We meet Amanda German who, along with her two sisters, has created whiteballoon.co.uk a free online resource for funerals and end of life planning. Combining practical advice with ideas and inspiration, the site has been designed to support families who are planning a funeral, and is also for anyone who wants to write down their own wishes and share them with their loved ones.
How did the idea for Whiteballoon come about?
We and so many of our friends have been touched by death and sometimes in the most tragic of circumstances. The idea for Whiteballoon came about from reflections on this and thoughts about how to make one of the most difficult times of people’s lives that little bit easier. We realised there was no central space that brought everything together in one place – at a time when it can be hard to even function, let alone make decisions, we felt that this would help.
So, four years ago, we started creating Whiteballoon; a quiet space for people to reflect, gather their thoughts and to access the information and resources they need after the death of a loved one. We really hope that Whiteballoon will help people to navigate this often unfamiliar and always painful territory.
How should people use the Whiteballoon website?
Whiteballoon is a completely free resource. We have designed it carefully to make it easy to use, with concise, relevant information and helpful internal and external links if people need further details.
During its development, we were constantly asking ourselves ‘what would we have needed at this moment?’. So, for example, we felt it would be really helpful to have checklists to keep track of what needs doing and when – so we created checklists for ‘What to do when someone dies’ and ‘Planning a Funeral’. We have had lots of positive feedback about these, which is great. The Information section expands on the checklists, and the accordion headings help people to quickly and easily access what they need.
Inspiration is where people can find a carefully curated selection of poems, readings, music and prayers, as well as beautiful photographs of other items such as flowers, transport, coffins, urns and personal touches. This is my favourite part of the website, it provides so many ideas for creating a really personal and unique farewell.
We are also excited to be highlighting the many wonderful individuals and businesses that can help people every step of the way. In the Provider section, and on the Inspiration pages, there are direct links to their websites. To help people to gather and keep track of all this information, we created Planning Tools where, amongst other things inspiration and Provider information can be ‘hearted’ and saved to an Ideas Folder. This can be shared with family and friends or the funeral director, as required.
Our Planning Ahead section is for those who would like to get their affairs in order and for the increasing number of people who wish to think about and record their own funeral wishes in advance.
Finally, in Bereavement Support we have links to a selection of books, support groups, podcasts and blogs that offer help, advice and information on death, dying and bereavement. It is wonderful that there are so many different ways to access support.
Do you think death is becoming less of a taboo subject?
We have noticed over the past few years a growing openness and change in attitudes towards death and dying. Of course, the pandemic has had an enormous impact, but even before that, there were some wonderful individuals and businesses that had been opening up the conversation, making death less of a taboo. We are delighted to be a part of this and to do what we can to promote change.
Anything that makes it easier to think and talk about death and dying is a good thing. We have had conversations with our parents and children that we wouldn’t have even thought of having five years ago and that has been really comforting and life-affirming.
Do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has affected people’s attitudes to death?
Covid has been a tragedy, with so many unexpected early deaths. It has probably focussed people’s minds and I think we have all felt an increased sense of the fragility of life. I am sure this will lead to more people making advanced plans for their future, both in terms of practical and financial decisions, but also thinking about how they would like family and friends to mark and celebrate their own unique and precious life when they die.
How do you think the internet is helping people to deal with death and bereavement?
The internet has transformed all of our lives in so many different ways. It is great that we now have easy access to a wealth of information and ideas - although the sheer volume can be overwhelming. With Whiteballoon we have tried to strike a balance between being informative but at the same time keeping it short and concise.
I think there have been many important positives, for example easy access to bereavement support groups, blogs, apps and podcasts; connecting with family and friends during lockdown over zoom; live streaming and recording of funerals for family and friends; digital lockers to help with planning ahead; opening up the conversation around death and dying and providing a platform for people to join in and to express their views and to connect with others.
The younger generation, in particular, already accessed most of their information on-line. Lockdown made this a necessity for almost everyone, with people increasingly seeing the value of having the help and support they need at their fingertips.
What are you plans for Whiteballoon? Do you have a vision for the future?
We are delighted with the really positive response we have had so far, from businesses, charities and, more importantly, from people using the site. We have received such wonderful feedback, which is lovely.
However, we are always striving to make Whiteballoon the best possible resource it can be, so it will continue to evolve. Whilst we already have the Information, Inspiration, Planning Tools, and Bereavement Support in place, which provide a wealth of information and support, we are now working hard to build up a community of compassionate and forward-looking individuals and businesses. Our aim is to build a network throughout the UK, so that wherever a funeral or celebration of life is taking place, people can put in a name, sector, area or postcode and find excellent local and national Providers.
During our research we have come across the most incredible businesses, including of course Angel & Dove. We are really excited about helping to highlight the work that these businesses do and enabling people to find and connect with them quickly and easily. It can be difficult, particularly in this sector and for smaller, artisanal businesses, to reach the people who need them.
Our vision for Whiteballoon is for it to continue to grow as a central, national resource that helps people at the end-of-life or when planning a funeral; to be a part of positive change, opening up conversations and highlighting new ideas and practices; and to support the invaluable work of charitable organisations that are always there in times of need.
And finally, have you thought about your own funeral plans?
Yes, it’s interesting, before I started working on Whiteballoon I probably wouldn’t have thought of planning my own funeral. However, it has completely opened my mind to how important it is to me to have some say in how my life is celebrated and how I say goodbye to my family and friends…and I very much want it to be a celebration of my life.
A conversation came up over lunch the other day. I was talking with my children about my own wishes and my daughter said she would love me to have a cardboard coffin that she could decorate, which is a comforting thought. I was telling my family what hymns I would like (arriving to Canon in D Major by Pachelbel and beautiful, traditional songs such as I vow to thee my country and Jerusalem). I then joked that I would like ‘A Million Dreams’ from The Greatest Showman to play at the end of the service. ‘How embarrassing’, said my daughter. ‘Not for me it won’t be!’, I replied.
However, I do think it’s really important for my family to know that my wishes are not set in stone and that they absolutely have the freedom to create a funeral that brings the most comfort to them.