Off to Heaven in a Hertz: Nicholas Roe meets a couple planning to take DIY to a proper conclusion

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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 . . .

DAVID and Barbara Huelin have designed their own funerals in a way that will make many undertakers shudder. Not for them the solemnity of hearses and brass-handled caskets. When David, 77, and Barbara, 65, go to meet their maker it will be in a home-made coffin in the back of a rented van. Probably a Hertz. They like the joke.

The coffins are stored in a shed at the bottom of their garden in Oxford, and readily displayed to any visitor who shows an interest: 'Do you want me to get in?' asks Mr Huelin, lifting one of the lids.

The couple have also prepared documents insisting that there will be no professional pall-bearers: friends and relatives will carry the coffins and drive the van, then drink a champagne toast paid for with the money saved on funeral costs.

'We felt that burial was the last and most intimate part of life,' Mrs Huelin explains, 'so we decided we wanted our family to look after our remains rather than distant strangers in dark suits. And when I start thinking about something I always like to take it to its proper conclusion.'

They have been together for more than 40 years, travelling widely throughout South America while Mr Huelin pursued his career as an economic researcher. 'We always loathed everything conventional,' he says.

Then they retired and, with the passing of the years, began thinking about dying.

Mrs Huelin says: 'In the Sixties and Seventies we might have thought, 'well, we'll be dead and that's it', but then we began to see that the rituals of death are very important, particularly from the point of view of grieving.'

What really focused their attention on the issue was the passing of two close friends and the grimness of their funerals: 'We were very unfavourably impressed with the black-suited men and the shiny hearse and shiny coffin and the whole package deal,' Mrs Huelin says.

Her view was reinforced by childhood memories of small-town pall-bearers: men turning out at the tolling of

a bell, doing a duty for money. 'We felt that it would be so much more . . . I don't know . . . significant . . . if our relatives and friends carried the coffin.'

From here it was a short step to deciding that the whole matter should be arranged while they were 'both compos mentis', so they embraced death as a project, almost a hobby.

They visited a crematorium to see if this was the way they should 'go', but decided it wasn't. The man there was unenthusiastic about what he called 'DIY funerals'. While walking round the grounds, they were depressed by the strong smell of burning gas: 'It struck us that this was atmospheric pollution,' Mr Huelin says.

They opted instead for burial and found the people at a local cemetery 'delightful, understanding and helpful.' Mrs Huelin adds: 'The lady there said 'You can have any kind of funeral you like'. She said people bring bodies in the backs of estate cars or vans and provided the bodies are properly boxed you can have anything.'

This was more like it. Mrs Huelin hopped on her bicycle and visited six funeral directors, asking if they would sell her a coffin: 'I got shown into these ghastly little parlours with plastic flowers and used ashtrays and an unctuous person would say 'In what way can I help you?' and I would say I want to buy a couple of coffins. They would say 'I'm very sorry, madam, it's the whole deal or nothing at all'.'

So, using 18mm blockboard delivered by a local store, they built their own. A nice young man hauled the 8ft by 4ft boards round to the back garden where Mr Huelin, who is a skilled amateur woodworker, began work after standing Mrs Huelin against a wall and drawing round her. Neighbours watched goggle-eyed.

The boxes were kept simple, with rope handles and matt green paint. An artist friend added a flourish of poppies to the lid of Mrs Huelin's coffin but not to Mr Huelin's, who said he preferred it plain.

A double plot was purchased at the cemetery for pounds 120 and the couple prepared a list of van hire companies for transporting the bodies from home to cemetery. Vans, they insist, are cheaper and less gloomy than hearses.

Poignant letters to friends and relatives settled the matter of coffin-bearers, establishing A and B teams to cover for illness.

Finally, the couple found a sympathetic undertaker who agreed to look after the darker aspects of death: embalming each body so that it can remain decently at home during the time it may take far-flung relatives to arrive, or wading through red tape if a body has to be retrieved from hospital.

The cost of death will be:

Body retrieval and embalming: pounds 235

Burial plot (divided cost): pounds 60

One coffin (materials only): pounds 50

Grave digging: pounds 42

Hire of chapel: pounds 14

Van hire: pounds 30

Green form registering death: pounds 2

Total: pounds 433.

A professional funeral can cost pounds 1,000 or more, so the Huelins have saved money but this was not their aim. They wanted a personalised route to the soil and this is what they will get, thanks to some foresight and a little courage. 'It's been very interesting,' Mrs Huelin says.

Mr Huelin, closing the lid of his coffin and walking out into the sunshine, adds: 'Some people have welcomed it as a liberation of thought.'

Ironically, both he and Mrs Huelin have hefty funeral insurance policies which could buy any amount of professional formality if they wanted it. But Mr Huelin says: 'That will be spent on champagne.'

(Photograph omitted)

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