so by good fortune it was recorded in the process. It is good to be able to look back on the eulogies my Mum, brother, kids and I delivered, and know that Dad would have been proud of our efforts. It is also a lasting connection to the final time we were with him, and watching it can be uplifting in a sense, even though it was a sad day.

Get an emcee

Some people may have a particular connection to a minister of religion, and happily have them conduct the proceedings, but not everyone has that option; often such duties are simply handled by the official in charge of whichever facility hosts the funeral.

Certainly, our family had no such connection, and sought the services of a professional celebrant. Whilst the person we engaged was well-intentioned, on the day it was clear that all they could provide was a relatively formulaic effort, and there were a number of things which were not done the way we wanted them – no doubt a legacy of the short time we had to plan with the celebrant.

Had we arranged for a family friend, who had known Dad and knew us, there would have been a much more personal dimension to proceedings and we would have had more time to ensure things progressed as we had planned. Such a person would also have had their own memories to share, which seems to me more comforting than a one-size-fits-all effort from a paid professional.

Control it

By this I mean ensure that you are across everything (this is another reason having a family friend involved in the arrangements is useful) and comfortable that things are unfolding as you want them to. In our case, some confusion in the wording of the announcement led a few people to believe they could not attend, and so they watched online when they would have preferred to be present.

Obviously, you only get one shot at this sort of thing and making sure things go the way you want is crucial. Having a detailed plan – covering everything from where it might be, how it will be announced and who you think might give a eulogy, offer a prayer, etc. – long before you need it is a great advantage when the time comes.

Conclusion

From a solicitor’s point of view, going through this with clients when wills are being drafted or updated puts you in a position to remind the client of certain things they wanted when the time comes (and when they are probably not thinking straight).

It isn’t an extra service for which we could charge more, but it is a way to act in our client’s best interests beyond our legal work, and to let them know they aren’t just a number on an invoice. It might even ease their grief at a time of mourning, which is worth much more than money.

Shane Budden is a Special Counsel, Ethics, with the Queensland Law Society Ethics and Practice Centre.

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