Health Check: 'The undertakers called: "We have your son." Marion was apoplectic. "Body snatchers!" she screamed.'

Marion was lying on the table when we arrived. She had been dead for three days, and supper was being laid round her. The coffin was open and her turquoise-green hair - she dyed it three years ago, when she was 80, and liked the effect so much she kept it - framed her head. We spent the evening eating, drinking and chatting about her coming funeral.

Some may find this macabre but it didn't strike any of us that way at the time. Michael, my uncle, had been clear about it. He wanted her at home and on the dining table - at the centre of the house.

She had a lovely bamboo coffin. But the best thing was the line of a dozen large photographs on the wall, taken on one of her last afternoon outings from the hospice, which showed her in her typical poses - sceptical, quizzical, confrontational. The pictures made the body in the coffin, if I can put it this way, come alive.

How strange that so few bereaved families today have the body at home. Fifty years ago it was commonplace. But with the advent of the NHS, more people died in hospital and undertakers, who had learnt a thing or two from the US, created funeral homes to house the dead.

According to Dominic Maguire of the National Association of Funeral Directors, fewer than one in ten bereaved families choose to have the body at home - even, as we did, for just a couple of days before the funeral. Marion abhorred funerals and would have loathed the idea of being dumped in a funeral parlour. Having her at home, as Michael put it, "eased the passage."

Above all, it made her death less formal. We didn't want black ties, gloomy limousines, hushed voices or forced reverence. So much of the ritual around funerals seemed inappropriate to us. We wanted noise, laughter, celebration - and her being there helped generate it.

My 15-year-old daughter was afraid of seeing her in the coffin - but when the moment came she was surprised how natural it seemed. Now she says she will do the same herself when one of us dies.

It was the first time my wife had seen a body. Death is always distant in 21st-century Britain - happening to someone else, somewhere else. In our personal lives, we try to ignore it. But ignorance breeds, if not exactly fear, then discomfort. We do not know how to behave in the presence of death, how to comfort the bereaved, how to say goodbye. If we spent more time with the deceased, we might be better at dealing with death.

We did the same 20 years ago when Michael and Marion's son, Og, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 19 and they were in shock, so I went round to help handle the bureaucracy of death. I began by contacting a few funeral directors to enquire about arrangements.

A couple of hours later the phone rang and it was one of the funeral directors I had called earlier. "We have got your son," said the voice. "What do you want us to do with him?"

Marion was apopleptic. "Body snatchers!", she screamed. We had not given anyone permission to collect Og's body from the hospital mortuary. She stormed out of the house, drove to the funeral parlour, barged in and demanded they hand back her son's body then and there.

We found a new funeral director. I remember sitting in his freezing cold office - it was March - while he filled in interminable forms. We looked - Michael and Marion and I - at the gloomy chapel of rest and our hearts sank. The idea of putting Og in such a bleak and unfamiliar place seemed so lonely.

As we were getting into the car, I suggested having him at home. I don't know why the idea occurred to me. I wasn't even sure it was legal. "Oh yes," they both exclaimed at once. So Og came home. For the days before his funeral there was a constant stream of visitors to the house who laughed and cried and remembered.

Two weeks ago it was Marion's turn. Once again we laughed and cried and remembered - and she was a part of it instead of being apart from it. As I said, she abhorred funerals and only wanted a party. She got her party - it wound up at 4am.

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