Our instinct when we see displays of gaudiness in mourning might be to curl a lip and resist the urge to look on with prejudice. Perhaps you will admit to such feelings after seeing pictures today of the “Costa coffin” in Swindon, and, last week, the bright-pink hearse used for the funeral of Roger Lloyd Pack, who played Trigger in Only Fools and Horses. Whatever happened, you might ask, to dignity in death?
“Making a mocha-ry of tradition!” reads the headline on the Daily Mail’s story about the themed coffin. It carried the body of Karen Lloyd, 51, a mother of two boys, who had died of cancer. Her family had requested the burgundy livery to honour of her fondness for the high-street chain, above the words, “one shot, extra hot skinny latte”, her favourite drink.
Meanwhile, our own John Walsh wrote of Lloyd Pack’s hearse last week: “I’m not saying it was inappropriate, just a bit pink for a sombre occasion.”
But who are we to judge the decisions of the recently bereaved? I remember a conversation at the kitchen table with my mother and her friend a week or so after the sudden death of my father, in 2001. He had been cremated in Canada, where he died, during a brief service in front of only a handful of people. Back at home, we were planning his memorial service, which for nearly all of those present, including his parents, would hold the same importance as a funeral, and would be held in a church. What music should we play?
I was still a teenager and in that age of a father-son relationship when the generation gap is at its widest in the car on a Sunday evening during the top 40 singles chart. He liked classical music and opera and put up with a lot (this was the Nineties). But when one song of unsurpassed silliness and banality played, he developed a perverse fondness for it. It was called “Who Let the Dogs Out” (“Woof, woof, woof woof!”) by the Baha Men, and became a running joke in the family. What better way to honour Dad’s silly side than to play it at the service, I suggested. It would tickle him, and those who knew him best.
I was serious at the time but with deft sensitivity my mother and her friend guided the conversation elsewhere and the dogs would not be unleashed. I am glad in retrospect because for that crowd, on that day, in that church, it wouldn’t have been quite right. But what is “right” in those trickiest of times, when grief can do strange things to your own judgment and reason, must be decided by the bereaved - and respected by everyone else. If there is one place where we should reserve judgement, it’s here.
Separately, there is a case not for “mocha-ing” the traditions that surround death but challenging them. Who makes the rules that govern funerals or memorial services anyway? Karen Lloyd’s family are not alone in seeking to express the character of the deceased in his or her coffin. In 2012, John Graham, of the 1960s rock band The Ramrods, was buried in a giant Fender Stratocaster. Last month, the family of a biker from Ohio buried him astride his Harley-Davidson. In some parts of the world, tradition demands elaborate, themed coffins. And why not? Such expression should not be incompatible with dignity in death.