the essay: What a way to go

When Peter Stanford's mother died, his encounters with soft-selling undertakers and kitsch `chapels of rest' made him realise just how sanitised our approach to death has become

Years ago I used to edit a Catholic newspaper. One of our regular contributors, Jenny, a feisty, opinionated 50-year-old with a blonde bob and a way with words, suggested tackling in print the taboo of planning her own funeral. In a light-hearted and entirely theoretical way, she told how she wanted a church service with no hymns, no tears and no tributes. There were to be no trees cut down to make a coffin that would simply be burnt within hours of her being put into it. She would, she said, feel more comfortable in a big brown hessian sack as her mortal remains were consigned to the fires of the crematorium.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, she had a brain haemorrhage and died. Her distraught teenage daughters rang me and asked how they could organise the funeral she had written about. I was flummoxed. The only Catholic funeral director I knew in London was the one who advertised on the back page of the paper and specialised in fitting send-offs for bishops and mothers superior. In desperation, I muttered his address and the result was the full ghastly silver service - hearses, top hats and an oak coffin with brass handles.

Jenny's daughters told me later that they had tried, but their objections were swept aside by the men in black with their concerned smiles and knowing ways. There was no time for grief during the requiem, as I cowered in the back of the church in Wimbledon. I just felt guilty that I'd surrendered these two young women to the system as far as funerals went, and betrayed their mother, wedged by layers of satin into that box that she never wanted.

The funeral business has a turnover of pounds 1bn in this country and, its leading lights proudly boast, is recession-proof. Yet it is hard to think of an industry of a similar size that has been so resistant to change. With little or no regulation by the state, it continues to dragoon its customers into doing the right thing, rather like the snooty shop assistants in department stores of the Fifties. We live in an age when consumer choice is all and doing the right thing went out with Harold Macmillan, presentations at court and conscription. However, faced with organising a funeral, we overnight become disempowered wrecks clinging to a man in smart suit in the hope that he will tell us what to do. We are happy to pay an average of pounds 1,200 (pounds 2,500 in big cities) to have Christian burials for relatives who had no belief in God; to send off our loved ones in horse-drawn corteges when the nearest they have ever come to a horse in life is at the racecourse; to sit through vicars paying tribute to people they never met; and to endure, in the country's 234 crematoriums, "Abide With Me" played on what sounds like those Stylophones Rolf Harris used to advertise each Christmas.

It is tempting to think that the problem lies with the funeral directors themselves, that they approach the grieving rather as Ann Widdecombe would a penniless single mother - robust good sense mixed with coercion and a schoolmistressly respect for convention and authority. Yet that is surely to pass the buck. For all their pomp and circumstance, funeral directors serve their market. There are, after all, alternatives. The Natural Death Centre in north London publishes a guide on how to purchase a cardboard coffin and be buried wherever you like for around pounds 200 all in. Because the Quakers in the 16th century demanded, and obtained, the right to bury their dead away from Christian graveyards, we in Britain, almost alone in Europe, have the right to dispose of corpses as and where we please, as long as the landowners' permission is granted. Your dead granny could, in theory, be buried in your back garden, but the Natural Death Centre does issue a health warning to those considering such a course of action. Estate agents report that an ad-hoc graveyard can affect property prices. Perhaps that is why the take-up of alternative approaches accounts for less than 1 per cent of the market.

No, the problem with funerals is us and our inability to deal with death. We willingly fall back on ritual, hypocrisy and kitsch as a way of avoiding thinking about what death means to us. In the last century the Victorians were obsessed with death. Their fantasies were all to do with heaven and hell, angelic wings and punishing fires. They spoke about death publicly at every opportunity and built great monuments to lost loved ones to remind them that the end was always nigh. Then, it was sex that was taboo. In the space of a hundred years we have turned this social code on its head. We never stop talking about sex, and watching other people having it, but now it is death that we hide away behind shrouds. The funeral business has become just one more facet of this collective yearning to blot out life's one and only certainty.

In mitigation for my own bad behaviour when it came to Jenny's funeral, all I can say is that I knew almost nothing about obsequies then. And indeed I preserved my innocence for a good many years afterwards. It wasn't until last year, when I had reached the ripe old age of 36, that I saw a dead body - my mother's. She had been one of eight children of Irish Catholic parents who settled in Liverpool. Elderly aunts and uncles, cousins or friends would come and live with them and die with them. Death was part and parcel of her growing up, the corpse in the front parlour amid the antimacassars and best china little more than a break in the usual routine. Yet a generation later, death has been shuffled away by putting the old in nursing homes, geriatric wards and hospices rather than caring for them at home. In Sunnyglades and St Dismas's, they pass away in professional hands, and their bodies are handed over to other professionals who guide the grieving relatives through the whole experience without ever making them touch the sides, or the body.

We can now, if we so chose, with comparative ease go a whole lifetime without ever seeing a corpse. We can certainly avoid having one in our house. In spite of the temptation, I'd advise against such cowardice. Not out of morbidity or a do-anything-once spirit. Seeing that dead body was one of the landmarks of my life. It put the whole modern anxiety about bodily appearance into a new context. For in that moment none of it mattered a jot and could be seen for the hedonistic waste of time that it really is. However hard we work to make our bodies eternally young - and my mother, it should be said, had little truck with such concerns - they will eventually let us down and become a mass of sagging, suppurating flesh.

Of course, part of the significance of sitting with her body in the hours after she died was the fact that she was my mother and we were close. The loss of a parent is of great significance in anyone's life, with its built-in potential to undermine the past and offer a more exposed future. But the sight of my mother's corpse gave me, for the first time - save perhaps from my observations of my wife in childbirth - incontrovertible proof of my own and everyone else's mortality. And in that sense it broke more than a taboo about dead bodies. It went against a whole culture which attempts to deny the existence of death - or at least turn it into something so bland that we do not have to pay it any attention until it is upon us.

Where, a hundred years ago, death was tinged with a melancholy romanticism, it has become, in our commercial, scientific and secular culture, the equivalent of failure. If you die, then somehow you are judged to have failed - failed to eat the right foods, to wear the right sun protection, to spend long enough in the gym toning up your six-pack. Every bit of research that emerges about cancer, for example, points to some everyday activity as the cause. Cancer can't just happen in some bodies, we have to be the cause of our own misfortune, whether it be by licking gummed envelopes, eating non-organic vegetables, not having five different helpings of fruit each day, including insufficient tomatoes in our diet, and so on. There are no end of theories treating even the most mundane activities as hazardous in the long term, but the overall effect is to make death the result of personal failure. And if it can be put down to individual shortcoming, then the rest of us can shrug our shoulders and say, "Nothing to do with me. I follow all the food fads, spend half my life in a gym and never go in the sun without a hat. I'm all right Jack." That age-old craving for immortality remains as potent now as it was for the ancient Greeks who sought out the elixir of life. Today, we idolise the 60-year- old woman who can look 40, spend millions on cosmetic surgery as a way of cheating destiny and even, for a few misguided souls, shell out on the fake science of cryogenics, to have our bodies frozen in the hope of eventual resurrection.

As part of this process, death is becoming not only sanitised and theoretically optional but also plasticised as well. When we do talk about it, the language we employ is deliberately opaque. We are importing a whole vocabulary of death from the United States, as the American conglomerate Service Corporation International takes over our homegrown funeral industry. Awkward words like funeral director are avoided. They are now "morticians", with deliberate overtones of beautician. Even if you fail and die, you must look your best. And the finality of death, at least in a worldly or physical sense, is denied even unto the grave. So, thanks to another US interloper, the coffin manufacturer Batesville, you can now order off-the-shelf coffins that include a mobile phone and oxygen as standard fittings. Just in case this dying business is all an elaborate hoax, I presume.

Since my mother's funeral, I have found myself, when in traffic jams or looking out of a bus window, staring at the men - and they are always men - who drive hearses and carry coffins into churches. In literature and popular culture, they are traditionally cast in a comic role, as a universally recognised symbol of humour, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Thora Hird's In Loving Memory, but that does not seem to capture them best. I know someone has to do it, and that in many families the vocation has been passed from father to son down the generations, but I'd rather be a parking meter attendant or do Saddam Hussein's PR.

"Had a good day at the office, dear?"

"Yes, we managed to pack in four burials and a cremation and still have time to lay out three bodies in the chapel of rest."

"Well done. Make sure you wash your hands before your tea."

After spending all day touching dead flesh, how does it feel then to hold your baby in its bath at night, or run your hand up your partner's back in bed? Does living flesh feel odd, and how strong must be the temptation simply to size up anyone you come into contact with: "Oh, she'll be needing the deluxe coffin with hips like that."

The pink-faced young man who organised my mother's funeral was called David. He insisted on first names, no doubt following the example of our Prime Minister. David had obviously modelled his sincere look on the Blair prototype, but most of the time he reminded me of the chap who comes twice a year to sell me more and more pension cover. I don't want either of them in my house, smarming on my sofa, and I certainly don't want what they are touting, but I know I have to grin and bear it.

David, to be fair, did a nice line in looking as if he was about to burst into tears as a gesture of solidarity, something that I have never noticed in the man from Sun Life. Yet, during the small talk, he was instinctively reaching into his briefcase for brochures on coffins and application forms for the freehold of a graveyard plot. Even if you were determined to be difficult, I discovered, there was nothing without brass handles. It is too hard for the pallbearers to manoeuvre if there aren't handles, David told me - no doubt from personal experience. And it wasn't a question of did we want some overstretched Ford Granada, its black paintwork gleaming; he only needed to know how many of them were required. Worst of all, as he left, he told me that he would phone when they were ready to "greet" us at the "chapel of rest". He made it sound like a summons and, when the call came, I dutifully obeyed.

The funeral parlour was all muted colours, thick-pile carpets and shell- shocked displays of chrysanthemums. A large fish tank dominated the waiting room, a tacky if well-meant reminder, I decided, that life goes on, albeit in a 3ft sq glass box. One by one my father, aunts and siblings were ushered into the "chapel" where my mother's body had been laid out. Then it was my turn.

This was the epitome of death masquerading as life. She was plumped up like a cushion. Someone had made her up with eye-liner and rouge in a way that she would have considered vulgar if she'd still been around to say so. Moreover - and this is one of the things that I have learnt late in the day about corpses - her bottom jaw, which goes slack in death, had been sewn up, giving her an inane grin to rival Carol Smillie. As I sat and stared in horror, I listened through the cardboard-thin walls to my aunt regaling the waiting room with an account of the latest Gilbert and Sullivan performance in an ill-judged but sincere effort to diffuse the situation. I wondered what on earth I was doing there at all. I had come, I realised, because I was told to.

During my mother's last illness, I had been the first one to challenge the doctors and nurses when they said something was impossible or too complicated to bother with. Professions that try to play God, like the medical establishment, invariably make my hackles rise. Yet confronted with just such an attitude from the funeral director, I tamely switched on to auto pilot. Such a catatonic state does, it is true, help you deal with your grief, but it also stops you asking the questions that would naturally crop up with any other business transaction.

For the truth is that we do not need any of the traditional trappings of a funeral. Death is death and a dead body simply needs to be disposed of in a humane and hygienic way. For those, like my mother, who believe in an afterlife, the whole funeral process is essentially a charade, since the soul has already departed. At the requiem, we simply cluster around an empty shell. Perhaps that was why, in her life, she always avoided going to funerals when she could.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford, the most left-wing of the famous Mitford sisters, published a best seller, The American Way of Death, in which she predicted that death and the commercialism she saw in the US funeral market made uneasy bedfellows. Death, she said, should be the great leveller, and by offering different degrees of service to customers who could pay that little bit extra, undertakers were obscuring this essential point. Her argument was, in many ways, a very Jewish one, for that creed insists on rapid burial and eschews adornments at the service since it believes that what is important is that the person who has died should enter the next world on a equal footing with everyone else, not that he or she should try and steal a march on the competition.

The commercialism that Mitford saw in her adopted American home is now, of course, invading the British market, with small independent firms being swallowed up into bigger groups and the old Co-operative movement - once based on the tuppence a month people like my grandmother would pay, in fear of the pauper's grave, to ensure she had a decent send-off - fighting to retain its 25 per cent market share. Next May will even see the first Funeral Services Exhibition at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, a kind of motor show of everything that goes with a hearse. The latest developments in embalming, monumental masonry, even grave-tending consultants and "waste management" techniques will be on display in this trade-only showcase. At its equivalent in the States, new ideas include Harley Davidson-shaped coffins for keen bikers.

Mitford worried about grieving relatives being sold trappings that they did not want for funerals. But she got it wrong. For we crave the trappings. The more we have, the more lavish the rituals, the more we can wallow in them and therefore the less we have to confront what lies behind the whole performance - mortality. A funeral becomes a morning at the theatre. Just go through the correct form, sob a little as the coffin disappears behind the final curtain, and get the whole business out of the way so that tomorrow you can go on pretending to live forever.

And this negation of death extends beyond the grave. The whole thrust now is to forget the dead, not to remember them. "You've got to put it behind you," I've been told countless times since my mother died. Any suggestion that I don't want to rush is taken as a sign of morbidity and prompts the offer of the address of a good analyst. If I dared to admit that there is a part of me that will never "get over it", I'd no doubt be risking comparison with Queen Victoria, whose long mourning for Prince Albert seems masochistic by modern standards.

This throw-away, blank-it-out approach to death, reflected in our funeral rituals, is also encouraged by the churches, which are such willing participants in the cluttered but empty rites of passage that take place in chapels and crematoriums up and down the country. In an age of widespread disbelief, organised religion clings to the formal role we still allot it in death with gratitude. The idea of the "duty vicar" or "duty priest" at cremations, ever ready to say a few well-chosen words at the funeral of an atheist they didn't know from Adam, profoundly dishonours the dead. It would be, in any other circumstances, bizarre.

But we, in our turn, cling to the churches, even though, again, there is an alternative. The British Humanist Association will provide officials to preside at secular send-offs, but demand is slight. In part our continued reliance on religion is merely the living wanting to hedge both their own bets and those of the person who has died. Like the biblical workers in the vineyard who come at the eleventh hour and demand the same wages as those who have toiled all day, they want, after a lifetime's apostasy, to give a nod in the direction of God, just in case. And it is also a craving for a format that is familiar. There is, despite it all, a certain beauty to "The Lord Is My Shepherd", an air of promise in "Nearer My God To Thee" which I have not heard reproduced at alternative services, with home-spun poems and tape recorders playing Bette Midler singing "The Wind Beneath My Wings". Such efforts grate because they appear to belittle the life that has ended, to reduce it to the sort of dull, formulaic platitudes you read in horoscope columns. "My soul he doth restore again and me to walk doth make" is a handsome thing to say. By contrast, "Johnnie has passed over on to the other side" has a blandness that makes your whole soul shrink inside you.

Perhaps the answer is for each of us to draw up a few basic stipulations for our own funeral - if, indeed, we want one at all. We are, after all, increasingly encouraged to make living wills to protect us from the tender mercies of doctors who want to prolong our lives artificially. Yet, however sensible this sounds, take up is likely to be small because it runs into the age-old problem that committing such thoughts to paper involves confronting, albeit briefly, the prospect of death. And that is something we do not want to do. Take, for example, the strenuous efforts of the funeral industry to sell pre-paid - or "pre-need" in the new sanitised language - packages to young and old alike. They just can't shift them.

Only when death is no longer a taboo will our funerals show some sign of improvement. And here there are encouraging signs. The willingness of the likes of Cardinal Basil Hume, playwright Dennis Potter and journalists Oscar Moore, Ruth Picardie and John Diamond to die publicly has, and is, challenging our coyness. All have spoken and written about the business of dying, about mortality, about the injustice and inevitability of death, and encouraged voyeurism. John Diamond, in a recent television film, expressed delight at the fact that one person had been so emboldened by his public witness as to ask to see inside his mouth where the cancer is eating away at him.

If we can follow their lead and get back in touch with death, then we can concentrate on the business of celebrating lives that have ended with sincerity and real commitment; not just with better rites of passage but with a rejection of a set of values based on appearance, and an obsession with self-expression and self-fulfilment. And we can truly mourn the newly dead, their presence so stifling and their absence so profound. It does not need a great return to the churches, simply an unblinking recognition of our mortality. Until we are prepared to make that apparently obvious but currently elusive leap of faith, we will get the funerals we deserve.

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