WHEN actor James Doohan – that’s Scotty to you and me – died in 2005, his final wish was to be beamed up in true Star Trek style, by having his remains sent into space in a rocket.
The ashes of journalist Hunter S Thompson were shot from a cannon on top of a 150ft tower, topped by a giant red, two-thumbed fist. And, most rock ’n’ roll of them all, after rap star Tupac Shakur was cremated, his ashes were mixed with weed. And smoked. Kind of cool. But also kind of weird.
However we choose to go, one thing is certain: we are all sure to go. And since the manner in which we’ll die is probably beyond our control, the send-off might as well be on our own terms. In fact, by taking control of our own death, we might even change the way we live.
This month an exhibition opens at the Wellcome Collection in London, featuring prints by Rembrandt and Goya alongside ancient Incan skulls and a chandelier made from 3,000 plaster bones. The intention is to examine not only the iconography connected with death but also our conflicting, often complex, attitudes towards it.
The psychologist Dr Irvin Yalom believes fear of dying is the cause of many seemingly unrelated emotional problems and that, if we confront our own death – face up to the fact that we all have to go sooner or later, talk about our wishes with family and friends, plan a ‘good’ funeral – we’ll enrich our lives as a result.
Barbara Chalmers knows all about bad funerals – she has attended enough of them. “I suppose it started when I went to my Auntie Nellie’s funeral,” she says, “and they called her Helen. I kept thinking, ‘Am I in the right place?’ The way they spoke about her didn’t bear any relation to her at all.
“What a peculiar thing,” she adds. “Why do we involve people who don’t know us to say goodbye to us? It’s all a bit shoddy.”
The 52-year-old Scot was so incensed after another funeral in 2006 – “it was so dull I don’t even remember whose it was” – that she started to think about other ways of doing things. But it wasn’t until she was made redundant from her communications job in 2010 that Final Fling finally came into being. “The funny thing is people talk about death being a taboo, but everywhere I go people are really open to talking about it. I think it’s just about having the right place.
“I went to talk to someone at Scottish Enterprise and not only did he not think I was a nutter but, as always happens, he then started talking about his own experience. If you create the space and offer an ear, people are happy to talk. In fact, they are often looking for the chance.”
And what many people say is that they don’t want the traditional ceremony they sat through for their grandparents, with the funeral dirges and black ties, curled-up sandwiches, chicken wings and warm wine at the wake. “I think it’s a bit of a baby boomer thing,” she says. “People are saying, ‘I was at Woodstock, for Christ’s sake.’ So they want eco and green and pink funerals. They live their lives in a meaningful way and want their death and their funerals to be as meaningful. They want to do things their own way,.They don’t care if it’s the ‘right’ way.”
Just as we are increasingly getting married on remote beaches and at the top of Ben Nevis, so we are having our send-offs in more unusual places too. “In fact, with weddings there is a legal element but with funerals there isn’t,” says Chalmers, “so there’s a lot more choice than you think. Anybody can do it. You can bury someone in the grounds of your own house. You just have to make sure the authorities know they’re there.” You might also want to consider the possibility that you will, at some point, move.
You can have your ashes made into a firework – something Chalmers’ own daughter wants – or a diamond. You can have your hearse pulled by a Harley Davidson, a VW camper or a vintage lorry. There are Buddhist hearses, rock ’n’ roll themes. There is even a company – Alba Orbital – that is looking into the possibility of doing a Doohan.
You might even want to consider resomation. Not currently legal in the UK but already licensed and being practised in the US, the process has been invented by a Scot by the name of Alexander Sullivan and is being billed “the next big thing in death”. It basically liquifies the human remains and provides an alternative to either burial or cremation.
“A friend has started a business in London doing a very simple thing,” says Chalmers. “Crematoria aren’t always nice places to be, so she’ll collect the body, organise the cremation and return the ashes to the family. That’s the point at which they have their ceremony, so they don’t have to do the whole cars, crematorium, bad sandwiches bit. It opens up the thinking.”
Final Fling acts as a directory of services, as well as providing advice on everything from writing a will (70 per cent of us don’t have one) and taking care of the paperwork to making a bucket list and compiling a treasure trove of memories. “It’s not about putting the fun into funerals,” she insists. “They are many things, but they’re not fun. For me, it’s about putting rich into ritual – making it something that means something to you. It’s about engaging with the goodbye in whatever way is fitting.”
The first step in this process is talking about it. For starters, who knew there are funeral ‘Oscars’? The UK-wide awards recognise things like best funeral director and best embalmer. Final Fling won the prize for most outstanding contribution to the understanding of death in the media. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that, where people think and talk about death, they are more likely to have a good death,” says Chalmers, “which means the people who are bereaved are more able to move on.”
One of the easiest ways to begin is to think about the music you would like played at your funeral. That then opens the way to discussing such things as burial or cremation; brass-handled coffin or bamboo affair. Maybe you would like to meet your maker à la Frank Sinatra, with a pack of cigarettes, lighter, bottle of bourbon and some coins (so he could call loved ones from the other side)? Or, if you don’t like the idea of being boxed in, you could be wrapped in an eco-friendly felt shroud.
Then there is the Ghanaian tradition of fashioning the coffin into something connected with the person’s life. “I’ve seen canoes, ballet shoes, guitars, beer bottles,” says Chalmers. “And I’ve looked at things like making bunting, involving kids,” says Chalmers.
“If you have a cardboard coffin, people can write messages on it like a giant stookie. I quite like that notion. The days between a death and a funeral are very strange and if people have little things they can do, it can help with the letting-go process.”
Woodland burials and green coffins are big news in the death business (until five ago, cremations accounted for around 70 per cent of ceremonies), while humanist celebrants now conduct funerals. But your family will never know how you want to go unless you tell them. And still 90 per cent of us don’t have a funeral plan.
She took her business plan to Dragon’s Den recently but the larger-than-life entrepreneurs were not impressed. A week later, Duncan Bannatyne was in hospital with a suspected heart attack. “So, you still think you don’t need to plan for these things?” asks Chalmers.
“Every human being knows they’re going to die,” says Ed Dobson, a US pastor suffering from an incurable disease, whose story features on the Final Fling website. Given just two years to live, ten years on he is painfully thin but alive – vibrantly so. “If I’d given up and laid down to die I would have missed walking my daughter down the aisle, I would have missed the birth of five grandchildren,” he says.
Instead, he says, facing death has helped him come to terms with life. “It’s not about how long I have left. It’s about how I spend the time I do have.”
DEATH BECOMES THEM
Africa Some tribes grind the bones of their loved ones and mix them with food.
China Mourners wear white and sackcloth, while some funerals feature strippers.
Fiji Friends, wives and slaves of a dead man were once strangled in his honour.
Greece Ancient custom said it was the family’s sacred duty to eat their dead.
Hindus Until recently a Hindu widow was cremated alive alongside her dead husband.
Italy It was the custom in ancient Rome for the eldest male to inhale the last breath of a dying relative.
Madagascar People dig up the bones of dead relatives and parade them round the village, then re-bury them in a new shroud. The old one goes to newly-weds to encourage fertility.
Mexico The Day of the Dead is a colourful festival in which families decorate graves and eat sugar skulls.
Sweden An eco-friendly process reduces the body to a fine powder. Leftover metals are recycled and what’s left is buried in a biodegradable container.