It's your funeral - so why not have fun?

Kate Berridge on the expanding market for secular send-offs
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The Independent Online
A group of people hoping to understand living better by embracing dying will spend today celebrating death and all its ceremonies.

Coffin displays, a death handbook and awards for the best buys in the funeral trade will all be part of the fifth annual English Day of the Dead, organised by the Natural Death Centre, a charity based in north London.

Britain's first designer death boutique, Heaven on Earth, in Bristol, has won this year's nomination for Best Funeral Shop, for its imaginative range of dual-function coffins. Before pushing up the daisies, admire them with the window seat model - or how about the coffin as CD cabinet or shoe rack - somewhere to store your shoes before you pop your clogs.

For Best Woodland Burial Ground run by a farmer, private company or individual, this year's winner is Greenhaven Woodland Burial Ground near Rugby with their offer of a budget package: body pick-up from London, cardboard coffin and tree for pounds 490.

The celebrations at the Natural Death Centre in Cricklewood may cater to a minority interest, but they mark a growing trend to demystify death and consider alternative ways of meeting and marking it.

Like sex, death is a social minefield. Embarrassment has kept the funeral trade under cover and unregulated with a near monopoly on the 625,000 funerals in the UK each year. Traditionally the funeral parlour, like the massage parlour, has been the place where nobody wants to be seen.

But Aids has yanked death out of the closet and forced us to take a new line. The uneasy relationship between the homosexual fraternity and the church has spawned a new secular subculture of death which is moving mainstream. The increasing popularity of organising one's own funeral is one facet of a move towards self-expression.

"People want to die in character, " says the Natural Death Centre's Nicholas Albery. The NDC's promotion of green burials has resulted in this becoming the fastest growing green movement in the UK. In 1993 there was one woodland burial site; now there are 56.

In death we now see ourselves as consumers entitled to choice, service and value. With funeral costs up 38 per cent for burial and 15 per cent for cremation since 1994, we have a real incentive to look around.

Demystified, death is becoming a market like any other. In an incresaingly competitive field there are now funerals for all tastes and budgets. And why not? We think nothing of a birth plan, so why not a death plan?

Ageing hippies can have psychedelic coffins from William Hall Funeral Directors of Newchurch, Isle of Wight. Aesthetes may prefer the chrysalis, an elegant elliptical pod made by The Willow Weave Company for pounds 350, plus door to door delivery.

Since there is no legal requirement to use a church or crematorium, DIY enthusiasts may prefer back garden burial. Official opening times prevent nocturnal ceremonies at crematoria, but it is legal to hold a lantern- lit burial in your back garden, although a body in the flowerbed will knock an estimated pounds 7,000 off your house price.

Eco-friendly funerals are booming. These feature transport in estate cars rather than limos and burial in simple woollen shrouds or cardboard coffins.

Diehard traditionalists may prefer to hire the plumed horse-drawn hearses and black coated employees of T Cribb and Son from the East End (pounds 675), while if you want to go like Jackie 0, then first-class travel is assured in the presidential casket, a vast mahogany model with a cream interior available at Barry Albin and Sons for pounds 3,465. It was allegedly the preferred choice of not only America's favourite late First Lady but also Presidents Nixon, Truman and Kennedy.

Seventy per cent of UK funerals are cremations, a depressing form of body disposal which has deprived us of much of the imagery of death, the smell of wet earth, the sound of soil hitting the coffin.

Death is no longer crisis management. Where once the funeral director was like the locksmith, someone we turned to in extremis, we are now prepared to shop around.