An Interview with Sarah Jones, author of ‘Funerals, Your Way’ 0

A wicker coffin decorated with flowers by the team at Full Circle Funerals

We’re all going to die. Not right away (let’s get that clear – we’ve not spotted a large comet hurtling towards Earth) but, like it or not, death comes to us all.

We don’t talk about it, though. And since we don’t talk about death, the majority of people who are arranging a funeral for the first time are blindsided by the sheer number of decisions they have to make, often about things they’ve never considered.

Sarah Jones from Full Circle Funerals holds her book, Funerals, Your WayPerhaps you know whether the person who died wanted to be cremated or buried – but did you ever ask them about what they’d want to be wearing when it happened? Are they a wicker coffin sort of person, or is veneer wood better? Funeral planning involves a host of bewildering questions that most of us are unprepared for.

Funeral director Sarah Jones of Full Circle Funerals wants to change that. Her new e-book, Funerals, Your Way, offers families a gentle yet thorough introduction to the many options available to them, and a framework for approaching difficult decisions with their loved one’s wishes and personality in mind.

Ahead of the launch of the book, we caught up with Sarah to talk about how it came about and why the “person-centred approach to planning a funeral” is the future…

Hi Sarah! How did you become a funeral director?

We opened Full Circle Funerals in September of 2016, but I’d decided about a year before that that was what I wanted to do. I started my working life as a doctor in the NHS, doing vascular surgery. I left that role to work with adults with learning difficulties.

The simple reason for opening Full Circle is that, throughout my work in health and social care, I’ve always felt that end of life care and funerals are really important. And that if they’re done well, that it could probably make a really big difference to bereaved families.

I felt that it was something it was important to do well and do right, and I was quite clear in my mind about what I thought that would involve. So, I decided to do it.

What inspired you to write Funerals, Your Way?

The team at Full Circle Funerals decorate a wicker casket.I think the more people know before they walk into a funeral director, the better.

Every day, in our work, we support families, and it’s so obvious and so clear that giving them a little bit of information and time, and expanding on the ideas they’ve already got, is incredibly helpful to people. Opening up a space where they can confidently feel that they can explore what they want and what they need can make a real difference.

A lot of people walk into the room and they have never thought about it before. It’s something they haven’t even wanted to engage in: they’re bewildered, they’re confused, and they’re vulnerable. I think it’s so easy to address that knowledge imbalance and power imbalance, so that families can go into the arrangements knowing what questions they need to ask, having gathered their thoughts.

How you would like families to use your book? 

A traditional church funeral arranged by Full Circle FuneralsIdeally, I think everybody should just read it, randomly, as a book, rather than being in a situation where they’re having to apply it to a person in their lives, or themselves. That way they’re not stressed, and they can take their time to consider it.

Another way it could help is if families read it when they know that they are going to need to arrange a funeral in the coming weeks and months, so they’re preparing themselves.

We are also approached by quite a lot of people who want to plan their own, particularly younger people. So, I think it could be something they read relatively privately, and then when they’ve gathered their thoughts, then they can engage in that difficult conversation with the people in their family.

In the book, you talk about taking a “person-centred approach to funerals”. What does that mean to you?

A burial arranged by Full Circle FuneralsI come from a background in health and social care, where everything should be person-centred.  You effectively have a group of professionals and a process that is centred around the individual. And you’re collaborating with that individual, giving them what they need to optimise their health and care.

That principle, to me, feels very, very important for funerals. The person who has died – do you want the funeral to reflect that person?  And then you also have the people close to them, who maybe need to get something helpful from the process of arranging the funeral and the funeral itself – how do you support them?

So, I suppose my logic was just to highlight the people at the centre of all of this. I think funerals should be person-centred, and that person should not be the funeral director or a representative from the industry.

Do you see that perhaps as something that some in the industry need to work on?

The team from Full Circle Funerals.Everyone I have met seems to be trying to do their best, and we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. Which, broadly speaking, is better, more consistent, personalised care for people at the end of their lives and at funerals.

I believe that the way to achieve that is to increase knowledge amongst the general public and to therefore increase people’s expectations. I think that that’s actually the only way that you can fundamentally change funeral care.

So, my emphasis is on just trying to just slowly work away, in my own very tiny way, at changing people’s expectations of how good a funeral can actually be, and how helpful it can be. And giving them the information that they need to make that happen.

Funerals, Your Way is available to buy from Full Circle Funerals here. All proceeds go to support the Leeds Bereavement Forum and local hospices.

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Behind the Scenes at the Veterans Bereavement Support Service 0

A funeral arranged with the help of the VBSS

At Beyond, we always strive to highlight the important work that funeral directors carry out to provide families with the best care possible. Yet bereavement support does not always begin and end at the funeral home. A multitude of organisations, charities and community-led initiatives work in tandem with local funeral directors to lend a helping hand to families in their greatest time of need.

For the month of November, and with the spirit of Armistice Day in the air, we decided to speak with Paul Burrows, a founding member and volunteer at Veterans Bereavement Support Service (VBSS). Established in 2014, this unique service helps bereaved families whose loved ones serve, or have served, in the armed forces.

Hi Paul. VBSS is run entirely by volunteers. Where did it all begin?

The service came into being because we noticed that many families were feeling let down by the system. When it comes to bereavement care and support, many struggled to pay for the funerals of their loved ones, often due to high costs and a lack of financial assistance. We created Veterans Bereavement Support as an online resource, with the added benefit of real-time help and support as and when needed.

So, how does it all work?

Initially, we started referring bereaved families to independent funeral directors, as they are expert in offering a personal approach. We would then help them with the organisation of the ceremonial aspects of the funeral and, where possible, we contributed towards costs.

However, in the past 18 months our services have changed significantly. Whilst we do refer families to independents – as opposed to corporate funeral directors – we are always contending with restricted funds. Due in part to the rising cost of funerals, we are no longer able to give financial help to families. But, on the plus side, we are fortunate that many funeral directors still work with us and offer discounts to veterans.

Restructuring has meant that our services are now used by more families. As well as providing bereavement care and support, we offer listening services, advice on access to funding for funerals, the loan of coffin drapes and, if requested, we present the Veterans Memorial Pin to widows or the next of kin when a veteran passes away. Above all, we are here for veterans and their families at their time of need.

How do veterans’ families typically make contact?

The families contact us directly asking for assistance – usually in the early days of their loss – and we make suggestions on how we can best support them.  There are some funeral directors who also contact us when they are handling a veteran’s funeral, so we are always happy to help by offering our advice and support.

Today marks the centenary of Armistice Day, with commemorative events taking place across the country. Do veterans’ funerals tend to differ in many ways?

We don’t encourage people to view veteran funerals as different in too many ways; what we are doing is marking the passing of someone who has served our country in times of war and peace. There are some people who do not want any ceremonial aspects for the funeral at all, and this must be respected. Others appreciate symbolic gestures, like the ensign of their service draped over the coffin. In cases like these, we work to ensure that drapes are the correct size and are happy to loan these out to families that require them.

There are other instances in which a standard bearer, padre and representation from a specific regiment is required, and so we can work with families towards this end, too. Each veterans’ funeral is unique and special according to the wishes of the family, and we always endeavour to make the family the central point of anything we are involved with.

We tend to advise against mass attendances at funerals and often discourage social media posting, as these can draw unwanted attention and detract from the overall dignity of the funeral service.

In this special year, there have been lots of low-key funerals, but one in particular stands out in my mind: that of a Normandy veteran, who died in Poole. We worked with the funeral director, the family and the regiment. It was a very moving experience for everyone and I, as a Padre, helped with the church service and conducted the committal at the crematorium. Present as the service were standards, fellow veterans who knew him, and a military guard of honour; the whole process was simple, dignified and respectful.

The VBSS aren’t unfamiliar with going the extra mile to help families. Can you tell us any more about the lengths you’ve gone to in the past?

Yes, certainly. One veteran, who lived in London, had served in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and then had moved onto Australia where she continued to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force. When she returned to the UK, she served in the police for 25 years.

We arranged for the RAF to send a representative, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police also sent a personal message thanking her for the service given to the people of London. Even the Australian High Commissioner sent a wreath and a letter that was read at the funeral and given to the family!

Our main priority is providing bereavement care and support to families, and we have helped families across the country from Lands End to John O’Groats, Northern Ireland, Wales and most UK counties. Very recently, in fact, we were involved in a funeral in Wiltshire for a veteran of the Royal Hussars. We met with the family at the time of passing and helped them get the best priced funeral, and then helped them through the paperwork and funding. We then went on to arrange the whole funeral for them according to their wishes, and it was a fitting and dignified funeral.

Do you work with any other organisations or charities at all?

No, we are totally independent and have no links with the RBL or SSAFA or, indeed, any ex-service organisations. It’s worth pointing out that neither do we get any funding from the government.

We prefer to be independent and non-political so that we may provide the best possible service to those who require our help in their time of need.

To find out more about the VBSS, you can visit their website at veteransbereavementsupport.com

Behind the Scenes at Sacred Stones 3

Deep in the Cambridgeshire countryside, an idyllic spot hosts the Willow Row round barrow. Built by Sacred Stones, the earth-covered stone chamber is a stunning tribute to the beauty of our prehistoric burial practices …

Scattered across Britain, the original barrows belong to the oldest surviving architectural tradition in England. These atmospheric stone and earth burial mounds were used over thousands of years by our ancestors, guarding the remains of men, women and children and playing host to important ceremonies.

More than 150 long barrows survive to this day – often visited, but no longer playing the same vital role in local communities. Yet with the help of a company called Sacred Stones, that is changing, as the team build the first new barrows in the UK for thousands of years.

Tucked away in secluded rural locations, Sacred Stones’ beautiful contemporary barrows offer modern families the opportunity to take part in an ancient tradition – and make it their own.

“A calm and natural environment to commune, memorialise, educate and celebrate life.”

Images of  Willow Row Barrow Founded in 2014, Sacred Stones began when build directors Martin Fildes and Geraint Davies created the first long barrow at the All Cannings site, as a private commission from farmer and Stonehenge steward Tim Daw.

Inspired by the amazing response to the All Cannings long barrow from the public, and by the sheer contrast to their collective “impersonal, brief” experiences of services held by crematoria, Martin launched the business with Toby Angel, Mark Davis and Geraint that year.

The second barrow, near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, was completed in 2016. A third location in Shropshire is under construction this year, and a fourth is expected to be announced very soon.

A Sacred Stones Long Barrow“We wanted simply to provide the community with an alternative, secular, space,” says Toby, who is managing director at Sacred Stones.

Rather than the usual experience at a crematorium, which is, Toby explains, often characterised by queues and awkward meetings in the car park, the barrow is “not just a space that acts as a physical repository for ashes, but also one that provides a calm and natural environment to commune, memorialise, educate and ultimately (and this is our goal) celebrate life.

“We’ve created a space with a historic angle, but really it’s an environment that helps express an innate desire in human beings, and that’s the need to be together and to share.”

“Entirely flexible. Without prescription.”

Ceremony at A Sacred Stones Long BarrowThe Sacred Stones barrows are similar in look and feel to their original counterparts. Like the Neolithic barrows, they combine inner chambers for the interment of remains (in this case, ashes) with an outdoor space for ceremonies. The look and feel are both very natural, with each barrow blending in seamlessly with the landscape. Inside the chambers, niches for urns are lit by small votive candles.

Despite the traditional form of the Sacred Stones barrows, the company’s outlook on how the space should be used is very open.

“Our approach is entirely flexible. Without prescription. We facilitate and assist,” Toby explains, adding that families are free to book the venue for a service without any time constraints or any rules or expectations for the structure of the funeral service.

“Family involvement – so, crafting and creating your own service, ceremony, experience, or ritual – that empowerment is relatively new, and is undoubtedly welcome. People love it.”

Custom urn nichesPlaques and covers for the urn niches are completely custom, with many choosing carvings personal to the departed. The Flying Scotsman appears on one engineer’s niche, which his grandchildren visit every month.

The Sacred Stones team in the past have served mulled wine and set up fire baskets to keep guests warm at a service. Families are free to hold very formal funerals, or relaxed gatherings. As Toby says, “all we do is ‘empower’ families to choose for themselves.

“[You can] host funerals at a barrow with or without a coffin. Host memorial events informally or be as formal as you wish, with or without a celebrant or faith leader. Bring a brass-band, or a mobile fish and chip van. It’s not our service, it’s the family’s. We simply facilitate.”

“It gives a sense of belonging, ownership, connection.”

In fact, Toby and the team have been surprised – and inspired – by the way families and local communities have made the sites their own.

Willow Row Barrow, CambridgeshireThe site at Shropshire has inspired paintings by a local artist, who has created a kind of barrow-nymph, a small figure who appears in every piece. A poet has begun composing poetry about the barrows. And, interestingly, families often arrive at the barrows in progress to assist with the build – just as the local community once would have banded together to create the original barrows.

“It gives a sense of belonging, ownership, connection and a sense of permanence,” Toby says. “To prepare for a funeral – physically, mentally and spiritually – is a very healthy thing to do, I think, and I guess that’s what being part of the build process has done for the folk who’ve chosen to do it. It has been extraordinary.”

So, what’s next for Sacred Stones? Toby says that 10 new sites are in the works in the UK, while two others are being considered in the US. The team are building relationships with celebrants, death doulas and others in the industry who share their belief in a more open, personal and flexible approach. But, Toby says, what happens to the barrows is really up to local communities:

“Building a barrow is very exciting, but once we’ve finished it’s rather melancholy, because we have to let go and give it to the community. While we are still guardians of the site, we’re essentially giving it to them. The community will determine how they will use it – and how their children and grandchildren will use it, as well.”


Want to find out more about Sacred Stones’ work? You can visit their website at http://www.sacredstones.co.uk, or visit one of the sites on an open day. The next is on Sunday 19th August, at the Willow Row site in Cambridgeshire.