Benjamin Franklin said there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. While the incredibly wealthy are often able to escape taxes, death comes knocking for everyone eventually – and it seems millennials are the most prepared for it.
A survey by funeral directors CPJ Field of more than 2,000 recently bereaved people has found that 19 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds have gone on to plan their own funeral following the death of a loved one, compared to 15 percent of 35 to 54-year-olds and only 10 percent of over-55s (although this low percentage might be partly explained by the fact this age bracket had already planned their funeral before the bereavement).
In a press release about the survey's findings, Jeremy Field, Managing Director of CPJ Field, commented: "Four in five of those who knew these funeral wishes said it helped them feel they were doing the best they could for the person who had died. More than three-quarters (76 percent) reported it eased the pressure around planning the funeral, and almost the same amount (73 percent) said it gave them the space to consider how to help themselves and the rest of the family to grieve."
Arabella, 26, decided to pre-plan her funeral after losing both her mum and grandad in a short space of time, and was inspired by her mum's hands-on approach to planning after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
"It was inspiring to see her go through the motions in quite a detached way, but it still being meaningful for her. In the same way that people plan their birthday or wedding, or whatever, all the way through to their retirement, everyone has a preference and an ideal," she tells me over the phone. "Very few people are religious now, and there are so many different possibilities… I thought, 'If I die tomorrow, what would I want to happen?' It stemmed from there; that possibility of being able to talk about it and be prepared."
Discussing her plan, Arabella describes it as a "guideline: some preferences and a lot of don'ts". She wants to be cremated and have her ashes scattered across a personally significant cliff in Cornwall, and she doesn't want it to be sad, encouraging people to share happy stories of her life rather than sad ones about her death. "I sent my sister and dad an email saying this is what I’d like to happen, highlighted a few songs that I quite like, but I also said that it's about you too – I'm not going to be there, so whatever you think my family and friends would benefit from."
Charlotte, 23, decided to pre-plan her own funeral when she lost her father suddenly to suicide at the age of 18. "I wanted to show my dad how much I loved and knew him, to let everyone else know how great he was," she writes over email, of the challenges she faced in the wake of his death. "I wanted to give him the send-off he deserved, but I had no idea what I was doing. I was 18 and planning a funeral because I wanted the rest of my family to grieve – I almost gave up my [own] grief because I was so worried about everyone else. The financial trouble, the worry about doing justice to the person you love so much who is no longer here to tell you exactly what they want. I realised it would be so much easier that, if I died, the people who love me knew exactly what I wanted."
Chloe McKnight, Principle Funeral Director at CPJ, expands on the impact that not knowing a loved one's funeral wishes can have on those left behind to plan the service, and the way it can affect the grieving process.
"People are so concerned about making the right decisions that I think sometimes they're not concentrating on grieving for their loved one. We see people here and it's absolutely heart-breaking," she says. "They don't know whether mum or dad, or whoever, wanted to be buried or cremated – they're so desperate not to pick the wrong thing, and I think it adds quite a lot of turmoil for them."
Funeral pre-planning can be as detailed or as simple as you like. Although CPJ offers a service where you can pick everything from the type of coffin you'd like to buried in to the mode of transport that carries you to your final resting place, sometimes it can be as simple as just telling your loved ones your basic preferences. "I think even if you don't have a preference, let people know," advises Chloe. "If you don't mind whether you're buried or cremated, say, 'You can choose.' The things that you do have a decision about, let them know."
There are signs of a societal shift in the way we deal with death, evidenced by trends such as the rise of "death wellness", the opening of Death Cafes and documentaries such as Rehana Rose's touching Dead Good, which is centred around two "alternative" funeral directors in Brighton. Death is moving from the realm of taboo to a slightly more open place; the culture around death as a conversation topic, particularly in historically stiff-upper-lipped Britain, is slowly changing.
"Getting familiar with death and your funeral is a really great thing regardless of your age. Death shouldn't be so scary, because it will happen to each of us, and there is something beautiful about being about to have a say in our funeral," says Charlotte.
"I think it's gone through a process of generational change," muses Arabella. "With our parents and grandparents, there were certain topics they didn't talk about – like, say, mental health. It's become much more accepted for people to talk about these slightly more morbid or taboo topics. We all blame social media for things, but I think the fact that people are hearing about death and quite upsetting or traumatic experiences all over the world has helped people to be more open. People are faced with tragedy every day. [It can be a] great network of friends and communities – being able to speak about experiences, I definitely think that's helped."