The friendlier way back to dust and ashes
Authors seek to free the funeral from expensive Victorian pomp
Monday March 8, 2004
Useful tips on how to make a shroud and assemble a cardboard coffin (with step by step illustrations similar to those given with an Ikea flatpack) are included in a new guide to death to be published next week.
The Dead Good Funerals Book is published by Welfare State International, an arts group in Ulverston, Cumbria, which has developed new rituals and ceremonies for rites of passage in a secular age.
"Alternative ceremonies are really needed," the authors, Sue Gill and John Fox, say. "New liturgies, new prayers and poems and suitable readings, new forms of words for committal, particularly for a secular funeral."
Much of the book is intended as a guide for mourners who do not want traditional all-black funerals, and the practical suggestions for ceremonies include tips on painted coffins, readings, music (Ewan MacColl's Joy Of Living is much loved by dead ramblers) and eulogies.
They also suggest a national competition for new designs for coffins.
"Today's funerals are a Victorian invention," the authors say. "The Victorians 'invented' the coffin, the hearse, the black clothes, granite memorials, burial gowns, drapes and, most of all, the job of the funeral director.
"We unquestioningly go on, the way we were brought up, to regard funerals as if that is the way they have to be. The only difference is that petrol is used instead of the horsepower to pull the hearse." They argue that most people are not aware of the choices open to them.
"You do not need to have a funeral at all. If you do, it does not need to be in a licensed building - a small funeral could be at home, for example (unless you want an Anglican service in England).
"You are not required to use a clergyman. You are not required to use an undertaker. Legally, you are not required to use a coffin ... Your burial may be on private land; you may be buried under a tree in your garden."
Garden or farmland graves should be on dry land and away from watercourses (to avoid the danger of pollution) and gas and electricity services (to avoid upsetting the neighbours if pipes or cables are severed).
Burials at sea are possible but complex, with regulations to prevent bodies being washed up on holiday beaches. Only three maritime sites are allowed off the English coast: one near Newhaven, Sussex; the Needles spoil ground to the west of the Isle of Wight; and nine miles off the mouth of the Tyne.
But mourners can dispose of ashes at sea almost anywhere and the authors recommend "beautiful urns made of compressed salt and sand which dissolve on the sea bed in less than an hour".
Gill and Fox say that embalming is "extremely bad news" for the environment - eight pints of blood go down the drain to be replaced by eight pints of chemicals - and they have little liking for eco-unfriendly chipboard coffins trimmed with plastic veneers and stuck together with toxic glues.
They are enthusiastic about natural burial sites (150 are now available in Britain) and the pioneering work on green burials introduced by cemeteries in Carlisle.
They also offer advice on how to transform a crematorium chapel into a friendlier place for a last farewell, and call for "new spaces worthy of secular services".
"In Adelaide, South Australia, the crematorium is beautiful enough as a building and set among trees so that people choose to go there for open air wedding ceremonies."
In a section on self-help one diagram shows how to make a shroud. It requires a woollen sheet, three black cotton ropes, a stiff board, sewing materials and padding (optional).
"It cocoons the body in warm natural fibres rather than the chipboard and plastics used in modern coffins. It also avoids the waste of resources associated with coffin usage."
Another diagram illustrates the Zimbabwean collapsible coffin "which folds into a bag which can be slung over the shoulder and carried home on the bus". A third shows three designs of cardboard coffin - the Peace Box, the Engrefco and the Compakta.
The book describes the final journey of Keith Hunt, a lorry driver who died of leukaemia in his early 40s.
His coffin was driven on a flat-bed lorry along the M54, the route he drove every working day of his life. "He wanted the funeral procession to pull into his usual truck stop for [mourners to share] a last mug of tea before driving on to the graveyard."
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