John Higgs: The latest lifestyle is your deathstyle

In terms of paperwork, it is easier to bury a relative in your garden than build an extension
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Leary's last book was a manifesto for what he called Designer Dying. "Dying is the most fascinating experience in life," he wrote. "You've got to approach dying the way you life your life - with curiosity, hope, experimentation and the help of your friends. Even if you've lived your life like a complete slob, you can still die with terrific style."

This is an idea that now seems to be taking off. Leary would certainly have approved of Hunter S Thompson's remains being blasted out of a 50-metre cannon at his Woody Creek home last Saturday.

We are entering a period of increasingly personalised and original funerals. We have more options for our disposal than ever before. There are around 200 "natural" burial grounds in the UK, where a body can be laid to rest under woodland, marked by a tree instead of a marble slab. Sea burials are permitted at Newhaven, the Needles Spoil Ground and off the Northumberland coast.

Our local eco-friendly funeral parlour offers a papier mâché coffin that looks like a guitar case painted gold and stuffed with pink feathers. In terms of paperwork, it is easier to bury a relative in your garden than it is to build an extension.

As the artist Bill Drummond notes on his website MyDeath.net: "In days when society was less fractured we knew how to do funerals ... The mourners knew how to mourn and what clothes they should be wearing in so doing. Everybody knew what verses of scripture would be read. These funerals worked. They had evolved over hundreds of years, arriving at a model which fulfilled all required functions. This is no longer the case."

Recognising that death is becoming increasingly personalised, his website encourages visitors to add their own funeral plans. Contributors have duly recorded their wish be burnt on a Viking longboat, have their ashes flushed down a toilet in the Vatican, or their insistence that Tom Waits' Bone Machine album be played in its entirety during the service.

Timothy Leary also had a clear idea about what should happen to his remains. After he died a pinch of his ashes were launched into space, where they currently orbit the Earth every 96 minutes. The rest were mixed with gold dust and distributed among his friends. This allowed him to satisfy his dream of leaving the planet while at the same time staying with the people he loved.

So when I opened my mail and pulled out a little bag of Leary, I was honoured that the caretakers of his estate had sent it to me. I could also appreciate that it is comforting to those left behind when someone's dying wishes are carried out. What I did not know, however, is what I should do with this little bag of remains.

I have no cultural reference points or personal experience of events like this to guide me. Asking friends did not help. You would be amazed at how many seemingly respectable people are prepared to beg for the chance to smoke or snort the remains of the poor man.

The film director Tony Scott keeps his portion of Leary's remains by his toilet. This does seem fitting in one sense, for when he was alive Leary certainly enjoyed himself in the bathrooms of Hollywood folk. Yet I can't bring myself to put Leary in my bathroom, as I cannot shake the idea that this is being disrespectful. It is possible that my sensibilities are different to those of Mr Scott. It could just be, however, that his bathroom is considerably nicer than mine.

We are so used now to making choices in our daily lives that it seems normal to apply that level of individual preference to our deaths. The obsession with lifestyle has naturally extended to the creation of "deathstyle". But reading through the planned funerals on MyDeath.net, it is noticeable that the most common themes are grandiosity, spectacle and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Your funeral is one of the few times in your life that is completely focused on you, so the temptation to indulge your ego is great. But a funeral is not for the deceased. It is for the mourners. It is an important milestone in the grieving process. Leary was correct when he argued that a service that is not anonymous, and that does capture the spirit of the departed, is a great help for the living.

But I do hope that people keep the mourners in mind while they make their deathstyle choices. Bone Machine may have its moments, but forcing the whole thing on assembled aunts, nephews and grandchildren does not strike me as particularly therapeutic.

Meanwhile, I shall put a bit more thought into what I should do with Timothy Leary because, knowing my friends, I am going to have to get used to awkward last wishes.

jh@johnhiggs.com

The author's 'I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary' will be published in 2006

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