An Interview with a Funeral Planner: Zeleka Sutherland, Your White Room 0

Continuing our exploration of the funeral industry and those who work within it, we’ve spoken with Zeleka Sutherland, the founder of Your White Room, a company that works with people nearing end of life and their loved ones to create a bespoke funeral which is reflective of their personality. The company focuses on providing a personalised and creative service that aims to accurately realise the wishes of the recently deceased and bereaved to create funerals that mean something to everyone involved. We caught up with Zeleka to find out how she approaches arranging a funeral.

 

What do you tell people when they ask you about what you do for a living?

I describe myself as a creative funeral planner who has a foundation in event planning. I studied media and event planning at university and I’ve been a freelance event planner ever since. The experience of my Nan passing away when I was 15, and other events after this led to me setting up Your White Room.

In the same way that a wedding planner works with a bride and groom to create a unique celebration of their love, Your White Room works with the recently bereaved and those planning for the inevitable to create a unique and reflective celebration of their life. The project involves supporting the recently bereaved, and helping to guide them through the funeral planning process to ensure it’s personal. We also help the living to make decisions about their own funerals by documenting their wishes in a personal funeral guide which empowers them, and helps their loved ones to make appropriate funeral arrangements in the eventuality of their death.

So, essentially, your aim is try and help people figure out what exactly they want from a funeral?

Yes! I am not a funeral director but I work closely with them and sometimes in place of them to bridge the gap between the practical and the personal. Normally, I am referred to a client after a funeral director has arranged the majority of the funeral, such as the cars and flowers etc., and I meet with them to arrange the funeral reception and take on all event management while adding personal elements.

I find that when you create the funeral whilst people are living, the event has a lot more impact. So, they tell us their wishes and we try and organise them to provide the most personalised service possible.

Zeleka Sutherland funeral planner

Do you feel there has been a move away from the traditional funerals towards people wanting to find something a little more personal and representative of their personality?

Yes, definitely but I think it’s also important to consider the torment many people go through when trying to arrange a funeral immediately after a loved one has died and to think about how things would be different if they were allowed to do it six to 12 months down the line. I think it would really highlight how big a part grief plays in the process.

Whilst we are grieving we are not able to think and react in the same way, so I think that’s why a lot more people are willing to think about their funeral wishes sooner. It makes for a much more personalised service, as well as saving your loved ones from having to organise everything themselves.

More people are open-minded to what is possible now too, allowing for much more personalisation. However, I do think people are still restricted somewhat by the traditional idea of a funeral and the thought of what they should be doing, which can often be the opposite of what that person actually wants. When somebody dies everyone has an opinion on what they think should happen and it’s all those conflicting ideas which can sometimes result in arguments and stress in the family.

When the person who has died hasn’t communicated what they would like their funeral to be, I guess it is understandable for families to go with a more traditional approach.

Yes, I think a lot of funeral directors still push a lot of the traditional elements of a funeral, but there are some that are a little more accommodating to new ideas and are willing to listen to families about their ideal funeral. A good funeral director is worth their weight in gold, but there are those who see it as a business first and view their clients as if on a conveyor belt. They will empathise, but will have a structure of how they do things, and getting them to include aspects of a funeral that are personalised and reflective of the deceased’s personality can be a struggle. People are not always made aware of the choices available to them and without that educational chat in the early stages they aren’t able to make informed decisions.

Do you find that you’re working with a lot of people looking to plan their own funeral or is a lot of your work with families dealing with a bereavement?

At the moment, I’d say there is a balance, although it does depend on the environment I’m in. For example, if I’m working with a hospice, a lot of people are approaching the end of their life so I’ll work with them to document their wishes within a manual to help their loved ones navigate through the funeral arranging process. Otherwise, it’s usually the case that someone has just lost someone dear to them and needs help with the arrangements.

If a client approaches me to arrange a funeral, I try to put them in touch with directors who do operate by a certain code of conduct, and those that I know will put the families first. I won’t refer anyone to a funeral director that I haven’t worked with before, and I always try and ensure that I give families more than one option so they can find a funeral director that works for them.

My role is to then get in touch with their chosen funeral director and ensure that there is a home visit. I also work with the family to make sure that they know what types of decisions they are going to have to make. This means it’s not a complete shock to them when they first meet the funeral director and they don’t end up feeling under pressure to make a decision.

I believe it’s something like 90% of families that end up going with the first funeral director they meet.

I think that’s true and about 70% based on recommendation or past involvement. I always advise my client that if they meet with a funeral director and feel comfortable and happy then they should go with them. However, a lot of the time it’s decided over the phone, which is why I always advise people to speak to at least two directors and look out for key signs. For example, the way a funeral director picks up the phone is so important and can give a good indication of how they are going to deal with you as a client.

The industry requires funeral directors to be extremely patient, and quite often clients have rung a funeral home to be met with quite an abrupt response. There are lots of little things that can be a great indication of whether or not they are a good fit, and it is so important for people to be comfortable, happy and feel in control when organising a funeral – my aim is to give them that insight.

What are the most memorable ceremonies that you have been involved in?

I have had clients who have asked to be taken to funerals in a specific car, or for everyone to wear a certain outfit. I documented the wishes of one client who wants everyone to be sat around the coffin on big purple bean bags – she wants to go away from tradition and be remembered for who she actually is.

Do you feel that those types of ceremonies are becoming more popular?

I feel that there are two kinds of people when it comes to funerals. Those that are very wary of discussing funeral planning and have very closed conversations on the topic, and those that have gone through the experience of lossare much more open and can give examples of how the whole process helped them in some way; and what they have learned from their previous experiences of bereavement and funerals.

For me, it’s important to get people to start talking about the topic of death as a way of removing the stigma surrounding it. Once you have those conversations, people start to see death as a part of life and understand that we do have an expiry date and that’s what makes life so meaningful.

Do you think it’s important to encourage funerals that help people move on?

A funeral is about the memory of the deceased and how that memory will live on in those that are left behind through the moments they shared in life; laughing, crying, living. Funerals are for the living…I’d say they’re less about moving on and more about moving past. Moving past the turmoil of loss to find comfort in the warmth of the memories which will continue to thrive within us. The worst thing is when you go to a funeral and end up feeling worse than before, though unfortunately this is unavoidable in some cases. People tend to forget that as well as a feeling of sadness, they should feel an element of joy and perhaps of appreciation and understanding too.

Thanks for your time Zeleka.

When you’re arranging a funeral you are free to use the services of a funeral planner alongside the funeral director who you choose. You can also use a funeral planner within your own funeral plan, though it’s a good idea to speak with them before purchasing a funeral plan.

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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.

Meet the Maker: Cremation Glass Jewellery 0

Glassmaker Kenny Scott of Ash Glass Design.

Pendant with flecks and swirls in the glass made from the ashes of someone who has died

What do you see when you look at this pendant? To the untrained eye, it might look like … a pendant. But to those in the know, it’s something unusual, and completely unique: those flecks and swirls in the glass are made from the ashes of someone who has died.

In fact, the necklace is just one item in a range of mourning jewellery and sculpture created by glassmaker Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass Design. Based in the picturesque village of Clovenfords in the Scottish Borders, Kenny and co. craft bespoke cremation glass jewellery for families who want a subtle way to carry their loved one’s ashes with them.

So, how does one become a cremation glassmaker, exactly, and how is cremation glass actually made? To find out more about this relatively new answer to the question of what to do with ashes, we had a chat with Kenny …

 

How did Ash Glass Design get started?

Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass DesignKenny began his career at the tender age of 16, leaving school to take on a five-year apprenticeship in making glass from scratch. 20 years later, he was creating glasswork for museums and clients when he received an unusual request:

“One of my friends who’s a funeral director approached me and asked if I would make a memorial pendant for someone using ashes”, Kenny told Beyond. While at first Kenny wasn’t sure (he describes it as “a wee bit of a Marmite moment”) the family was so pleased with the result that he immediately realised that he wanted to do it again.

“After I made the pendant and met the family, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had when making something for someone”, Kenny explained. “They were so happy, and it’s such a precious thing that you’re making for them, that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’

“Basically, that was it: I put a wee range together, and from there it’s kind of grown. I love doing it.”

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Why do people like cremation jewellery?

CreAsh Glass Design's cremation glass mourning ringmation jewellery isn’t for everyone ­– but while some find the concept morbid, others like the idea of keeping a loved one close in a subtle way. “I speak to all the customers, and I think for them the nicest thing is the fact that they can have their loved one with them all the time, and it’s not in your face. It doesn’t have a big sign saying what it is – it’s just a lovely piece of jewellery”, Kenny said.

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everybody says that they get so much comfort out of having it.”

In Ash Glass Design’s range, rings are the most popular option: “Somebody said to me, it’s like they’re still holding my hand.

“We do lots for weddings as well, my goodness. For somebody who has maybe lost a parent, it’s like [their loved one] can be there on their wedding day. It’s a lovely way to have them with you.”

“There’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt.”

How is cremation glass jewellery made?

Making cremation jewelleryThe process of making cremation glass jewellery is long and somewhat delicate, with great care taken to make sure the right ashes (“labelled, bagged, boxed, bagged again”, Kenny reports) are used.

At Ash Glass Design, everything is made in-house. After a discussion with the family about the design, Kenny melts their required colour of glass to make a base. He then carefully adds the ashes before sealing it over with clear glass to make a perfect finished surface.

After some time spent in the kiln – it takes a day and a half to gradually cool the hot glass down – the glass is polished down with diamond tools and set into the gold or silver using a traditional technique. Any ashes left over are returned to the family along with the finished piece.

“You have to know the procedures for cooling glass down, how to heat it up, how compatible it is with other materials, so it’s quite a wee science on its own,” Kenny said, adding that “there’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt. You’re always making new designs as well, to stretch the boundaries a bit.”

“I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them”

Do you take requests?

Because Ash Glass Design is a small company (Kenny, his wife Emma and “amazing” goldsmith Joanna) the team are able to take requests to make each piece of glass unique: “If somebody wants a bespoke colour in their jewellery, we never charge any extra … We do what we can to help folk get what they want. If [a customer] wants something to be adapted somehow, then we look into it for them”, Kenny explained.

“Sometimes it’s not as feasible as they might think initially, but we can talk them through it, and find the best option for them.”

Customers appreciate this personal service: “I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them. Even a couple of years down the road, we still get them phoning back, asking how we are. It’s lovely.”


Want to find out more about Ash Glass Design? Check out their website, www.ashglassdesign.co.uk, give the team a ring on 01896 850447, or contact Kenny at [email protected]


About mourning jewellery …

A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold.
A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold. Image by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning jewellery dates back as far as the 1600s, when stern memento mori-themed rings (‘remember that you must die’) were gradually overtaken by more personal tokens of grief. Examples from the British Museum demonstrate how gruff messages like “learn to dye” were replaced by kinder tributes, such as “not lost but gone before” and “not dead but sleepeth”.

At its peak in the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was worn as part of a strict dress code for the bereaved. Mourning rings were joined by broaches and lockets, and were often made with jet (a precious stone that, being black, was thought to be mourning period-appropriate). Many contained a lock of the hair from the person who had died, or a miniature portrait.

Popularity eventually declined as life expectancy increased – by World War One, mourning jewellery was out of vogue. But the desire shared by bereaved families for physical mementos of their loved ones never really went away.

Now, the rise in cremation – 70% of people in the UK choose it over burial – and increasing openness about death are leading to a rise in interest, with companies like Ash Glass Design offering a more contemporary take.