How to ensure that your bad taste survives you

'The vulgar funeral will soon be forgotten, but an obelisk has a way of hanging around'
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The Independent Online

Sir Thomas Browne, that Miss Manners of the 17th century, had some fairly sharp things to say about funeral monuments: "Pyramids, Arches, Obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity," he writes in Hydriotaphia, before continuing (in a rare variant manuscript): "and to Boot, most exceedingly Common and Vulgar."

Sir Thomas Browne, that Miss Manners of the 17th century, had some fairly sharp things to say about funeral monuments: "Pyramids, Arches, Obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity," he writes in Hydriotaphia, before continuing (in a rare variant manuscript): "and to Boot, most exceedingly Common and Vulgar."

Great merriment has been caused by the reported plan of a Mr David Hart to erect a posthumous monument to himself, which, apparently, is going to be a pyramid topped off in gold. The life that merits this astounding object is, of course, a very distinguished one, and I'm sure it's my fault I've never heard of him. He has been not only an adviser to Margaret Thatcher in her prime, but to Michael Portillo, too. Still, if the life of an adviser deserves to be marked with a gold-topped pyramid, what on earth could possibly suffice to mark the passing of his titanic masters? A pair of 70-foot nude statues, perhaps, covered in gold leaf, bestriding the Thames at Westminster?

There's great concern that Mr Hart's pyramid at his estate, Chadacre, might not be big enough to make the requisite impression. Someone ought to urge him to build one as large as that other spectacularly common and vulgar funerary monument, the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. After all, as Bagehot very truly said, what could be worse than a pyramid 30 feet high? No, in these matters, size is of the greatest importance, and, in constructing a monument to himself, Mr Hart ought not to stint on cost or scale. Good taste, of course, is optional.

Although there is no taste, good or otherwise, beyond the grave, the monuments and ceremonies that follow on death are definitely worldly things and as subject to embarrassments and lapses as anything else. Indeed, it's tempting to think that a funeral is so solemn an occasion that those left behind use it as a licence to indulge all that suppressed bad taste. "If I have to go to one more disco funeral..." an exasperated friend of mine complained, at the height of the Aids epidemic. Music is a particular source of terrible embarrassment, and it's quite shocking that the most popular soundtracks at English funerals now are Robbie Williams's "Angels" and Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You".

But it's the monuments and gravestones that are apt to cause the most lasting embarrassment. The vulgar funeral is soon forgotten; an obelisk has a way of hanging around; Paula Yates's burial in a white mink bikini is, in the end, not as bad as a truly horrible mausoleum.

Not many of us, thank God, can rise to Mr Hart's gigantic pyramid, but there are plenty of other ghastly options. The marble angels of suburban stonemasons still, apparently, enjoy some popularity. Undertakers do not set themselves up as guardians of good taste, but I wonder what they think of those little poems people insist on engraving on their loved ones' tombs. There's a long tradition of doing this, down to Auden's beautiful epitaph, "In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise." But that doesn't excuse the barbarities about little angels only going to sleep that seem to strike most people as appropriate, tasteful and even moving.

Of course, this is just a matter of cultural difference. It's strangely shocking, in Italian cemeteries, to see how many gravestones bear a laminated photograph of the dear departed. As far as I know, Italians don't think of that as being in bad taste, any more than they would avert their eyes from a widow flinging herself on to the catafalque. Almost certainly, they would think the English habit of making brisk social conversation after the funeral in much worse taste, and think expressions of near-hysterical grief an entirely proper and decent way to behave.

There is no more moving grave in the world than Proust's, which is a flat slab of unadorned black marble that no shift of taste can deplore. Beyond that, you venture at your peril,; no one can be sure that erecting a pyramidal mausoleum to their own memory will not be more likely to invite ridicule and laughter than veneration.

Perhaps it's in rather bad taste to object to the taste, good or otherwise, of a funeral and a monument. After all, we all come to the same end, whether our aesthetic tastes have been exquisite or deplorable. Death is the great leveller, and neither the tycoon nor the pensioner can guard against their weeping relatives deciding that some eyesore or other would really be very nice on the day. But I know I'm going to leave very firm instructions that I do not want my name spelt out in yellow chrysanthemums, and in no circumstances is my tombstone going to be a gigantic pyramid engraved with the sentiment that I am a little angel who has just fallen asleep.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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