A different way to say goodbye

How do you mark the end of a precious life if you do not hold religious beliefs? Esther Oxford talks to bereaved families and friends who chose alternative funerals
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A bottle of whisky beside the coffin

Edward Marshall, 23, was killed in a motorbike accident in September 1992, three months after graduating with an MA in furniture from the Royal College of Art. Andrew Gillmore, 28, a designer and maker of furniture in south east London, was one of Ed's closest friends.

The night before Ed's funeral, I drove up to the family's house in Auchencairn on the Scottish borders, with a group of mutual college friends. The house was already brimming with people. A tombstone was being carved in the basement; people were pinning trinkets and photographs of Ed on to a board; paper chains were being linked together - each with a story about Ed written on it.

We'd all been asked by the family to bring a present for Ed. The idea was that we could take it into the room containing his coffin and take it in turns to say good-bye. When I went in I found he'd been dressed in his favourite clothes. Beside his coffin was a bottle of whisky and some candles. I'd never seen a corpse. I kept expecting him to get up and say: "Just kidding!" But he didn't. I felt deeply upset.

I talked to him a bit. I couldn't think of much to say. I touched his hand - I wanted to believe he was dead. His skin had a cold, strange texture. That finalised it. Ed had definitely gone.

The next day we got up early. Ed's coffin had to be carried to the graveyard. When we tried to lift the coffin we found that it was purely decorative. If we were to carry the coffin by the handles the bottom would drop out! In the end we had to support the bottom using straps and sticks and webbing. It was quite funny at the time but also annoying.

It took about an hour to carry the body across the fields to the church. It was quiet apart from the noise of us walking through the grass and the sound of someone playing the flute. After a bit we came to a place which was too muddy to cross. We changed direction and all these cows started coming towards us. I had visions of having to drop the coffin and run, because they looked like bullocks. But someone got some branches and shooed them away.

The coffin lid was pulled back before Ed was lowered into the grave. We wanted to know that it was Ed we were burying. His mother came and talked about him and kissed him and said good-bye. Then his father talked about him. I didn't say anything. I felt it had all been said. Then we all took turns to fill the hole. For a bit we could still see his face as we threw earth on it. Again it forced the point: Ed had died.