Funerals are looking for a new aesthetic.
People are looking for new ways of memorialising their dead. Brooding Victorian monumental gloom is out. So too is the regimented eezi-mow municipal cemetery with its ranks of polished anonymous headstones. In rejection of these, people are presently opting for one of two diametrically different alternatives. Either they go with the eezi-mow cemetery but heap the grave possessively with all manner of garish grieving gew-gaws (to the ire of the mower and some other grievers), or they take flight and seek solace amidst the meadowsweet of a minimalist natural burial ground, where nothing, or almost nothing, marks the spot. The one is highly personalised, the other depersonalised.
People are looking for new ways of saying goodbye to their dead. The one-rite-fits-all approach of organised religions does not suit secular folk, and to them falls the necessity to reinvent the wheel and cook up a unique rite of their own, often in a very short time. Here, almost everybody favours a high degree of personalisation. Common elements include celebration, humour, informality, pop music, participation and a nice coffin. It’s interesting to note that the iconography of religion is now frequently substituted by the insignia of a football team. What existential statement does that make?
Funeral directors, most of them, cling to the Victorian aesthetic. They look increasingly anachronistic. As do their carbon-belching hearses and Russian mafia limousines. Time to move on, chaps?
Where things will go next is anyone’s guess. Observable at this stage is an intriguing yawning of class divides which, in recent years, seemed to have closed. Generally it’s middle class folk who choose to slumber amidst the meadowsweet and larksong, and it’s working class folk who, to the disdain of many of the former, journey through eternity beneath a burden of faded plastic flowers, soggy teddies and the tingle-wingle of a wind chime.
There’s no taming taste. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is not a class divide in the old sense but, rather, the victory of the will of the people over those who reckon they know better, those who would regulate them. The highbrows are at last finding the tide of democracy to be insuperable.
Take Richard Stone, for example. He is editor of the exquisitely posh Burlington Magazine, an arty glossy for those who know best. His beef is with the celebrity statues appearing in our towns and cities. “Every town has now got to have the local celebrity,” he says. “Fine. We used to do it with blue plaques. But now you’ve got to have a bloody great bronze. They’re not artistic – occasionally competent is about all you can say.”
Retorts Eric Woods, head of the fan club responsible for statues of Laurel and Hardy in Ulverston: “If you don’t like it, fine. If you don’t like Laurel and Hardy, fine. If you don’t like statues in public places, fine. Don’t look at it.”
Somewhere in between these two voices is the incomparably exquisite but benignly accommodating Brian Sewell. He says: “They don’t do much harm, except get up our aesthetic noses.”
Surely there are no value judgements to be made here, as in the matter of funerals. Is it not our democratic duty to be indulgent? Diversity is all. Let’s enjoy one another.