Go your own way
There might be a solid-gold coffin, a beach fireworks display, a motorbike hearse or a performance from the cast of The Lion King: funerals aren’t what they used to be. Radhika Sanghani reports
When it comes to funerals, gold is the new black, says Radhika Sanghani
On a Saturday morning in February this year, 400 people arrived at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. Dressed in their finest lace, sequins and suits, they laughed and chatted as they took their seats. Latecomers filled up the back of the grand church until, at 11am precisely, a ballerina walked over to the middle of the altar. She picked up a violin and launched into an electrifying rendition of Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever. Guests looked on in hushed awe as she whirled around the church. The funeral of Gary Feiertag had officially begun.
Feiertag, a 42-year-old business consultant, died suddenly on Boxing Day in 2016 after falling down the stairs of his central London home. His death devastated his long-term partner, Peter Zorn, 47, who decided that he would say goodbye to the love of his life with the most glamorous funeral imaginable.
‘I didn’t want it to be some old bog-standard celebration,’ explains Zorn, an American-born financial consultant. ‘I wanted it to be more of a reflection of his amazing, fast life. He and I lived very theatrical lives together, and we always loved hosting parties, so I thought his funeral had to be the most memorable celebration to surpass any party we’ve ever held. And it was. Ten months on, people still tell me what an amazing event it was.’
The funeral weekend began on a Friday, with an intimate ceremony for 12 members of Feiertag’s family. They laid his body to rest in Lambeth Cemetery and read out personal letters and poems that reminded them of him. Bar the stunning wreaths – and pink hearse – there was little extravagance. The real funeral took place the next day, with an order of service like no guest had seen before. The electric violinist-cum-ballerina was followed by an eight-piece orchestra, a full choir, the entire cast of the West End’s Lion King, Les Misérables star Daniel Koek, and the actress who played the Phantom of the Opera’s Christine Daaé. The three-hour ceremony ended with a standing ovation as the cast of The Lion King sang Circle of Life.
‘The minister stood up to say: “I realise this is a funeral and we are in church, but it would be a sin not to applaud that performance,”’ laughs Zorn. ‘It all felt so alive. There was everything from tears to laughter. People were crying, but smiling at the same time. They forgot they were at a funeral.’
The day continued with a cocktail reception for 200 at the old courtrooms of Brown’s restaurant. ‘It was incredibly festive,’ says Zorn. ‘We had the whole first floor, and it felt like you were at a party. There were no tears – just a lot of great stories being shared and people catching up. Weddings and funerals are, as they say, when people come together.’
In recent years, funerals have indeed become a lot more like weddings, with people choosing personal, bespoke and glamorous affairs. Basic packages of a black hearse with ‘D-A-D’ flowers driving to a quiet crematorium followed by sandwiches in the pub are no longer the norm.
‘Funerals are definitely changing,’ says Poppy Mardall, founder of London-based Poppy’s Funerals. ‘People are realising it’s possible to do something more personal. It ’s mirrored in other rituals like births and weddings – the more you attend unusual, meaningful experiences, the more you want to create your own.’
Her company provides ‘alternative funerals’ and has the tagline: ‘The freedom to do it your way.’ In recent years, Mardall has organised everything from humanist and non-religious funerals to three-course black-tie affairs. Some of her clients, like Zorn, delay the funeral by several weeks to allow time to plan out the details.
It is this new attention to detail, from caskets to live music, that could be contributing to the 5.5 per cent increase in funeral costs in the UK last year. The average funeral now costs £3,897 – a 103 per cent rise from 2002 – but this is a small figure compared to the amount some families are spending. Zorn chose to end Feiertag’s funeral with a ball on the Sunday – a nod to the annual charity balls the couple used to organise – with family and friends gathering in outlandish fancy dress to dance all night in Soho. The event cost £18,000.
‘The cost of funerals is going up,’ agrees Mardall. ‘But people now are a lot more discriminating over what they spend money on. They don’t want to spend a lot on fees, but are happy spending on mountains of flowers from their favourite florist, or having the gathering afterwards at a special restaurant.’
Mardall’s company offers a choice of bespoke, handmade coffins in eco-friendly materials such as wool and bamboo,
The electric violinist-cum-ballerina was followed by an eight-piece orchestra, a full choir and the star of Les Misérables
with some families opting to make their own out of papier mâché. Designer florists and luxury caterers are also cottoning on to the changing face of funerals, and expanding their services to mourners.
‘Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people in the funeraldirecting industry who think a dignified funeral means a black coffin in a black hearse, led by men in black coats,’ explains Mardall. ‘There are still people who don’t like selling cardboard coffins, for example, but at the same time, there are now a lot more funeral directors who recognise it’s about what clients want rather than what we think a funeral should be.’
When photographer Derek Seagrim’s wife Antoinette died of a stroke this year, the 70-year-old knew that he wanted a funeral that was both traditional and modern. His French-italian wife came from a strong Catholic family, who needed to be considered during the funeral, but he also wanted to reflect the cultured, artistic life that he had led with Antoinette.
‘I don’t call it a funeral – I hate that word. I call it a goingaway ceremony,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want it to have all the black coats and suits. Antoinette and I weren’t like that. I even ended up having a few fights with the priest because he wanted to put more religion in there.’
His wife’s funeral took place in a crematorium in Barnes. Seagrim organised a four-piece choir and a famous organist to play Debussy during the ceremony. There was also a musical interlude when a family friend – the lead singer of a French indie band – sang a cappella, and Seagrim played a song he had written with Antoinette on his electric guitar.
‘It was beautiful,’ he says. ‘The whole service was breathtaking. People were in floods of tears. It was so unusual and it completely summed up Antoinette, who loved music. There was a nod to religion, for those who followed it, but for the younger people, we had letters and poems read out by family members. It ended with Christine Mcvie’s Songbird. As I left, one of my neighbours, who worked for Prince Charles, turned to me and said: “That was the best cremmy I’ve ever been to.”’
Tora Colwill, founder of The Modern Funeral in Brighton, believes that most families would opt for bespoke funerals if they could. ‘Even though things are changing, funeral directors can still be resistant to change and prefer the status quo. I think of myself as an undertaker, not a funeral director, because I’m undertaking the family’s wishes, rather than strutting around. It’s not about me – I listen to what the family want, and they become really involved. The meaning and love can blow you away when a family are given more control.’
Her company aims to ‘simplify the whole process’ of funerals, and she rarely charges more than £3,000. ‘Some people like a big, glamorous funeral, but we just want to make sure people realise that what you spend isn’t tied up with how much you loved a person,’ she explains. ‘It’s about creating something meaningful that you’re proud of – in whatever way feels right.’
In recent years, Colwill has helped create funerals where people launched fireworks over the beach, made a movie to tell the life story of a dressmaker that was screened in an arthouse cinema, and glued a chess board complete with pieces
‘ The whole service was breathtaking. As I left, one of my neighbours said to me: “That was the best cremmy I’ve ever been to”’
on to the coffin lid of a talented player. But she has found that the most popular funerals are intimate burials where people simply stand by the graveside of loved ones as they’re lowered into the ground.
‘Free-form funerals are the direct alternative to a big, blackhearse funeral,’ she says. ‘It’s a wonderful way for mourners to connect with the process and say goodbye quietly.’
For Daisy Morrison, a 34-year-old mother-of-two, a freeform funeral was the only way she could imagine saying goodbye to her father after he died. Paul Smith, owner of a hair salon in Chelsea, passed away in May after a battle with Huntington’s disease, leaving behind Morrison and her three siblings, Freddie, Ollie and Jamie. They had little experience of funerals, but knew they didn’t want an overblown, uncomfortable affair.
‘We definitely didn’t want a formal package,’ she explains. ‘The one thing we agreed on above all was that we wanted him to be buried under a tree. My father wasn’t particularly religious, and I’d always thought it was beautiful to be buried underneath a willow tree. For Freddie, it was putting the body back into the earth to become something else.’
The family had grown up spending their holidays on the Isle of Wight, and it had a wider selection of tree burial sites than London, so Morrison booked a cottage for them all to stay at in Seagrove Bay, where they would later hold the wake. Her father was brought down on a ferry, and taken to the burial ground on a motorbike hearse.
‘I didn’t like the idea of a standard hearse because it seemed so morbid, and we wanted to celebrate and remember the good times,’ she says. ‘He used to ride on a bike with Ollie to work, so that’s how he arrived to his own funeral. It was fun and a lot more appropriate for him than anything traditional.’
His casket was a pod, woven out of willow, and he was wrapped in a cotton shroud ‘to keep in line with the natural burial’. The ceremony itself was led by the chaplain who’d known Paul, with David Bowie’s Starman played on speakers in the background. White lilies and foliage trailed loosely off the casket, arranged by Morrison’s mother – ‘we wanted to avoid formal, structured flowers, and he always loved Mum’s arrangements’ – and the family said their goodbyes.
‘It was beautiful,’ says Morrison. ‘We all put so much work into it together, and it was exactly how we imagined it. The site was trees and trees and trees, with no headstones or hideous plastic flowers. It was just nature.’
The day continued with a Moroccan-themed barbecue lunch back at their cottage and ended with the family standing on the beach at night. Each held a Chinese lantern with a personal message written on it to Paul and let it fly out into the night sky.
‘It was a private moment after everything – a visual feeling of release,’ says Morrison. ‘It was a low-key day, but beautifully put together. We came away feeling happy and positive that we’d had such a fantastic day. It was funny, we didn’t feel sad or heavy in the way you do after a typical funeral. We felt light and, if anything, sad the weekend had to come to an end.’