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.

Previous ArticleNext Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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.

Behind the Scenes at Scattering Ashes 0

The team from Scattering Ashes hold up a mini Viking funeral boat.

With cremations now accounting for an impressive 76% of all funerals in the UK, more and more families are looking for creative – or even spectacular – things to do with their loved one’s ashes.

That’s where Scattering Ashes come in. Founded in 2009 by Richard Martin, this incredibly comprehensive site aims to help its visitors find the perfect way to say goodbye, whether that be a peaceful seaside scattering or going out with a bang in an ambitious firework display.

This month, we caught up with Richard to talk about scattering techniques, Viking funerals – and why you don’t want to leave ashes at Jane Austen’s house.

Hi Richard! Thanks for the interview. How did Scattering Ashes come to be?

Ashes being scattered from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth
Richard and the team can help you scatter ashes from a vintage wartime Tiger Moth plane, among other things.

I worked for the Environment Agency and DEFRA for many years, and it was looking like it might be time to change career. So, I thought, ‘What would I like to do?’

I’d scattered my dad’s ashes years before, and felt that we were left a bit at sea because the funeral directors didn’t have any information. We scattered his ashes at his golf course, and we weren’t made to feel very welcome when we went there –  and we certainly weren’t made to feel welcome when we wanted to go back. It all just felt a bit unsatisfactory.

So, I had the idea that perhaps I could help people by providing information about scattering ashes, because there was nothing out there online. I started blogging and then the business grew from there.

A Viking Longboat urn from Scattering Ashes
The Viking longboat urn from Scattering Ashes actually floats.

What’s your favourite scattering method on the site at the moment?

One thing that seems to have hit a chord with people is the Viking boat.

We do an almost metre-long Viking boat that holds a full set of ashes. You can set it afloat, set it on fire, and it goes up in a blaze of glory. We’ve tested them, and they’re pretty cool, I have to say. When we’ve seen them set sail, they’ve looked amazing! I quite like the fireworks too.



Why do you think people are looking for more exciting things to do with ashes now?

I think society has become more accepting of death. I also think that the old religious practices don’t suit as many people these days – maybe you don’t necessarily want a vicar speaking at your funeral because he never really knew you, and you’re not religious in the first place. And more people are thinking, ‘Well, actually, I don’t want that sort of faux-Victoriana, I want a bit more of a celebratory approach to my life’.

Ashes are scattered directly into someone's face in this scene from The Big Lebowski.
That scene from The Big Lebowski.

You run courses on scattering ashes for funeral directors. Do you have any top tips for a successful scattering?

Mind the wind is my main one.

There’s that scene in The Big Lebowski.

Exactly. Another is to be safe: a chap died last year scattering ashes after he got washed off shore in Cornwall, and the year before that a couple died in Spain doing it, and the year before that a lady fell off a cliff doing it in Ireland. Don’t go to these extreme places, because you’re putting yourself in danger.

A biodegradable water urn shaped like a turtle
This floating turtle urn from Scattering Ashes is completely biodegradable.

The third thing is probably to be aware of the amount of ashes. People tend to think it’s going to be light. In movies, like The Big Lebowski for example, there’s literally a few handfuls. But in reality, there’s something like six pounds of ashes.

So, people often end up scattering for quite a while, then they upend the urn and get this little conical pile of ashes, and it looks odd. Then they realise, ‘Oh god, we’ve got nothing to move it around with,’ and they’re using their feet, and then they go, ‘This is undignified.’

But with a bit of thought, you can make it quite a poignant, memorable ceremony, which is what we try to educate people about.

You keep a (really very comprehensive) record of places that allow scattering – do people often say no?

More and more often, now. When we first started a lot of football clubs were saying yes, and now many say no. Some are trying to cater for it with memorial gardens instead: they realise the demand, but they don’t want it impacting the pitch.

The more people scatter ashes in one place, the more troublesome they find it?

Jane Austen's house in Chawton
Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, where visitors have been asked to stop secretly scattering ashes. Image by Joaotg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Absolutely. Two particular places come to mind. One is the top of Ben Nevis: a lot of Scots will have their ashes scattered at the top of Ben Nevis. The ecosystem up there is relatively fragile – mosses and lichens. It might look barren, but it’s not.

Ashes are rich in calcium and phosphorus, so when you put a lot of ashes there, you’re changing the ecology of the place. So, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked people to stop scattering at the summit.

They had to put a press release out for Jane Austen’s house because people were sneaking over the wall at night and upending the urns on the weekend. The gardener might come back on Monday morning and find three piles of ashes that had been dumped, and of course, a rose bed can only take so much.

A panoramic view from Ben Nevis, where people are no longer supposed to scatter ashes.
The view from Ben Nevis. Image by Leo Hoogendijk courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You won Best Bereavement Resource at the Good Funeral Awards in 2015 – what’s your secret?

Honesty, really. I try not to be partisan, and to look at both sides and just use the facts. I don’t have any particular drum to beat about this; I think people should have the right to choose what they do with ashes, as long as it doesn’t impact others. Also, it’s pretty comprehensive: I’ve phoned up and emailed virtually everyone. There must be getting on to 800 posts on there now.

Impressive! And what’s next for Scattering Ashes?

We’re offering training courses for funeral directors and crematoria staff and celebrants, which is new. We’ll also be increasing our trade offer, putting wholesale options on the site. And we now have a sister site here called My Pet’s Ashes, which offers similar services for pet owners, because they’re part of the family too.

If you’d like to find out more about Scattering Ashes, head on over to the site at www.scattering-ashes.co.uk. And if you have your own ash scattering story to tell, we’d love to hear it! Share your thoughts in the comment box below.