Underground movement

With a new series of the black comedy Six Feet Under on our screens and 'alternative' funerals booming, it seems attitudes to death are changing fast. Clare Rudebeck meets one of the new breed of unconventional undertakers - and her latest client (RIP)
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"My coffin's the one in the corner," says Carol Aston, pointing to a poetry-inscribed casket resting against the wall of her spare room. Next to it stands a red coffin bearing the Manchester United logo and third in line is one that looks like a sarcophagus. "That's for my friend Carmen," says Carol, stepping over the cat-litter tray. "My coffin was the first one I ever painted, but I haven't varnished it yet. I like to keep adding to it." Carol's own funeral may be a work in progress, but there are more pressing matters to deal with today.

As a self-employed funeral director, she organises everything from collecting, washing and dressing the body, to digging the grave, putting a notice in the local paper and conducting the funeral service. And the dead can't wait forever.

In the past few years, the lid has been slowly lifted on the funeral director's profession. Six Feet Under, the American drama set in a funeral parlour, returned to British screens last night for its third series. The practicalities of getting a body to the church, or even applying make-up to a corpse, are now familiar to viewers. But does Six Feet Under's popularity really signal a change in our attitude towards death?

Carol started her firm, the Purple Funeral Company, two and a half years ago. "I picked the name because purple was the colour of the Victorians' second phase of mourning. After they had spent six months in black, they changed into purple. And I love the colour," she says. Dressed in a purple skirt, with purple braids in her hair, she couldn't be further from the stereotype of a funeral director, but she happily plays with a few other stereotypes. "I'm such a poor old spinster with my cats and coffins!" she says at one point. "Men are too scared and they can't take the coffins. They get too depressed."

Based in a cottage amid rolling hills, just outside Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, Carol's funeral business is rather unusual. She is one of a growing number of alternative funeral directors, offering tailor-made send-offs for those of all religious and aesthetic persuasions. Until 10 years ago, few deaths in Britain passed without being marked by black robes, a hearse, stony faces and a slab of marble.

But times are changing. Last year, the Which? Guide to What to Do When Someone Dies was published. Barbara Cartland was buried in a cardboard coffin and, more recently, Adam Faith opted for a wicker one. There are now more than 130 woodland burial grounds in Britain, up from 17 only six years ago. The Purple Funeral Company offers environmentally friendly burial, vault and catacomb inhumation, burial at sea and having your ashes scattered from a hot air balloon, as well as the more traditional methods of body disposal.

Clients can also choose from an expanding list of optional extras: a Victorian horse-drawn hearse, a New Orleans jazz band, Morris dancers, a firework display or doves released by the graveside. The key is that the funeral is individual, celebrating the life of the deceased. And the Purple Funeral Company is not the only alternative undertaker on the scene. In London, Green Endings offers seven different varieties of biodegradable coffin and encourages the bereaved to help decorate the coffin. In Bristol, the Heaven on Earth shop offers customers the chance to "design your life and death".

There are several theories about who started to nudge the traditional funeral off its perch. Some say the very public mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales began the process. The church's loosening grip on the public psyche and the growth of the Green movement have certainly had a hand in it. But, if we're honest, it probably comes down to the rocketing price of burials - on average £1,800 in England. In Carol's view, however, the birth of the alternative funeral is more like a resurrection. "Victorians really knew how to do funerals," she says. "Aesthetically, I mean." Despite being a committed humanist with no belief in an afterlife, she's very keen on the religious rituals that surround death. For her, one of the attractions of the job is the dressing up it involves.

This morning, once the office work's done, Carol heads off to a "Green" burial site. She needs to pick a plot for an interment later in the week. When we arrive at the Westhope Church Meadow Green Burial Ground, it shows almost no sign of being a graveyard. It looks like a field. A flock of 80 rare-breed sheep run around between the apple and cherry trees. Under their feet, there are about 80 graves, each one marked by a tree. Once the site is full, the trees will grow and the only trace of the dead will be a small plaque on each tree trunk recording each name, and date of birth and death.

"I'm going to be buried under the sheep shed. I like the idea of the sheep keeping me warm at night," says Carol, pointing to a sheet of corrugated iron propped up on two wooden poles. It doesn't look very tempting even for a night, let alone eternity, but it turns out that I'm looking the wrong way. "I'll have such a great view," she says. The burial site is ringed by tree-topped hills and there are long-horned cattle lolling in the next field. Relatives of those buried here often come for the day and bring a picnic when they visit the grave.

While I am admiring the view, Carol and Andy Bruce, the local forester who doubles as the sexton, talk shop, discussing the best way to transport bodies to the graveside. "The trolleys are no good, are they?" says Carol. "They're hard work," agrees Andy. "Have you tried the bamboo stretcher?" asks Carol. Andy hasn't, and Carol decides to take it away so that she can strengthen the handles.

The next stop this morning is the local funeral parlour in Ludlow: A Hoskins and Sons Limited. This is where Carol keeps her clients' bodies until they are buried. On the way to my first encounter with the dead, Carol fills me in on the story of her life. Now 50, she was born in Wolverhampton and has never married. Her interest in the rituals surrounding death emerged at an early age when she conducted funerals for dead birds she found in the family garden. After leaving school, she became a groom, then an interior designer, before she woke up one morning knowing she had found her true vocation: she would paint coffins.

She's been long-listed for the Turner prize three times for her painted caskets and estimates that she's decorated about 40 coffins in the last six years. Each takes at least five days to paint and costs upwards of £395 (for a chipboard coffin painted to order: the cardboard ones are cheaper). Egyptian designs are very popular with younger customers, as well as angels. One young man from Paris has asked her to paint his coffin with his face on the body of an angel. Those who order early in life often take their coffin home and use it for storage. Carol keeps linen and other knick-knacks in some of her coffins.

She had thought that she would get no closer to the deceased than decorating their final resting-place. But two and a half years ago, she decided to spend a day working at A Hoskins and Sons to see what it was like. She stayed for 18 months. "I was terrified the first time I went to the funeral parlour," she says. "I thought it might put me off painting my coffins. But I was fine. I don't find washing down the bodies difficult. It's the final thing you can do for somebody." Unlike many people, she doesn't feel awkward around the dead. "They are all still individuals. I do talk to my dead people. But then, I talk to my cats."

Arriving at A Hoskins and Sons, we're on more familiar territory. It's a family funeral business, established in 1878. I'm ushered through reception rooms with sofas and scented candles to the back room. And there it is: a dead body. I'm not quite sure how to act. Victoria Allen, the funeral director at the parlour, talks me through the natural discolouration that occurs after death. I sit down, feeling a bit faint and not knowing what to do with my hands, while Victoria chats away about the importance of keeping the body cold. She is perfectly at ease with the dead, lifting the deceased's hand and commenting that it's a bit wet.

Then we go next door to the preparation area: a functional room, a bit like a no-frills beauty parlour. In one corner, there's a metal bench with a headrest at the top, where the body is laid. It's then given a shower and dressed for the funeral. There's a trouser press next to the bench so that there are no creases in the deceased's clothes. Victoria brings out her three-tier tool kit. First she closes the person's eyes and mouth, then she gives them a haircut. There's a hair-dryer, hot brush and an electric shaver on the side. The whole process takes about two hours.

Why did my stomach turn as I stood in that room? Perhaps it was the realisation that this is the last human contact that we will all have, being washed and groomed by a stranger. Perhaps it was the thought that, being dead, it will not matter how well our hair is done or how smart our suit is. Some families choose to view the body of a deceased relative, but in most cases the only person who will know how good we look is the funeral director who, finally, will drill the lid on to our coffin.

Carol and I go back to her house. As we walk through the front door, I notice a brass plaque that reads "Carol Aston, funerary artist". I can't help but think that she's selling herself short. She is part-party planner, part-stylist, part-paper pusher, part-artist and part-counsellor. She is committed to fulfilling the wishes of her clients, who will never know what she has done for them; wouldn't know it if someone tap-danced on their coffin. Although, come to think of it, if you wanted tap dancers at your funeral, Carol could probably arrange it.