For solemn and reverent, read bright and breezy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was a glass carriage and plumed horses. A coffin draped in black. Flowers which spelt out Oi Oi, Madness and Durex. No sign of a vicar and no baked meats. Instead, as his family and friends said their farewells to the pop star Ian Dury last week, there was a humanist minister and a post-funeral party at one of London's top rock venues.

Much of the eclectic style of Dury's funeral has been put down to his life in show business. But it also hinted at a significant change in funeral ceremonies today. Growing numbers of grieving people no longer want an anonymous service conducted by a vicar who knew little about the dead person and cared less. Rather, they are trying to personalise the ritual of death, to make the rite of passage not so much a requiem but a memorial. That desire is beginning to have an impact on the Churches, which still run most of the 625,000 funerals held in Britain each year, and which are starting to adapt to demands for modernised services. And in a secular age, other mourners are looking away from the Church and opting, like Ian Dury's family, for a humanist funeral - or even a DIY service.

This weekend the British Humanist Association is holding its first annual conference for its "officiants", the people who act as the humanists' answer to church ministers. In 1998 the humanists ran 2,800 funerals; last year that figure nearly doubled to 5,000. "People are no longer afraid to say they don't want a church involved in a funeral," says Robert Ashby, the British Humanist Association director. "They don't believe in an afterlife and they don't think that they should pretend to do so at a funeral. They want to maintain some integrity."

The humanists' impact on funerals has spread beyond the ceremonies they organise. Service sheets, displaying the dead person's image, are becoming popular in churches too. So too are poems and personal tributes. Large photographs of the dead are also put on display at some funerals - a habit we have adopted from the Continent, according to Glasgow funeral director Dominic Maguire. "We are becoming far more European in our approach to funerals," says Mr Maguire. "What we have rejected, though, is the American-style funeral. We don't like big caskets, or flashy cars. There might be changes, but overall we remain very conservative here in Britain."

The beneficiaries of that conservatism are the undertakers who run the £1bn-a-year funeral industry, with its black-coated pall-bearers, wreaths and bouquets, finance plans with names like Golden Charter and Golden Leaves, and offices in muted, pastel shades. The soothing, hushed voice which offers the basic model of coffin, and then suggests, equally smoothly, "If you're looking for something that little bit special, perhaps more suitable..." and produces the catalogue with models in oak or cherrywood.

In the past, embarrassment about death allowed funeral firms to operate without scrutiny. But in recent years accusations of high prices and hard selling to the bereaved have led to two Office of Fair Trading investigations. Last week the undertakers were again criticised for their inflated fees. A survey by the Oddfellows friendly society showed that the cost of dying in Britain had risen by 25 per cent over the past two years. The average burial service now costs £2,048, and cremations, though cheaper at £1,215, have also risen by 12 per cent. According to the Oddfellows, one of the most disturbing aspects of the survey was that the bereaved often discover that the final bill is much higher than the original estimate. In East Anglia, one undertaker quoted £710, only to issue a final demand for £2,214.

Funeral directors are quick to defend their prices. Blame the town halls, they say, which increase cemetery fees, and the requirements of the Environmental Protection Act on smoke emissions, which have forced crematoria to buy new equipment and increase their fees too. Then there are the annual hikes in fees for church ministers, organists, and the cost of petrol.

So who does spend, spend, spend on a funeral? Rather than the affluent, keen to display their wealth, undertakers find that it's the poorer households who opt for the more expensive coffin and the greater number of cars to follow the hearse.

The middle classes prefer understatement - the simplest of coffins, and just the hearse will do. Or perhaps this is because they already own smart cars.

In death, our departure is not determined just by our class. Where we live, and the culture that shapes our lives, form our dying too. In Scotland, says Dominic Maguire, funerals are still very public events where a crowd of 600, even 1,000, is not uncommon. "Like in Ireland, there is much stronger feeling of community there than there is in the south, and a funeral renews that bond. It's a moment for people to come together."

Leverton's is one of the few independent funeral directors left in London. It's the company which dealt with Ian Dury's funeral, and the arrangements for that of Diana, Princess of Wales. In the chapel of rest in its Golders Green branch, a simple gold cross stands on a small altar beside the coffin of an elderly man. Had he been a Roman Catholic, a crucifix with a nailed Christ would have been on display. If his faith had been Jewish, there would have been a floral display; a Hindu, and a symbol of one of the religion's gods would have been in position.

Jason Worsnip, who manages the Golders Green firm, having moved from Lancashire to London, has noticed that funerals in the south are far more individual in style. "Here we deal with a much more mixed population. The Catholics want big funerals, with evening receptions. The Nigerians like the casket open. The Chinese spend up to £10,000."

When Mr Worsnip was 13, his mother died, and his father insisted that he was too young to see her body. But the boy was determined, and won the battle. It was, he says, the best thing he could have done. It didn't frighten him, and he was able to say his goodbyes and discover his vocation in life.

Unlike Mr Worsnip, most Britons shy away from any thought of death. The dying have been shunted into hospitals, geriatric homes and hospices, and we can spend a lifetime without ever seeing a corpse. "It's common for our clients to be scared of seeing a dead body, even if it's their mother or their husband," says Mr Worsnip. "They ask if we'll stay with them in the chapel."

The Natural Death Centre is the organisation which promotes DIY funerals and environmentally friendly disposal of bodies, such as in woodland burials. Next Sunday it is organising the eighth National Day of the Dead. It believes that society is suffering because we ignore death.

"The main point, as with the Mexican Day of the Dead, is to remember friends and family who have died," says Nicholas Albery, the centre director. "The simple ritual suggested to every family in the UK is to light a candle at meal time for a dead friend and for each person to go round the table sharing a memory from the past, so that the younger family members get to learn the family lore. There will also be an open day at woodland burial grounds throughout the country."

The humanists agree that we need to change our approach to death. "The bereavement counsellors say we need to let go of the dead, but we say you should hold on, think about how they have touched our lives," says Robert Ashby. But the humanists' emphasis on celebration grates when we think of the deaths of those who die, not after a long and happy life, but at a young age, cut down in their prime by disease, accident or suicide. Those tragedies are the test for all those in the funeral business. The Church of England devotes a large part of its training of clergy to funerals - "it takes up to three years to get to grips with them," says a spokesman. For a £66 fee, anybody can be buried by the established Church, with the timeless words of committal - "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" - echoing across the cemetery.

It's a solemn moment, and a profound one. Or is it? Next month funeral directors from across Britain will gather in Birmingham for the first national funeral exhibition. For those participating, the talk is of "the bereaved consumer" and the "death care industry". "Funerals have come of age as life-stage events in their own right," says the show's blurb. The organisers predict that in the future we will bid goodbye with pop music, colourful clothes and fireworks. Ian Dury's farewell was but a foretaste of what is to come.