In the macabrely titled "Highlights" sections of its latest death report, the Office for National Statistics states that there were 529,655 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2015. It’s a number most of us try not think about, ill-equipped as we all are to mentally reconcile the hovering spectre of our own mortality, that is unless you’re in the corpse disposal business.
Despite the fact we will all encounter it at some point or another, the funeral industry is not something we tend to concern ourselves with. Suddenly finding ourselves in the position of having to organise "saying goodbye to someone" adequately, most of us will just blankly Google "funeral directors", not really sure of what to expect or the costs involved. Our obliviousness must be intentional, though, as “The Death World” (as the industry likes to call itself) is really quite vibrant, accessible and well-connected.
Nestled between the annual Funeral Cake Competition and enthusiastically-titled Ideal Death Show, The Good Funeral Awards ceremony is the centrepiece of the celebration-of-funereal-excellence calendar. Dubbed the UK's "funeral Oscars", the ceremony has grown from five people to more than 250 in its five years of existence, and 2016’s bash takes place in London for the first time.
Entering the grand Porchester Hall, my colleague and I, completely overdressed in bow tie and black suit respectively (the median attire of the funeral crowd, as it turns out, is some sort of coloured robe) are greeted with champagne. Balloons, repurposed from the sphere of happiness for the afternoon, are tied to the staircase, emblazoned with the words "The Good Funeral Awards sponsored by FuneralBooker", and melancholically in the lobby’s artificial light. Our fellow guests, an eclectic bunch including ministers in dog collars and journalists from the Funeral Service Times (not to be confused with its more reactionary rival, the Funeral Service Journal) recognise and greet each other warmly as we move into the main hall for pre-ceremony drinks.
The hall is studded with those familiar circular dining tables. At one end sits a stage with an announcement podium, at the other a bar. It would look like any other awards ceremony, were it not for the giant caskets that flank the stage, the case of urns on display and the skeleton bust which serves as the hall’s centrepiece, and which it takes your correspondents a solid hour and a half to realise is actually a cake (see image above for uncanny realism).
You might expect those in The Death World, given the graveness of their professions, to regard each other with a level of respect unusual in a competitive industry, but one attendee labels it “the world’s bitchiest”.
“It’s very old school and new", the undertaker tells me (not ‘funeral director’, he considers the former term more real), “honestly this event is bizarre even to us, it’s like getting the Serbs and the Croats to sit down together.”
Everyone here, be they undertakers, embalmers, mortuary assistants (more on today’s categories/nominees later) has to think about death every single day by nature of their profession (as opposed to just recreationally like myself), so most of them already have plans in mind for the disposal of their own bodies.
A selection of responses from ceremony attendees to the question “How do you want to be gotten rid of?”:
“Left in the middle of nowhere. Not buried, just lying there.”
“Buried, my friends singing as I’m lowered.”
“Buried, but in a ‘ripping a guitar solo’ pose.”
“Just a simple burial.”
“Shot from a cannon. Not my ashes, my actual corpse.” (full disclosure, this was my answer when the question was turned back on me)
“I considered being preserved and turned into a water feature, but decided on being buried in my own woodland, if I have one by then.”
[With complete seriousness] “I want to be burnt on a funeral pyre all night long. In the morning, my children will pick through the ashes for my bones and paint them in ochre or gold.”
These are all very achievable, as funerals are fortunately fairly unregulated and pretty much anything goes as long as it doesn’t pose some kind of biohazard or contravene "public decency" (ie. a cannon would probably be fine, as long as it wasn’t aimed at a shopping plaza). One gentleman, I am told, chose to be burned on a pyre made from four tons of wood and lit by arrows dipped in diesel and fired at the pyre by his surviving relatives. ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins played throughout and without police intervention (over both the burial rite and the choice of music).
The undertakers here whose USP is unorthodox and/or eco-friendly funerals seem to irk the traditionalists in attendance, however. During an introductory speech, the line “…and the afterlife, if any of you out there still believe in one” gets a small but defiant cheer from one table.
One and a half courses through lunch (the menu for which is not death-themed, in something a missed opportunity) the awards get underway. The reason for the meal-interrupting start time is apparently down to the caterers having overloaded the ovens. I start to consider the pleasing symmetry of this with the act of cremation, but am jolted back into the room by a vocally impressive, albeit cruelly under-applauded rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ by Britain’s Got Talent star (choice of noun not mine) Alison Jiear.
After she vacates the stage our presenter for the ceremony, GMTV’s Penny Smith, takes to the podium. How she came to be chosen as today’s MC for death is unclear, and her speech, which includes gags the clunkiest of which involves a "polishing the coffin" double entendre, jars a little following a really quite thoughtful one from innovative undertaker Ru Callender, who says smart things about the nature of death and calls for an end to euphemisms like "loved ones" in funeral parlance (“not everyone is loved!”). This is not to say that jokes aren’t welcome at the Good Funeral Awards, which I should have mentioned by now has a very healthy sense of humour, the programme having already promised us “stiff competition” for this year’s awards.
Awards that piqued my interest and their winners: Embalmer of the Year (Andy Holder), Coffin Supplier of the Year, sponsored by Ecoffins (Musgrove Willows), Best Internet Bereavement Resource (Muchloved), Gravedigger of the Year (which gets the biggest cheer of the day) (David Homer of D. T. H. Burial & Churchyard Services), Best Maker of Hand Carved Memorials in an Indigenous Material (Stoneletters).
Due to the aforementioned overrunning of lunch, there is no time for winners to say a few words, and it's with a tinge of sadness that I imagine what essays on death winners are being deprived from giving. The delay also leads to a fair amount of forks scraping on plates mid-ceremony, as guests try and finish their roast lamb while death is discussed on stage, a juxtaposition that proves fairly chilling. It can’t be helped though, and the expediting of award-dispensing is welcomed by most as there’s a hell of a lot to get through and everyone’s running low on wine. A stage to floor fall from one winner brings the afternoon’s major moment of drama, and, as first aid-trained audience members are called for, I am for a moment forced to consider the possibility of there actually being a death at the funeral awards. Fortunately, the young lady turns out to be fine and the ceremony continues. The rest of it takes place without ill event, save Penny Smith mixing up a few award winners with runners-up, she clearly not being au fait with the funeral community's most notable members.
Once the Lifetime Achievement award (irony not explicitly mentioned), the final prize of the night, is given to the Natural Death Centre Charity, Alison Jiear returns to the stage for a cover of a Josh Groban ballad before the tables dissolve back to mingling, more alcohol and coffees are served and a DJ plays everyone out.
Chatting about life, love and death to a young nominee in the Most Innovative Death Public Engagement Event 2016 category, who is currently living in a treehouse just outside the city, organises Death Cafés where people get together to discuss mortality and will shortly be departing the country for Helsinki to visit one of his many polyamorous partners, I decide I'm quite fond of The Death World.
It's not filled with the cold, silent types we all superficially imagine, but rather deep thinkers who have accepted death as a part of life, want to consider how we can dispose of ourselves more responsibly and, most importantly, just want to give the bereaved a quality of farewell that can save them from heartache.
As one older member of the Natural Death Centre tells me wearily: "We're just trying to get people to stop watching box sets and contemplate their deaths for a minute."
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