What a lovely send-off: Fresh thinking for funerals

Funerals have changed little in hundreds of years – but now some fresh thinking is helping us to plan the kind of final fling we feel we deserve

"I was 29 when I first saw a dead body. It's astonishing that some people go through their entire life without seeing one. I thought to myself, 'that's not healthy'. Imagine if you'd never seen a baby because that was deemed unnatural by society? A whole stage of life closed off from view? We all know that death is a part of life, but it's pushed to the back of all our minds, because we don't usually have to face it until it happens to us."

Poppy Mardell, who runs Poppy's Funerals, is one of a number of entrepreneurs trying to bring death back into everyday conversation. She's not advocating that we all go and see a dead body, but she does believe we should be thinking about death a bit more, particularly our own.

"The problem is people aren't always made aware of their choices about the things that really matter. You can have a coffin with golf balls stuck all over it if you want, but I think there are more abstract, intangible things that are important, and can be overlooked. Some funeral directors think they are doing a great service by taking all responsibility off the grieving family, for example. The problem with that is that then the family turns up to the funeral and there's this great show – and they aren't part of it."

Mardell's company cremates and collects the ashes of the deceased, so that mourners can then host the funeral in their own time, and wherever they like. "I'm trying to give the family back a sense of control." she says. "We had a cremation recently where there was no funeral director and the family just stood by the coffin and said their goodbyes. At the end, their daughter pressed the commitment button – she was thrilled! – because obviously kids love pressing buttons, but it was also the epitome of the family being involved."

Mardell, and entrepreneurs like her, are trying to bring personalisation back into a business that has stayed the same for hundreds of years. "We live in much more complex family arrangements now than even 50 years ago," says Barbara Chalmers, the founder of FinalFling.com, a new one-stop-shop website for exploring the possibilities of all aspects of a funeral or end-of-life celebration. "It's more important to make sure people make these choices for themselves because when they pass away, their family might not know what they wanted. I think its a bit of the baby boomer generation coming to their final years, too. That generation tend to challenge the norms. They are now looking to ask reasonable questions about death, and demand more individualisation and choice."

After attending her aunt's "impersonal" funeral, Chalmers looked on the web for alternative funeral options, and realised that there are a lot of, in her own words, "crap" funeral websites out there. "I was really disappointed with my auntie's cremation. They called her Helen – which is her formal name but I'd never heard her called that. It didn't reflect any of her joie de vivre. Later I attended the funeral of a colleague and they spoke so honestly about her. It was a real celebration of her character, and we were given the space to grieve. Often funerals seem to be more about embarrassment and covering things up. This was so much more."

Shortly after the experience, FinalFling.com, which recently featured on Dragon's Den, was born. "I want it to be what Mumsnet is to birth," Chalmers explains, "I want it to be a community. Someone asked me recently if it's about putting the fun into funeral. I said no, it's putting the rich into ritual."

That richness involves showing people the possibilities they have open to them. Chalmers has dealt with a funeral provider that does Star Trek and rock'*'roll themed funerals, a range of humanist funerals where wicker coffins are de rigueur, and even one client, Joyce Spain [not her real name] who has explored her options for plastination through the FinalFling service.

"They replace the fat in your body with different polymers" explains Spain, a former-teacher who found the educational side of plastination really appealed to her. "To me, plastination feels entirely natural. With cremation you have all this waste left over that isn't entirely helpful from an environmental point of view. I'd rather be useful after I'm gone."

Anne Widdup, who runs a site for alternative humanist ceremonies, called FuzeCeremonies says that people are starting to come to her with a much more detailed idea of what they want. "One woman was in her 40s, she knew she was dying and gave carte blanche to her two teenage kids to create the funeral. They wrote and performed a song for their mum, with a trumpet fanfare and guitar music. She was in a basket that was covered in flowers, her husband read a poem. It didn't feel like a funeral, it was a lovely celebration of her life. Another time, a man met me before he died and he wrote a script for me to read lambasting people in his life that he didn't like! We had to find the words to make it truthful but not too hurtful for the people who were still alive."

Simon Allen, an associate of MyLastSong.com, which specialises in playlists for when you've reached life's terminus, has been a Humanist Officiant since 1991. He asserts that there has been a massive demand for more choices in death ceremonies for decades, but that the industry is only just waking up to the idea.

"People are much more demanding now. There are more speeches, more music choices. If there is one thing you put in your article it should be this" (his usual jovial features transform to a steely gaze): "always book a double time slot. I'm serious. All those demands won't fit into one half-hour slot." He means for the service, where it can be a matter of mere minutes between one funeral finishing and the next one getting started. The growing demand for more individualisation in funerals can cause some difficulties for Allen, who has been forced to cut his speech short and delicately persuade his group of mourners out of the room as a new coffin enters from the back doors, but he is enthusiastic about the number of people choosing to personalise their funerals. He sees the results every day.

"We had one celebration where the girl was only young, about 19 when she died, and at the ceremony everyone was dressed in bright pink! The men all wore pink ties, the girls were all in tight pink dresses and knee-high boots. There was a lot of er... flesh... everywhere. But it was perfect for her. Pink was her favourite colour and she loved going clubbing, so that was a fitting tribute."

Meanwhile, coffins are increasingly being decorated with painted designs that reflect the occupant's personality or interests, by web companies such as JC Atkinson at picture-coffins.co.uk.

There are some hazards to trying to accurately sum up a person's life and character, says Allen. "Sometimes you have to work around the skeletons in the closet, so to speak. Years ago, I was interviewing the family and I could tell they were avoiding telling me something. I had to say, 'look, tell me what you don't want me to know'. 'Well,' the son of the deceased said, 'Me dad did his first bank job when he was 17...' I had to avoid explicitly talking about it during the ceremony, which was quite difficult, as he'd been a crook his whole life. But mostly people want to hear the truth these days, not some sugar-coated version. If you try to tell fairy tales you just end up doing some vending-machine funeral.

"I try to do right by the person in the box. If it's told the right way, mentioning a foible will make people remember, and laugh, because you love them as they are."

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