Naturally, Nigel wanted a happy ending: Christine Aziz looks at alternative ways to commemorate and celebrate death

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The Independent Online
When we die, most of us are buried or cremated by funeral directors. But must our bodies be handed over to strangers? How do you organise your own funeral? Can you be buried in the back garden, and does a religious minister have to be present? More and more people, distressed by impersonal partings - not to mention the pounds 1,000-plus cost - would like to know. Just as the natural childbirth movement loosened the professionals' grip on our entry to the world, a growing movement is doing the same for our passing. If you pray for a personalised road to the beyond, read on . . .

NIGEL SPOTTISWOODE requested that after his death his body be put on the compost heap in his garden. His doctor advised against it - he would be contravening environmental health regulations, so Mr Spottiswoode agreed that his ashes should be scattered there instead. That summer, after his death, the garden never looked more beautiful.

The DIY funeral had its moments of black comedy, such as when Mr Spottiswoode's wife, Jane, was trying to get her husband's heavy coffin out of the house: 'We had to push it through the living-room window and carry it over the rose bed. We took it to the crematorium in a friend's estate car. Nigel would have found it terribly funny.'

About 650,000 people die a year in Britain and most of them are buried or cremated by any of the country's 2,000 funeral directors. But the Spottiswoodes are part of a growing movement, led by the Natural Death Centre, to bring death out of the closet.

Inspired by the natural birth movement, the centre aims to break down taboos surrounding death and dying and give people the right to their own death without being taken over by the state and medical profession. It has plans to train 'death' midwives in counselling and rituals for the dying, and hopes to provide workshops in meditative death exercises for those 'who are getting their first whiff of death - the over-35s.'

It also promotes the use of biodegradable body bags and the sale of flat-pack coffins in supermarkets.

To focus on the celebratory and practical aspects of death, it is organising an English Day of the Dead, inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead, a festival of feasting and music to welcome the dead back to sample some of the pleasures they knew in life. The day will include coffin-making workshops, poetry, death-related discussions and a display of hand-painted and mass-production cardboard coffins, as well as a promotion for the centre's Natural Death Handbook, published today, which looks at the spiritual and practical aspects of death and dying.

The centre's founder, Nicholas Albery, is a healthy man in his early forties, but he has already decided where he wishes to be buried - beneath a fruit tree on a piece of land in Suffolk that was given to him as a wedding present. According to Mr Albery, a psychotherapist, funerals are not only an important aid to the grieving process, but reflect society's attitude to death and dying.

He says: 'In this country death happens off-stage - in old people's homes, in hospitals, instead of at home. In other cultures and religions, such as Islam, close relatives wash the body themselves and have it at home for a while. That used to happen here, but we have lost the rituals associated with death, and hand the body over to a bunch of strangers. The British are non-demonstrative about dying and don't like to talk about it. We collude with the medical idea that death is a failure.'

When Nigel Collins began officiating at funerals for the British Humanist Association four years ago he received 12 requests a year. That has risen to more than 30 annually. There are at present 140 BHA officiants providing secular funeral services. Christmas and the winter generally are their busiest times.

Mr Collins, a fine art dealer and BHA ceremonies co-ordinator, explains: 'The Humanist service is life centred rather than liturgy centred. A crucial factor is the meeting between the officiant and the deceased's family and friends. Between them they compile a ceremony with music and readings based on the person's life and achievements, which can be from Shelley to Joyce Grenfell.'

A lack of available land in urban areas has meant that for the past 20 years Britain's bereaved have been turning to cremation for body disposal; 95 per cent of the country's dead are cremated. More recently, environmental concerns have been prompting some people to consider other forms of body disposal.

Austin Riley, a director of the Devon- based Britannia Shipping Company, which specialises in sea burials, explains: 'A cremation pumps huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not to mention the huge amounts of gas fuel that is needed. Also, it's not nice having your loved one reduced to 5lb of ash.'

According to Mr Riley, sea burials are the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body. 'We use special soft wood that is easily biodegradable, and after five years there is nothing left, once the sea and its inhabitants have finished. It's a natural return to the watery womb from which we all sprang.'

Sea burials are not encouraged by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but the department recognises that they have long been a British seafaring tradition. Each month Britannia carries out one sea burial at a cost of pounds 2,000, as well as four scatterings of ashes.

The trend towards DIY funerals worries the National Association of Funeral Directors. Wally Parson, of the NAFC says: 'If it doesn't work out, it can be a terrible mess. One woman didn't inform the cemetery about the size of her husband's coffin, which was 6ft 2in, and it was very embarrassing when it wouldn't fit. People don't realise how involved and complicated it is. But of course if someone wants to arrange a funeral themselves they should be allowed to do so.'

Janet Burnett, a teacher, arranged the funerals of both her father and aunt, dealing with the paperwork 'in half an hour' and transporting the coffins in the back of her old Volvo estate. 'In Switzerland funerals are provided free. I think hospitals here should have special departments to help people to deal with funerals at a small cost. I'm sure they could use the money these days. Doing it myself helped me in the grieving process and it was a nice way to say goodbye.'

The Natural Death Centre is at 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA. For further information and to book places at the English Day of the Dead being held this Sunday, 18 April, please ring the centre on 081-208 2853. The Natural Death Handbook (ed N Albery, G and J Elliot) is published by Virgin Publishing, pounds 9.99. The Britannia Shipping Company for Burial at Sea is at Britannia House, Newton Poppleford, Sidmouth, Devon EX10 0EF. The British Humanist Association can be contacted on 071-430 0908.