Ring down the curtain

Why not ask a theatre company to direct your funeral? After all, it's the one show we all get to star in - even if we're not around to take a bow. By Naseem Khan
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The Independent Culture
Hampstead is a busy sort of cemetery. It is not epic - unlike its neighbour, Highgate (with its star attraction, Karl Marx) up the road. But it is crammed with the conceits of more ordinary Victorians. Sweet- faced angels reassuringly point up at the sky. Broken stone anchors show that the person below has slipped their moorings. On yet other graves, pairs of slender, clasped hands meet in mysterious handshakes. There is a noisy kind of volubility about it that is missing in straight up-and- down, no-nonsense, modern graveyards. Art and death meet here in a functional, handy sort of way.

In theory, it is just the right setting in which to meet John Fox and Sue Gill, authors of The Dead Good Funerals Book, to be launched later this week with a tour of Carlisle cemetery. For its premise is the need to equip people to take charge of their own funerals in order to give them beauty and personal meaning. And John Fox is mildly appreciative: "As graveyards go, it's a very inventive one," he says judiciously as he and his wife tap away at a pleasing bit of lichen. But there is no doubt where their hearts really lie - in the ceremony rather than in the remains.

The genesis of their concern will be familiar. "We are," they say soberly, "just two middle-aged people, without any conventional religion, who would like to improve funerals." And their motivation? "Our own experience of bad funerals." Theirs is a common enough litany: ugly, thoughtless and undignified ceremonies, with no sense of the person at the centre of it all - "a conveyor-belt process with a backing-track of 'Abide With Me'," says their book scathingly. "There are no acceptable forms," declares Fox, and those that do exist are "outmoded", "irrelevant" and largely conducted in foreign (or should that be "dead"?) languages. "So many people want something else," adds Gill, "but they don't know where to turn."

The answer to their dilemma might not immediately appear to be two middle- aged people and a theatre company. But these are no ordinary people and Welfare State International, started back in 1968, is certainly no ordinary theatre company. It burst out of art colleges, the result of a catalytic coming-together of kindred spirits - designers, artists, actors, musicians, pyrotechnicians - at a time when theatre itself was bursting conventional boundaries. At the back of Welfare State was an urge to create theatre that would stir people's sense of the significance of life and its various ritual stages, that would allow them to celebrate the fact of community. Roaming the country, they staged wonderful elliptical happenings on seashores, moorlands and bits of urban waste ground, often extraordinary events - with titles like The Wild Windmill Gala, Blood Pudding and Red Mole Week - that could suddenly give a sharp edge to the ordinary.

Strange State characters came into being - sinister comedians, mysterious journeymen, disturbing mummers - and had their quasi-mythic adventures documented in a series of developing events. Their banner was generous, giving space to scores of participants. The vision was broad-based and exploratory and inevitably led them to become known for extravaganzas and spectacles. A mammoth paper model of Parliament went up in flames on Bonfire Night 1981 before a crowd of 15,000 in Catford; the Titanic was raised again in Limehouse Basin. Fire, fireworks, vast puppets, glimmering blocks of ice loomed large, their small son sat, like a mini-angel, astride a white horse. More recently, in their home-base of Ulverston, there's been the annual procession in which hundreds of locals troop through the town by night bearing an array of paper lanterns they've designed and made themselves.

Now what could all this possibly have to do with your everyday funeral? Fox and Gill's perfect ceremony must surely be expansive and theatrical, involving at least 50 coal-black horses and several fire-sculptures of the departed. In fact, their Dead Good Funerals Book takes quite the opposite tack: it gives careful, meticulous and sensitive advice and, in so doing, actually reveals more about the State and its spectacles; it also goes part of the way towards explaining why they stopped doing them, and why they are now based in Ulverston.

At one time, it seemed as if Fox and Gill would spend the rest of their days circling the globe creating carnivals: "jet-set jesters," says Fox caustically now. But, gradually, they became suspicious of the kind of patterns they were falling into: the principle of involving local people always remained, but it was outweighed by the constant demand for size and scale. In the end, the process of large-scale work actually began to impose the very structures they had sought to escape: for The Raising of the Titanic in 1983, a cast of 100 was involved, and hierarchies of command inevitably developed. The contradiction - "a cruel irony" - was too sharp for people who had always tried "not to have any separation between the work and the lifestyle".

The answer lay in re-aligning the work, and in finding another side to Welfare State life. They put the transatlantic festivals behind them and settled firmly in Ulverston, building themselves and their work - for which they have recently received a pounds 1.6 million Lottery grant - into the life of the Cumbrian town. Simultaneously, one aspect of their work that had always quietly existed came to the fore. When their first child, Daniel, was born in 1968, they realised that they wanted to have some form of ceremony. A baptism would, says Fox, have been hypocritical; instead, they invented their own naming ceremony. The event brought a number of parents together with music, shadow-puppets and a beautiful open-air site, and made an experience that they found profoundly satisfying. More naming events followed, and then marriages. Now, finally, Fox, Gill and Welfare State have arrived at death.

The approach they take, honed by the well-subscribed courses they run on social ceremonies, is of a piece with their work as a whole. It is best described as a careful kind of generosity. The basic handbook for the Welfare State method, Engineers of the Imagination (published in 1983), gave away all their trade secrets. Read that and you can learn how to make fire-sculptures and edible sheaves of wheat or how to blow up the Houses of Parliament (in paper only). The Dead Good Funerals Book similarly spills the beans, in the service of a word in which they both wholeheartedly believe - "empowerment". Here you can find blueprint drawings for cardboard coffins, instructions on ways of finding artists to paint them, lessons in how to make your own shroud and a host of alternative suggestions for burial sites, from water to woodlands. With the manual, come the testimonials - stories of people who have made funerals for friends and relatives, and expressions of their emotional fulfilment - as well as John Fox and Sue Gill's own credo for a way of living that could deliver a more holistic and creative culture.

Warm, passionate, earthy, earnest and kind, Fox and Gill somewhat resemble a pair of dowsers. They may not always strike water, but the important thing is that - unlike too many of the rest of us - they know that it is there. And they go on resolutely and meticulously hunting and dipping for it, trusting in the spirit of creative anarchy to unearth its healing, regenerative powers.

'The Dead Good Funerals Book' is published by Engineers of the Imagination at pounds 9.50