Dee Ryding’s pioneering work to improve how we deal with death, includes helping create Bristol’s first Death Cafe and the Death Workshop at Arnos Vale Cemetery, led to her being voted National Celebrant of the Year in 2014. This is how she plans to move funerals away from Victorian gloom into celebrations of life.
Dee became passionate about changing the way we deal with death following the sudden loss of her two grandparents and then her baby son. She quit her job as a BBC director to train as a Funeral Celebrant with the British Humanist Association. During Dying Matters week in May she launch her new venture, Divine Ceremony, designed to offer more flexibility and choice with Home Funerals at affordable prices.
“My daughter was very upset at losing her brother so I wrote a ceremony for my son. We planted a tree in the garden and put a toy under the tree, we read poetry. It was just for the three of us. I started to realise the importance of ritual. It can make the difference between moving forward and staying locked within the grieving process”
What led you to this work?
I am a great believer that we have signposts in our lives. Sometimes they just can’t be ignored. A neighbour died and had requested that my husband lead his funeral ceremony. I wrote the ceremony and it ignited something for me. My grandmother died and then my grandfather died on the day of her funeral. So we had two funerals very close together, neither was comforting, they did not talk about my grandparents as people. I left thinking I could do that better. At that time I was pregnant with my baby son, unfortunately he died.
It was a very difficult time. We didn’t have a faith – so we were rudderless. My daughter was very upset at losing her brother so I wrote a ceremony for my son. We planted a tree in the garden and put a toy under the tree, we read poetry. It was just for the three of us. I started to realise the importance of ritual. It can make the difference between moving forward and staying locked within the grieving process.
The following year I trained with the British Humanist Association and started work as a celebrant. At the same time I had my second daughter and she spent the first six months of her life being walked around various crematoria and graveyards mum and me. I would give her a quick breastfeed and go in and do a ceremony.
What do you think of the traditional approach to funerals?
The traditional funeral home was mostly run by women. It was the midwives who laid the body out. So the women who brought babies into the world also helped families with their dead. It all changed with Queen Victoria and her inability to cope with her grief. She felt it was wrong for women to be in the funeral world. All the pomp and ceremony, wearing black, the way we remove our dead into mortuaries – all that came with Queen Victoria. Before that people kept their dead at home for much longer.
We are culturally geared up to quickly taking the body away, embalming it and then holding a twenty minute ceremony. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Embalming is unnecessary, and an additional expense for the family as well as being ecologically appalling. We should question MDF coffins in crematoria, we should question embalming with toxic chemicals. If you’ve cared for someone through a terminal illness or had a child die it is very hard to have that person suddenly taken from you. I work closely with death doulas who help families through the transition of death at home. 75% of us when asked would like to die at home and yet 75% of us die in hospital
How have you been working to change this?
I’ve come to view the ceremony as being a threefold process. So the first process is an acknowledgement of loss. Then we put our grief aside to celebrate the life. The third part is taking the more formal steps to say farewell, which is really what helps people to move forward with their futures.
Over the 7 years that I’ve been doing this I realised the power of this process. The honouring of life at death is very important. I work across the board; natural burials at sea, on top of hill forts, ceremonies on allotments – the process remains the same. I work with families to help create the most appropriate ceremony for their loved one and for themselves. The average funeral cost £4000 and I work with people that may be unlucky and experience two or three deaths close together like my mum did with her parents.
My intention with Divine Ceremony is to take the role of funeral director and help families create something that feels right for them with the budget they can afford. My website will have a funeral calculator so you can come to me knowing how much money you will need. Shopping around is hard for someone already dealing with grief and loss and so many things to organise. I will simplify the process so my coffins will cost what they cost me. In the States they’ve had home funerals for 20 odd years.
What exactly happens at home funeral?
The home funeral process has the viewing at home to surround the deceased with their family and loved ones. I can help them wash and dress the body and hair at home, very sympathetically, supported by the family. The family and friends can play the music they love, eat the food they enjoy, decorate the coffin as they want.
Then we place the loved one in the coffin and from there move on to the ceremony. This could be at home or in the garden but mostly it will be at crematorium or cemetery. It’s far less formal and by the time you reach the ceremony you are in a different head space. This really is a vital step towards saying goodbye and how we say goodbye is so important.
Dee launches Divine Ceremony and the National Home Funeral Network UK on June 16th at M Shed in a showcase for progressive funeral professionals. She will be bringing a coffin up river in memory of her great uncle who was a pilot on the Harbourside and then taking it into M Shed for a rooftop ceremony based around How to have a good funeral. Dee’s website divineceremony.org will launch in Dying Matters Awareness Week – 18 -24 May.