Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Customised coffins
Simon Jenkins gets into coffins
“Which would you prefer?” asked the man at the funeral home: “Polished mahogany, with solid brass fittings and a deep velvet lining? Or, maybe you’d like to consider something from our new customised range?”
It used to be that the best jokes in the “gallows humour” category came from the slogans of American funeral homes, whose marketing is more robust than that of British counterparts. US slogans included such monuments to black comedy as: “Thinking inside the box”, “Don’t be seen dead anywhere else” and (my favourite) “Let us be the last to let you down”. But, post mortem strangeness has descended to exciting new depths with the advent of the flat-pack coffin, made from non-toxic cartonboard and printed all over with colourful images in tribute to the life of the funeralee.
Now, the coffin of Uncle Fred can proceed up the aisle looking like the Tardis, or a Formula One chequered flag bearing “Finish!”, or a Las Vegas fruit machine, or even a big bottle of whisky. (Come to think of it, that last option might have been an unfortunately truthful choice for at least one of my own dear relatives.) The spirit of the whole enterprise is summed up in a coffin printed up to look like a greengrocer’s display of veg, crowned by a label reading: “Rest in peas!”
Jazzed-up coffins aren’t for everyone, of course, since they seem guaranteed to turn tragedy into farce, but I’m wondering if they’re part of the sea change over the past couple of decades in the way the British cope with death. Mahogany has given way to leopardskin in the coffin department. Black ties have given way to colourful or no ties. Sombre funerals have given way to services of celebration. And speaking of the departed in hushed tones, which is how things were done when I was a kid, has given way to something altogether more upbeat.
News reports often feature people talking about their lost loved-ones, saying: “I’m sure Mum is looking down on us and smiling right now.” Or: “I know Dave is looking down and cheering us on in what we’re doing.” Or simply: “Rosie is in heaven with the angels, looking down on us.” One grieving person wrote in a newsletter: “I am sure he is looking down on us and probably thinking, wow, I have never been this high before,” – but this turned out to be a report about the sad death of a snowy owl called Philly.
It’s a curious idea, though. It seems that people are imagining their loved ones crowded round a TV up in heaven watching us on a Channel 5 reality show while angels come and go with cups of tea. Hardly anyone seems to say: “She’s looking down on us, totally disgusted that we’ve blown the inheritance on a caravan… or appalled at having to watch what we get up to in the bedroom.” The comedian Jack Whitehall recently offered his own thoughts on it all: “I’m sure, wherever my father is, he would be looking down on us. He’s not dead… just very condescending.”
One thing which has reliably not changed about funerals in the past 50 years is the choice of Henry Scott-Holland’s “Death is nothing at all” for the reading. Henry was a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral until 1918, which is when “nothing at all” happened to him at the age of 71. He preached a sermon a few years earlier on the death of King Edward VII, and that’s when he delivered his famous lines: “Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged…”
Henry’s tone is so limp and languid, I can imagine him continuing: “My death is just a tiresome inconvenience. Would you mind asking the servants to bring in my copy of The Times? I shall be in my library all day. Do remember to put out the cat.” To my mind, it’s not a very huge jump from “death is nothing at all” to leopardskin coffins, both of which are in denial in rather huge ways.
Henry is no doubt looking down on me right now, furious that I’m poking fun at his best-loved words, which are top of the bereavement hit parade. And that’s fine with me. I’d much rather Henry raged away at something, ideally at “the dying of the light”, as Dylan Thomas says in his own funeral favourite.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Reform.