Four Funerals and the Odd Wedding Part 2

At the end of the Barn project, while the rest of Welfare State were away running a training course, I was sat on the roof of the Barn fitting the lead flashing where it butted against the old school building when I got a call on my mobile phone from Sue Gill down in MIlton Keynes. They had had a request to arrange for an artist to paint a cardboard coffin for a funeral. This would be the first ‘real’ use of an artist painted coffin – rather than the ones that had previously been commission by the company as examples of what could be done. (See: Part 1) As the only company member back at base could I contact Caroline Menis, put her in touch with the bereaved family and arrange to get a cardboard coffin?

Try as I might I couldn’t track down Caroline, or later Lorna Graves who had done the other example coffin. The one thing about funerals is they are rarely planned ahead and they happen with their own short lead time. So it was imperative that we find a artist who could do the commission as soon as possible. In increasingly frantic calls to Milton Keynes and fast running out of options Sue Gill asked me if my partner Catriona would be interested in doing it? In my mind all this happened while I was sitting on the roof of the Barn. In reality it must of happened sitting at a desk in the WSI office.

I rang Catriona back at The Mill in Altham and after a deep breath at the other end of the phone she said yes. And so started what would turn out to be a long term sideline to her art practice as a coffin painter.The coffin was being commissioned by the daughter of a women called Iris. And after a consultation with Catriona it was agreed that it would be decorated with a field of irises.

Coffin for Iris – Catriona Stamp

The florist was asked to prepare something really natural, irises of course…She brought the flowers to the house and Elaine just opened the door of the room where the coffin stood. She found it stunning….A couple of days earlier the artist had wanted to take pictures of the completed commission before it left her premises. It was a fine morning and she took the empty coffin out into her garden very early. During the process she noticed that the sunshine had brought out the bees and one in particular insisted on landing on the coffin!

Excerpt from: The dead good funerals book

Given the work the company had done on involving artists in new domestic rituals to make them more personal and meaningful Sue & John had talked about producing a book (Even a series of books) on how to go about it. I think Methuen, who had published Engineers of the Imagination ,weren’t interested in the idea and the company didn’t really know how to go about doing self-publishing. Using my Diggers & Dreamers experience and contacts I sowed the seeds that with a bit of support they could DIY a book (Even a series of books) themselves. The Dead Good Funerals Book was published in 1996 with the Diggers & Dreamers team of Jonathan How (Layout) and Nevil Houghton (Printing) providing back up. As well as covering how artists could get involved in funerals the book also covered everything you needed to know to organise your own funeral service.

…in The Dead Good Funerals Book, we unpick a traditional funeral and show how it is stuck in the Victorian mode. We spell out how much we can do away with and still be legal and dignified, to leave space to create a funeral that is personal and distinctive.

Sue Gill South Bank Centre interview

Catriona did try to see if she could generate work offering to paint coffins and has painted a number of coffins mainly for friends and family. You can see more of her recent work here

People In Common would utilise much of this new information to take control of it’s next funeral following the death of member Malcolm Cockcroft in the late 1990’s. We were able to talk with him about what he wanted and make arrangements ahead of time to run our own funeral at the woodland burial site at Clitheroe cemetery. Catriona stenciled an oak leaf pattern onto a cardboard coffin, we drove to the cemetery with the coffin in the back of the Hardwood Centre’s van and I acted as surrogate funeral director, cum-master of ceremonies, cum-assistant stage manager.

Things had definitely moved on since the mid 1970s when the group had first tried to take control of Trevor Howell’s funeral service. The cemetery manager was very helpful and suggested that we should book the last funeral slot in the afternoon and then we could carry on as long as we wanted. Large numbers of Malclom’s friends attended and we ran the whole proceedings ourselves including close friends carrying the coffin to the grave side, singing and circle dancing around the coffin before we lowered the coffin into the grave ourselves (With a little help from the gravedigger.) and finally filled the grave in between us and planted flowers around it.

Afterwards the cemetery manager asked me if we were some sort of religious group and was amazed when I told him “No we were just a group of friends.” He said he had never seen such a well organised and obviously moving funeral.

Today things have moved even further on around how flexible a funeral service can be if you want to make it more personal. In no small part due to the pioneering work done by Welfare State and others like Nicolas Albery at the Natural Death Centre.

Top Tips for better Funerals

Bring your own homegrown flowers, or pick some from the hedgerow – they mean so much more. If there are shop bought bouquets remember to take them out of the cellophane.
If it is a burial, maybe ask in advance for 3 or 4 shovels so you can backfill the grave yourselves if you wish – a very satisfying completion. Don’t let them put you off with health and safety issues.
If it is to be a cremation, and 70% of us opt for this, go and have a look at the crematorium beforehand and talk to them about what you want to achieve. Ask them to remove anything you’re not happy with – silk flowers, crucifix …. – bring in your own stuff from home: photographs, candles, lanterns, special cloths. Book a second slot of 20 minutes to give yourselves plenty of time – you may get it free. Crematorium staff are usually flexible and delighted to help. Once the cortege arrives on the day, it is too late to make changes.
You are not obliged to have a minister of religion involved. A secular celebrant or a suitable friend or colleague may lead the service. There are excellent sources of poetry and readings.
Live music is powerful – solo cellist, granddaughter on flute, guitar and vocals. Friends and relatives find it a huge privilege to be asked to contribute. Acoustic is best. Complex sound systems take time to set up.
Bring photos and albums of pictures to the gathering afterwards. A great ice-breaker, gets people talking, sharing memories across the generations. Can even heal family rifts.
From Interview with Sue Gill and John Fox

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