The British do not cope well with death, but attitudes are changing
Where and how would you like to die and where would you like your earthly remains deposited? What's the best way to remember someone close to you who has died? These are the kind of questions to be addressed this Sunday on the English Day of the Dead, designated to celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones.

Nationwide events will be geared to bringing death out of the closet: at the Natural Death Centre in London, you can record a video message to be played at your funeral and toast the dead at a Natural Death Dinner. Or you can paint your own coffin at Green Undertakings, the "family-assisted" undertakers in Somerset. Or take a stroll in one of the many English "green" burial sites that are having open days this Sunday.

Death is the last taboo (we're so reluctant to confront it that only one in three of us makes a will) but according to adherents of the "conscious death" movement, facing the unfaceable is good for our health. Its supporters are as diverse as the drug guru Timothy Leary - who plans to record his imminent demise on the Internet - and the late President Mitterand. He wrote the preface to An Intimate Death by the counsellor Mme de Henezel, and took charge of his own death from cancer last autumn by declining medical intervention and food.

Entry and exit from life are no longer solely the province of the professionals. Modern parents have rejected the conveyor belt in favour of choices in childbirth and there is a similar trend in relation to the process of dying. Birth plans, now accepted in most antenatal clinics, are the inspiration for "death plans". The idea is that you design your ideal style of departure by choosing its location, whom you'd like by your side and even what music you'd like. "Advance directives" or "living wills" record your medical wishes - which might include declining life-prolonging treatment - and have the support of the British Medical Association. Both natural childbirth and natural death are about respecting the rhythms of the body rather than imposing a medical model.

While modern medicine is better equipped for the drama of emergencies, it is less geared to supporting patients through the slow pace of a lingering death from diseases such as Aids and cancer. So the hospice movement has developed, shifting the medical focus from cure to care and creating a new expertise in bereavement counselling and symptom relief. "With an ageing population, midwives for the dying will be the new profession for the millennium," says Nicholas Albery, director of the Natural Death Centre, the educational charity spearheading many of Sunday's activities.

Death can be messy, tragic and painful - isn't there a danger that "designer death" creates a false sense of control? "I've made plans for my death but it could still be a complete cock-up," says Nicholas Albery, a psychotherapist. "I was more than averagely anxious about dying but facing the issues has been a way to come to terms with the terror."

The experts agree that an ostrich-mentality is counter-productive. "Refusing to believe you're dying sounds like the easy option but it's not," says Dr Elizabeth Lee, author of A Good Death. "People lose the chance to say proper goodbyes - facing up to death can make it a peaceful event, rather than something frantic and scary."

Changing attitudes to death are also reflected in modern funeral practices. "Many people want something non-religious, simple and straightforward," says Barbara Butler, a retired Jungian analyst who co-owns Green Undertakings in Watchet, Somerset and is opening a new branch in Taunton this Sunday. "It's about giving death back to the people - the more ordinary death is, the better it is for the bereavement process."

"When my wife died last June," says the Rev John Papworth, an Anglican clergyman, "we used no undertakers, my sons helped make the coffin and we organised our own church service. The next day we buried Marcelle in a woodland burial site, sang songs, read poems and kept silence. It was an absolute revolution in my understanding that death could be treated with such compassion and lack of fear."

Barbara and David Huelin have gone one step further by making their own coffin. "Now when one of us dies," says Barbara, who is retired, "the other will have a lovely memory of the time we built and painted the coffins and shared with each other our wishes for the funeral."

For the eco-conscious, the environmental impact of death is as important as other wishes. Crematoria are out, as they release toxic chemicals from the burning of veneered coffins but some local councils, farmers and wildlife trusts are meeting the growing demand for "green" burial sites. After the shock of attending a family cremation with "all the meaningfulness of a take-away," Mike Hedger created a public burial site on his land at Hinton House, Hampshire (open day this Sunday). Also worth visiting is the burial site at the AB Wildlife Trust Fund at Harrogate, a pasture with blue butterflies, protected newts and a rare breed of sheep.

In this climate of change, there is an increased demand for creative expression in the graveyard. The agency Memorials by Artists confounds clerical convention - which vetoes non-scriptural language on headstones, like "dad" instead of "father" - by producing unusual hand-carved memorial stones. Their latest commission is for the headstone of the late cookery writer Elizabeth David, complete with a carved casserole and stone artichokes, aubergines, onions and lemons.

The English Day of the Dead is modelled on the Mexican Day of the Dead. Paula Rainer Crofts of Heaven on Earth (speciality: biodegradable, designer coffins that double as storage chests until the big day) comments, "We may not have the right weather for picnicking on the graves as the Mexicans do, but anything which brings death into the daylight and makes it more acceptable has to be a good thing."

For further information on this Sunday's events contact The Natural Death Centre 0181-208 2853. Its publications are available free on e- mail: rhinodial.pipex.com.

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