I called my friend this morning to discuss the party I’ll be throwing – whether from this realm or another

February 27, 2023 4:04 pm

A few years ago, I invested a small amount of money in a friend’s business. I didn’t – and still don’t – expect to make a return on my investment, but his was such a good idea, I felt I ought to support him. He had made his name in the hospitality industry, where he has legendary status as a pioneer and provocateur, and his new venture was to disrupt the last unreformed and unreconstructed area of commerce in Britain: the funeral business.

For a century or more, there had been very little choice in the manner of one’s departing this mortal coil. Whether you wanted to be buried, cremated or to have a humanist funeral, there was very little scope for imagination, individuality or personality within the recognised framework. A nice service, some well-chosen words, a sombre mood, and that was that. Closure, in every sense.

My friend’s idea was that a funeral should be a celebration of life, and people should be allowed to devise exactly how they wanted to say goodbye. In a world of infinite choice, this seemed like a perfectly logical idea.

And so he started his company, and very quickly he was contacted by people who wanted their final journey to be accompanied by Massive Attack at full volume, who wanted to be cremated and their ashes to be used in fireworks at a party later the same day, and one who wanted his coffin to be inscribed with the words: “Told you I was ill”. They even had a request for topless coffin bearers.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing in life becomes us like the leaving of it, and, given that we cannot write our own obituary, it is not unreasonable that we should, in death, wish to influence how we are remembered.

I am of an age where such thoughts are increasingly proximate, so I was particularly taken with the story of Linda Williams, a 74-year-old terminal cancer sufferer from High Wycombe who, it was reported yesterday, decided to throw a party rather than have a funeral. “I had an absolute blast,” was her assessment of her 1940s themed event. “It was the best night of my life,” she added.

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She wasn’t sure that she’d make the big night, but wanted the party to go ahead regardless, and so she had a cardboard cut-out of herself made in case, and had playlists for each eventuality. As it happens, she danced with friends until 1am, and slept for two days afterwards. Funerals are “miserable things”, she said.

The idea of not having a funeral at all is becoming increasingly popular in these impecunious times. Direct cremations, in which the body is cremated without ceremony and the ashes are then posted to the family, are less than half the average price of a traditional funeral, and when the cost of living is so punitive, it’s inevitable that attention is paid also to the cost of dying. Direct cremations now account for 18 per cent of all funerals.

Economical and functional though this option may be, most of us still want to be remembered in a more joyful and meaningful way. And now that we know there is more than one way to die, and there is no stigma about discussing the precise nature of one’s last hurrah, perhaps everyone of a certain age should give some thought to it.

It needn’t be a mournful exercise. In fact, far from it. I am grateful to Linda Williams for showing us the way. I called my friend this morning to discuss the party I’ll be throwing – whether from this realm or another – the guest list, the sky blue coffin in which I shall rest, and the precise version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” I want him to play.

You see – death can be life-affirming too.

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