Leader: Say goodbye to the British way of death

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The Independent Online
Could anything sound more ludicrous? Another liberation movement is being founded - for the dead. Lord Young of Dartington, the Labour peer, wants us to recognise "dead people's rights". It conjures up images of rows of angry corpses demanding better treatment, their representatives appearing on Question Time to argue their case, even facing down a sceptical Jeremy Paxman. But despite the apparent absurdity of the idea, Lord Young's latest organisation, the National Funerals College, has a serious and potentially appealing point.

Most funerals no longer serve their purpose as a way for the living to say goodbye to the deceased. This will ring painfully true for any family that has been shuffled through a cold crematorium in half an hour, subjected to a brief formulaic speech delivered by the clergyman on duty, who has never met any of the family before. What should be a catharsis for the bereaved, celebrating the life and commemorating the death of a loved one, too often turns out to be an awkward disappointment. It is a commentary upon the inertia of our society that an institution so universal and so important could be allowed to continue almost regardless of whether it is in the spirit of its time.

Funeral services are still dominated by religious traditions that many people no longer identify with. Not long ago the local priest would have known the deceased and his or her family for years; the sermon could be personal and moving. And most of the congregation would have understood and taken comfort from the religious imagery that the service invoked. Not so today.

Only celebrities seem to be able to break the rules. When the Labour leader John Smith died two years ago the nation watched a service in Edinburgh replete with tributes from colleagues and a haunting psalm sung in Gaelic, followed by a quiet family burial on Iona. In the Seventies, Elvis was buried with a funeral procession of white cars to drive him to his grave.

These public figures had the advantage of having plenty of people to organise their funerals. Most of us turn the whole thing over to a local funeral director. In our confusion and grief we are in no position to plan or make choices about how to conduct the service.

What we need is easy access to a wide variety of options - including a few really imaginative and personal suggestions - and then someone else to do all the organising for us. Here there is a real gap in the market. Where are the alternative funeral directors? Where are the companies to organise a burial at sea for the aspirant sailor, or a memorial game of bingo for the avid player. Instead, most people find themselves stuck with an undertaker who offers little more than the funeral equivalent of a short back and sides.

Once the baby boomers start dying, the market for funerals will change beyond recognition. Just as they have redefined marriage ceremonies to suit their wishes, so they will redefine the ceremonies for death. If that, and Lord Young's campaign, spell the end of the awful crematorium funeral, we should not mourn its passing.