'It's your funeral,' they say. Is it really?

My mother's latest find is a mail-order, eco-friendly, biodegradable coffin for £49.99 plus postage

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Standing outside the church after my father's funeral earlier this year, full of guilt and self-loathing because I hadn't spent more time with him, a relative whom I rarely see bustled up and told me to hurry and get into the hired car that was to follow the coffin the cemetery. I said mildly that I was waiting to thank the organist for having played so beautifully.

Standing outside the church after my father's funeral earlier this year, full of guilt and self-loathing because I hadn't spent more time with him, a relative whom I rarely see bustled up and told me to hurry and get into the hired car that was to follow the coffin the cemetery. I said mildly that I was waiting to thank the organist for having played so beautifully.

"Oh, there's no time for that," she said. "We're working to a strict deadline."

When I get round to planning my funeral like the late Mrs Shand Kydd who, it appears, organised every last detail of the ceremony that took place in Oban last Thursday starting with the directive that under no circumstances was her former son-in-law, the Prince of Wales, to be present, I shall make it absolutely clear that guests can spend as much time as they like after the service feeling guilty that they weren't nicer to me.

Listening to the report of the Oban funeral on the radio reminded me that somewhere at the back of a drawer, I have a pencil sharpener in the shape of a fire engine, which I bought from Mrs Shand Kydd herself in Oban some 15 years ago. Her husband Peter Shand Kydd owned the toyshop in George Street and she sometimes took turns behind the counter in a pink nylon overall. As an heirloom it may not be in the same league as Queen Victoria's monogrammed bloomers which were recently sold at auction for £2,000, but I shall certainly pass it on to my grandchildren.

There's no reason why a funeral should not be planned as meticulously as a wedding. In Japan it costs a great deal more to be buried than to be married - around £12,000 on average according to a fascinating programme I heard on the World Service about undertakers. The secret, if you're planning a DIY funeral is, like Mrs Shand Kydd, to do it while you still have your wits about you. I don't suppose poor President Reagan had much say in his, though it would be interesting to know if he wanted Nancy to commit suttee over his corpse.

The problem is that, with few exceptions, people are reluctant to talk about death. My mother is one of the exceptions, but then she's Burmese and a Buddhist. Whenever she mentions what kind of funeral she wants - her latest find is a mail-order, eco-friendly, biodegradable fake walnut coffin with brass handles for £49.99 plus postage and packing which she says could easily fit into the back of an estate car with the back seats folded down - we all say for heaven's sake, stop being so morbid.

It was the same with my first husband's grandmother who was extremely wealthy and lived in a flat overlooking Hyde Park that was stuffed with original paintings and antique furniture.

"Now darlings," she would say when Angelina the Italian maid was clearing the dinner table and putting out the coffee cups. "I'm trying to work out what I should leave to each of you in my will." At which point we would all look horrified and exclaim, "Oh please, please, don't talk about such dreadful things. It's too sad and besides you've got years ahead of you."

Not being quite as well brought up as my in-laws, I was often tempted to say that I wouldn't mind the large Lowry over the fireplace in the drawing room. As things turned out I wish I had because the Italian maid who had no such scruples got in first, and when the will was read it turned out that Angelina had been left the lot.

Seven years ago when my best friend Alix was diagnosed with cancer and given 18 months to live, the first thing she started organising was her funeral. She wanted to go in style, she said, with a jazz band and an open coffin in the church offering the same sort of effect as Holman Hunt's Ophelia except that she would be wearing her favourite red dress.

I wish we'd carried out another of her requests which was that she should be buried under the willow tree at the bottom of our garden (she lived in a maisonette), but when the solicitor heard about the plan he scotched it. It was against health and safety regulations, he pointed out, to bury a body in a garden, particularly when the garden was on a slope with a stream at the bottom.

The best thing about Alix's funeral was the music she chose for the end of the service. It was Cat Stevens singing "Gotta Let It Out" because whenever she heard it she said she couldn't sit still; she had to jump up and dance.

Who knows, said Alix, maybe I will and give you all the fright of your lives. I wish she had.

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