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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

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.’

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