How we led our dad's funeral ceremony ourselves

Kevin Best and wife Gillian

Four minute read

The Best family decided to lead their dad Kevin’s funeral ceremony without a celebrant or minister. We asked Kevin’s wife Gilly and daughter Nicola about what difference that decision made to them, and what advice they had for others wanting to do the same.

Gilly also shares her experience in Poppy's introductory video.

Thank you for talking to us about your experience. Can you start by telling us a little bit about Kevin?

Nicola: My dad was passionate about two things — my mum and our family, and motorsports. He loved anything car-related, and spent his career working in sports marketing.

My mum is from a large South African family. My dad often found himself hosting backpackers — finding flats and bar work for relatives who came to stay in our house. He was hugely generous, but could be difficult too — we said he was born grumpy.

In the early 2000s, he was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune condition. He was severely, terminally ill for a long time, and we had some serious scares before he died. His ill health determined his life and ours for the last 15 years.

He wasn’t religious at all, and he was very unsentimental about his own death. We talked about death a lot. Dad always had a sense of humour about it, as did we. It made a huge difference to be able to laugh about something difficult.

How did you first hear about Poppy’s?

Gilly: I worked at Trinity Hospice, managing carers providing end-of-life care in people’s homes. I was responsible for their training. As part of their induction, we spent half a day at Poppy’s. They always said it was one of the most valuable bits of the induction.

From my point of view, there was no question of anyone else looking after Kevin. I knew immediately who to call.

Read more about the training that we offer to health care workers.

Nicola: My mum was adamant it would be Poppy’s because they would give us the freedom and choice to do things differently.

Gilly: The first meeting was just as we’d hoped — it was informal, relaxed, reassuring. One of the things we loved about Poppy’s was the way they constantly talked about Kevin by his name. Not everyone gets that you need to share humour around a death, but I always knew that the staff at Poppy’s understood that.

Why did you decide to lead Kevin’s funeral ceremony yourselves?

Gilly: Initially, the celebrant was going to be my Catholic priest, but his only role would be to say a couple of prayers. Then he had a family crisis and couldn’t do the date. We couldn’t change it because we had family flying in from South Africa. I didn’t want a humanist celebrant because of the level of religious content we were going to have.

Our Poppy’s funeral director, Hannah, asked us: ‘Have you thought about doing it yourself?’ Within seconds, we all agreed: ‘Yes, we can do that’. We had such clear ideas of what we wanted. We knew who we wanted to read and what we wanted them to say.

What difference did this make to your experience of the funeral?

Gilly: I loved the feeling of doing exactly what we wanted and what we thought Kevin would want.

Nicola: Dad was so sick for so long, but we didn’t want the funeral to be about him being sick. We had a clear vision of the message and what it should feel like. If we’d had a celebrant, it would be someone else’s interpretation of Dad. It would have changed the whole feeling. Instead, we had control over the narrative about his life.

My brother Gregory did a beautiful introduction to the ceremony. He said how the illness wasn’t welcome here, but memories, family and friends and love were welcome.

Gilly: The chapel assistant suggested that I might want to close the curtains around Kevin myself in my own time. I loved being able to do that. It was really significant for me. I felt so powerful. I was so grateful for that opportunity.

"I loved the feeling of doing exactly what we wanted and what we thought Kevin would want."

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about leading a funeral ceremony themselves?

Nicola: My advice would be to make sure you balance the burden of readings, prayers and speeches between different people. It helped share the emotional load by not having one person lead it all. Hannah’s advice to us was really helpful too: don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect.

Doing it ourselves implied that we were happy to step away from strict formality. It wouldn’t have worked if we’d had a funeral procession, with top hats, black suits — there wouldn’t have been the same feeling. It was a conscious choice — Dad was a rebel, he was challenging and naughty. He loved tradition, but not pomp.

Gilly: It’s quite unusual to have a funeral where people clap at the speeches or are roaring with laughter, but it was that sort of funeral, it was a celebration of life.

I think that you need a good level of organisation to manage the flow of the ceremony and make sure everything keeps within the timeframe. It helped that we added instructions to the order of service about when to kneel, stand or sit and that the family led from the front pew too.

We felt we were able to have a unique funeral for a unique person, but we couldn’t have done it without Poppy’s. It was such a reassurance to have Hannah there, in charge of the practicalities. Whatever happened, we knew Poppy’s was there for us.

Discover seven ways to personalise a funeral or read about how to create a funeral order of service.

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