Managing family conflict over funeral arrangements

Sign saying: Let's create a funeral that works for you, with flowers outside Poppy's Tooting HQ

Five minute read

Although shared grief can bring people together, the stress and shock of bereavement is just as likely to add to existing family tensions or create new ones.

So what happens when relatives or friends of the person who has died disagree over funeral arrangements? How can this conflict be resolved or managed? Is it possible to find a way forward that works for everyone?

At Poppy’s, we’ve supported thousands of people, in all kinds of situations, to create a funeral which celebrates and remembers the uniqueness of the person who has died. Here, we share our thoughts and experience on managing conflict.

Is conflict common?

When several people are involved in planning a funeral, it is normal to find there are differences of opinion or emphasis. You are making decisions that you have probably never considered before, at a time when you are upset, tired and anxious. This matters to you. You want to get it right.

Some choices may be obvious. Others might seem impossible to agree on.

"Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to take your time making decisions."

We will always let you know when certain decisions need to be made, for example when you will need to finalise the order of service so that it can be printed in time for the funeral, without pressuring or hurrying you.

However, some conflict runs deeper than different preferences about the practicalities, such as which type of coffin to choose or which piece of music should come first.

If family members are estranged, or haven’t spoken or seen each other for years, then gathering for a funeral is likely to bring up old conflicts. There may be guilt, regret, resentment or financial disagreements going back many years. These can resurface and make agreeing on funeral arrangements very challenging.

What do people disagree about?

It’s possible to find a compromise in most areas, but there are some fundamental decisions that will need to be agreed on. Burial or cremation? Embalming or natural care? Repatriation or keeping the person in the UK?

Religion can also cause disagreement, especially if family members have moved away from a shared faith, or the person who died had different religious beliefs to the rest of the family.

However, we’ve often found there are meaningful ways to bring religious elements into an otherwise secular service so that everyone feels included. This could be with a hymn, one family member reading a prayer without others having to join in, or a time of silent reflection. There are celebrants who are skilled at bringing these elements together, and we can advise on who would be the right fit for you. Read more about how to choose a funeral celebrant.

Different approaches to the cost of the funeral can also lead to disagreements. Some family members may prefer more expensive options because they see these as ‘the best’, whereas other family members may be more budget conscious. Read more about planning a lower cost, meaningful funeral.

However, it’s not just the big things that matter. Even elements which seem relatively minor from the outside, like the type of hearse, can be extremely important to those making the decisions. It can cause great pain if these concerns are overlooked or minimised.

How can you manage funeral conflict?

We don’t have any easy answers. While disagreements can’t always be avoided, there are some ways to make the prospect of family conflict less likely.

The first is to make your funeral wishes known, especially if you’re aware that family members may have different views when the time comes.

Talk to family and friends in advance about what’s important to you and what you’d like for your funeral. Even better, write these wishes down and tell those close to you where they are kept.

Once you’ve died, your wishes can’t be legally enforced. But they do provide guidance for your family and a point for them to steer by. Simply having a conversation in advance can help take the heat out of the situation and enable you to share your thoughts and fears together.

Even if funeral wishes haven’t been discussed in advance, families can often find agreement by focusing on this question: What would the person who has died have wanted? What’s most important to them?

How can Poppy’s help?

We encourage each family member to think about what matters most to you, and to be prepared to compromise on what feels less important.

If burial in a family plot is important to you, but your sister doesn’t mind about burial or cremation, then you can make that decision. The content of the service or the type of coffin might be fundamental for her, but matter less to you, so those decisions can be left to her.

We also remind people that there are many ways to remember and celebrate a life. The funeral service itself is just one opportunity. If you can’t agree on what should go in the service, consider whether some ideas can form part of a wake or a secular or religious memorial instead.

As funeral directors, we can listen and advise, and help come up with solutions, but we can’t make the decisions for you or arbitrate between different family members.

We can only take direction from our client. The client is usually, but doesn’t have to be, the next of kin. This is the person who has the death registration paperwork, who signs our terms and conditions and who agrees to pay for the funeral costs.

We rely on them to keep other family members informed and included as far as possible. We will always refer any questions from other family members or friends to the client to avoid confusion.

If you’re worried that conflict will spoil the day of the funeral itself, we can reassure you this is extremely rare. Everyone usually wants to appear reasonable in public.

However, if there are concerns, talk to us. We always make sure that the Poppy’s team, the celebrant, and everyone else involved on the day, are fully aware and prepared to do all they can to ensure things run smoothly.

Read more ideas and guidance – find out what to expect when you meet with Poppy’s or discover sources of grief and bereavement support.

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