How to go out with a bang: Spectacular funerals

Want a funeral as spectacular as Malcolm McLaren's or Sebastian Horsley's? Lori MacKellar will make it happen.

Cahal Milmo
Saturday 03 July 2010 00:00 BST

Malcolm McLaren was conveyed in a horse-drawn hearse followed by mourners in a green double-decker bus emblazoned with the words "Malcolm was here".

Legendary barman Michael Wojas met his maker in a cardboard coffin lined with cigarettes made by one of Britain's edgiest artists, while unabashed Soho dilettante Sebastian Horsley was sent off this week in a casket dressed up as a giant present.

Were there any doubt that the days when a funeral consisted of a dour and brief gathering focused on a gilt-handled, highly-varnished coffin were over, then the rise of the distinctly unconventional celebrity send-off is proof of a distinct shift in British attitudes to the final journey of the dead.

Behind the baronial burials of figures such as the "godfather of punk" and Mr Horsley, a man who went through a crucifixion in the name of art, lies a select band of undertakers rapidly gaining a name for overseeing funerals which depart from the norm.

The requirements of the nearest and dearest range from using a motorcycle sidecar as a hearse to the creation of a death mask.

The boom in offbeat funerals, attended in the case of Mr Horsley by mourners dressed in fishnet stockings and leather hotpants marching through the streets of London's Soho, is a manifestation of what funeral directors see as a general rise in the desire of the bereaved to individualise the 500,000 burials and cremations that take place in Britain each year.

In the words of one leading undertaker, a modern funeral – costing anything from £1,500 for a team of four horses to £12,000 for a mausoleum in London's Highgate Cemetery – is often every bit as elaborate as a wedding, "only you get a week rather than a year to organise it".

It is an increasingly familiar challenge to Lori MacKellar, a funeral director for one of Britain's oldest undertaking names, Leverton & Sons, who, less than three years ago, was pursuing a very different career as a contemporary art publicist with a client list that included the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin.

Following the death of her father and the realisation that if she and her family were to get the sort of funeral they wanted, she would largely have to organise it herself, Ms MacKellar decided on a dramatic change of direction. Together with the family of former Sex Pistols' manager McLaren, in particular his son, Joe Corrie, she was responsible for organising one of the more idiosyncratic obsequies seen in London in recent years. The cortège took McLaren, who died of cancer aged 64 in April, along a route through his native north London lined by punk rockers before fans were called upon to observe a "minute of mayhem" rather than the traditional 60-second silence as a mark of respect.

Once inside the (deconsecrated) church, mourners danced in the aisles to the deceased's version of the Max Bygraves hit "You Need Hands" in front of a floral tribute spelling out one of McLaren's slogans, "Cash from Chaos".

Ms MacKellar, 44, a softly-spoken Scot brimming with enthusiasm and respect for her new profession, said: "The departure point is always what the family want to do. In the case of Malcolm McLaren, the family had very clear ideas about what sort of funeral they wanted and we helped to arrange it. The bus was provided by a friend and there were so many ways that people were able to express themselves. We were a little bit worried that at one point some fans might give the 'punk salute' by spitting towards the hearse. Of course, that never happened and people were also very respectful. I think the family were pleased with how it went.

"In my previous career, there was no end product. As a publicist, your client is never going to feel famous enough. It was all about puff. This profession could not be more different. It is a real honour because you are taking care of that person and providing something timeless in terms of the memory of a loved one. Everything is done with a great deal of care, whoever that person might have been."

Although she understandably bridles at being labelled a "celebrity undertaker", Ms MacKellar is nonetheless at the vanguard of funeral directors providing showpiece ceremonies where required. Levertons, which has overseen funerals from George Orwell and Kenneth Williams to Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, is even preparing for the eventuality of webcasting funerals for mourners who are unable to attend.

Richard Putt, one of the 221-year-old company's directors, said: "I think people wanted to bring more personality to the event after Diana. It has certainly moved on a pace since then, with woodland burials, banana leaf or pineapple leaf coffins. Suddenly the 'weird' is just not weird anymore."

Nonetheless, "outlandish" remains an outstanding feature of the new vogue in funerals for the famous. No more so than in the case of Mr Wojas, the self-described "bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd-job man and accountant" who ran Soho's infamous Colony Room Club for 21 years before its closure in 2008. After his death last month, a friend, Sarah Lucas, the artist who was part of the YBA movement, offered to build his coffin. The result – a cardboard casket lined with Mr Wojas's beloved cigarettes and decorated with pictures of flowers and vodka bottles – was too big to fit in the motorbike sidecar chosen by his friends as a hearse.

Barry Albin-Dyer, whose company F A Albin & Sons in Bermondsey, south London, managed perhaps the biggest celebrity funeral of recent times in the shape of the burial of the reality television doyenne, Jade Goody, was also in charge of the formalities for Mr Wojas. He said: "My grandfather was a funeral director and in the 1960s he thought that the days of funerals were numbered. For a while it looked like he was right, but since the 1990s people have begun to embrace funerals to the point that they're almost like weddings. As long as the person is properly buried or cremated at the end, more or less anything else can be arranged. Michael Wojas was a case in point. When the cardboard coffin arrived we found it was too big for the sidecar. His friends asked us to substitute it for a normal casket while the cardboard one was driven to the cemetery in a van with blacked out windows. I think they liked that. It meant he was being unconventional to the end.

"It's nice to see people taking back control of these moments after death. In my father's day, he would dictate which cemetery people would go to, who would take the service and so on.

"Now people are a lot more comfortable with death than they used to be. They will go out and buy clothes to dress the deceased and sit and spend time with them."

With such occasions come an increasingly elaborate array of funereal extras, including the return to popularity of the death mask – the practice of making a cast of the dead person's face, which was most recently revived to make likenesses of McLaren and Mr Wojas. One undertaker told The Independent he had made 12 of the masks in the past 12 months, compared to a few years ago when he was making "barely one every decade".

The marking of the passing of Mr Horsley, who, according to one friend, killed himself in a heroin binge after falling out with Mr Wojas.

The £1,100 used to pay for his horse-drawn hearse was provided by a friend and plumber, Laurence Lynch, who, along with other friends, was inspired by McLaren's funeral to provide a more lavish send-off for the famously dissolute artist who boasted of sleeping with "more than 1,000" prostitutes.

Mr Lynch, 49, said: "I saw Sebastian being taken out of his flat in a bodybag. I just didn't want him to leave Soho like that. He was a prince of Soho so I wanted him to leave in style."

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