A traditional horse-drawn funeral cortege

A quick exit…

Our way of death has become increasingly mawkish. Far better to opt for a swift cremation, without frills or power ballads

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Three years before David Bowie’s death in New York in 2016, the curators of London’s V&A exhibition David Bowie Is published a list of his favourite books. Among the inevitable philosophers, artists and beats there were a few surprises (Stephen King, for one), but none more so than The American Way of Death by the US-based English writer Jessica Mitford, published in 1963. The book, a bestseller at the time, was an exposé of the American funeral business revealing how the “dismal trade” of undertaking turned death into a booming industry.

Mitford died in 1996, while updating the text: she had opted for a cheap funeral with no ceremony. Bowie went further by bowing out with a direct cremation within hours of his demise. It was a worthy antidote to the vigils that followed, as middle-aged fans with Aladdin Sane make-up prostrated themselves before a badly drawn Bowie mural in Brixton. Last year Karl Lagerfeld settled on the same option despite being, like Bowie, a showman throughout his career.

Naturally it wasn’t in the interest of undertakers to push for something so basic

Following Bowie’s death I looked up the details of direct cremation on the website of New York’s Department of Health: “The disposition of human remains by cremation without a formal viewing, visitation, or ceremony.” In the UK a burial or a cremation has to take place, but the rituals of a funeral are not obligatory. As a digital service, direct cremation has been available to the public since 2009. The internet, which had intruded on our lives in so many ways, was having an impact on our deaths. Here was an online product that most high street funeral directors were reluctant to provide.

Interest in this option— “direct disposal” as it was charmingly referred to by British undertakers — increased after Bowie’s death, but there were pitfalls. I was told by one company: “It’s often impossible to be cremated that quickly in the UK. Since the Harold Shipman saga, you need several doctors to verify the death, and this can sometimes take up to a week.”

Naturally it wasn’t in the interest of undertakers to push for something so basic when the cost of crematoria, hearses and coffins upped the ante. But the demand for the service has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the first month of the crisis web traffic to sites offering direct cremation plans increased by 50 per cent. Clearly attitudes are changing towards the British way of death.

It’s the farewell I’m going for myself after cancer, a stroke, or heart attack has taken me out, if I’ve not taken myself to the river with a weighty brick or the unabridged Proust when dementia has been diagnosed. It’s cheaper, yes, but more importantly the absence of a service means no power ballad playing as the coasters roll and the curtains close. My own experience of family funerals led me to this decision. It was a solution I sought even before Bowie’s demise.

Thirty years ago I was losing family members at a rate that would outdo a Kennedy or a Job. My mother had died when I was in my twenties, my one sibling — a brother — died at 38. Death was never a stranger to us as a family, even though the subject was reputedly as taboo for the English in the twentieth century as sex was in the previous one.

The corpse in the working-class parlour with wide old pennies on the eyes — Britannia sinking into the sockets — was increasingly a thing of the past

My paternal grandfather had died on my tenth birthday in 1971, when funerals were said to take place “simply, speedily and sincerely”. My maternal grandfather — died, 1950 — was a familiar figure in his south London neighbourhood leading the horses of a funeral cortège, being employed by the Co-op undertakers with his family housed in rooms above. His work took him from Camberwell to Bromley, where a photograph of him at the helm of a funeral procession appeared in the Daily Mirror on 3 February, 1934, under the headline “Truly Royal Funeral For ‘Queen’s’ Son’”. The caption read: “The hearse drawn by six horses — one ridden by a postilion — at the funeral at Bromley yesterday of Levi Boswell, youngest son of the late Mrs Uraniah Boswell, formerly ‘Gypsy Queen of Kent’. The pony Nigger followed his master’s coffin to the cemetery. Large crowds watched the procession. Levi Boswell died last Sunday, aged 52.”

The funerals of that era were a hangover from the nineteenth century; the mourning process for widows was a throwback to the lengthy grief of Queen Victoria for Prince Albert. Even the poor were intent on having a good “send-off” with those ending their days in the workhouse often setting something aside to avoid a pauper’s funeral.

If death was later verboten as a topic of conversation it was attributable to two wars, in which a vast number of lives were extinguished on distant shores. This, along with hospitals becoming the setting for death as the welfare system provided care from cradle to grave, meant the end no longer came at home. The corpse in the working-class parlour with wide old pennies on the eyes — Britannia sinking into the sockets — was increasingly a thing of the past.

The funeral service, however, remained “Churchillian”, according to Brian Parsons in The Evolution of the British Funeral Industry in the 20th Century (2018): “The service read at Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, being the Order of the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer, was used at all services conducted by Church of England clergymen. As this did not include even the name of the deceased, the impersonal and dispassionate nature of the ceremony can be identified as a low point in funeral performance.”

Direct cremation is gaining ground and not simply with Greens, atheists and the elderly

The British funeral was a sombre, soulless affair when Jessica Mitford published her exposé of the US funeral industry, writing explicitly of how cadavers were nipped, tucked and tinted to transform “a common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture”. By the time the revisited version was published in 1998 the British funeral industry had begun to emulate its American equivalent. The bereaved were no longer cowering to tradition, the state, or shackled by religious rituals and sacred music: they were personalising services to suit the character of the deceased as a celebration of their life. Floral tributes were elaborate; eulogies were written and read by relatives.

The British were both discussing death and addressing it differently, as was evident with the floral shrines that blossomed at the scene of murders or accidents, a ritual that reached its apogee outside Kensington Palace after the death of Princess Diana. The author Gordon Burn commented on this trend in the sneering Fullalove (1995): “The effect aimed for in the impromptu pavement shrines marking the site of the latest nail-bomb or child-snatch or brutal sex-death is peaceful, pastoral, consolatory — the evocation of some dappled bluebell wood or country churchyard or Dairylea buttercup meadow, a world away from the 144-point Hurst of the raw modern city.”

It was a vast difference to the years in which the Mitford book first appeared, the era of the Moors murders and Aberfan. “I asked a London undertaker if he had ever conducted an open-casket funeral, in which the mourners file by to look at the embalmed corpse,” Mitford wrote. “He answered that such a thing would be considered so absolutely weird, so contrary to good taste and proper behaviour, so shocking to the sensibilities of all concerned that he thinks it could never become a practice in England.” By 1967 the British way of death was again in the process of change, as the numbers of cremations surpassed burials (three-quarters of funerals now are cremations).

Decades later direct cremation is gaining ground and not simply with Greens, atheists and the elderly. The process has overtaken the more familiar funeral by 300 per cent since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Again we’ve become further removed from the business of death and dying — because of social distancing and quarantine restrictions — with relatives prohibited from hospital visits and mourners restricted at funerals. Jessica Mitford dismissed as pseudo-psychology the argument undertakers proffered that embalming, the Chapel of Rest, the lavish funeral, were essential to the grieving process and the last goodbye. Perhaps she had a point.

I knew then that when my turn came it would be without a fanfare or funeral

My choice of direct cremation when the end comes arrived like an epiphany during my father’s death, and the immediate aftermath ten years ago. At the hospital, those whose presence was as evident as their absence from his home throughout his illness, were gathered like an ensemble in a religious painting. One of them was reading Hello!, two had pound signs in their eyes holding back the tears, as half of an ex-council bungalow near Thamesmead would soon be theirs for the taking. The fourth of the quartet raised her eyes from a crossword and announced above the head of the comatose patient: “They say the hearing is the last to go.”

The following week at the Chapel of Rest, an open casket was stuffed with synthetic flowers and various paraphernalia. I intervened, to bring the deceased some dignity before the helium balloons and face-painting kicked in. I knew that Matthew Arnold had my back on this one: “Spare me the whispering, crowded room, the friends who come and gape and go, the ceremonious air of gloom — all which makes death a hideous show.”

Finally the funeral, a 20-minute service within the conveyor-belt of cremations. One of the bedside figures, a “step” relative unknown to many mourners present, read a self-penned poem. Initially mooted as a short verse, it had expanded to a length that would have exhausted Milton. Suddenly the time had passed, and with it the casket as the curtains parted and the coasters rolled. I knew then that when my turn came it would be without a fanfare or funeral. Many have told me since it doesn’t matter anyway as I won’t be there at the end, but it comforts me to know that neither will anybody else.

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