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What all the best-dressed corpses will be wearing

Death is no excuse for bad dress sense.
"DYING/IS an art like everything else/I do it exceptionally well". So said Sylvia Plath. But then she was an American.

The British way of death has been more subdued. Until the death last year of Diana, Princess of Wales, when a nation surprised itself with its expressions of grief, it has been thought that the British did not know how to raise dying to an art form.

The death industry is wanting to transform itself. And today an exhibition will be held - in a scene straight out of the 19th century - when one of the oldest funeral-makers in the country shows off the winning funeral gowns from its national competition. It is fashion to die for.

The skies were a funereal grey, the rain pouring down as the exhibition was prepared this week in Peterborough, the first stop on a national tour. Held in the lavish carriages of the Nene Valley steam railway, the day had been designated "Travellers' Rest" - the sort of grim joke that appeals to the death industry.

Most of us would rather not think about what happens at the end. But Vic Fearn and Company want us to. And, more than that, they want us to think about going out in style.

"Do we affect fashion in the grave?" asked the Duchess of Malfi, awaiting the executioner sent by her evil brothers. "Most ambitiously," her coffin- maker replied. The Duchess would be satisfied at Nene. All around are gowns and shrouds for the well-dressed deceased, from the traditional brown Irish fashion to the glitzy black and red tutu, from the long white bridal garment, to the Marilyn Monroe gauze. Nina Simone blares out. Morbid? No, say the organisers, it is time that we address the British fear of death.

Sue Pearl, one of the exhibitors and a woman who has studied cultures of death around the world, believes fervently that we need to change our attitudes: "We should see someone's death as a way of celebrating their life. In the West, we are very anally retentive about death.

"I'd like to see something like Madagascar where people have a temporary burial while the relatives save up for two or three years and then, when they have the money, they have a reburial and a really big party. Or like New Orleans, where they have bands and dancing."

Many of the gowns are delicately made and draped over exquisitely constructed mannequins. So, for a moment, you forget what they are for until you find yourself peering over a sateen gown with a huge picture of the Sacred Heart or an 18th-century-style muslin gown dedicated to the Titanic.

Helpers at hand are eager to tell you that it is fashionable in Ireland to be buried in your suit, whereas in England the plain white gown is still the norm.

It is at moments like these that you start to think you are suddenly on the set of television series The Addams Family, but for those who work with death, it is a banal fact of life. While everyone else winces when someone shouts "Mind the coffin - do we want one in here or two?" or invites you to sit down with a cup of coffee next to a beshrouded mannequin whose wire hand is waving gently in the wind, these people take it all in their stride.

"Well the great thing is business is never bad. My dad used to be a gravedigger and our house is in a cemetery," says Claire Lawton, another of the exhibitors. "I've always lived around gravestones. I thought it was normal. I suppose other people thought it was freaky."

David Crampton, one of the directors of Vic Fearn, agrees that, in the end, it shows more respect to make sure our dearest get a good send off, however alien we may find pre-planning. One of his favourite customers is a lady in the North East, who has already taken possession of her coffin designed to look like a Red Arrows plane.

"We are very, very traditional in this country. We wanted to change that. But let's face it, we're not an industry which does a lot of PR," he says.

"It's not grim," says Ulrika Williams, also of Vic Fearns. "We just don't want people to be fearful. We want to beautify death and give people more choice, on what is such an important occasion to make a personal gesture."

But for those who feel all this might be getting a bit much, we still have a long way to go before our cult of death reaches the level of former civilisations.

Jessica Mitford, taking a tour of the Museum of Embalming in Texas, came to the section devoted to ancient Egypt and exclaimed: "Now that was a society that let the funeral directors get completely out of control."