Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 16:03 GMT
It's your funeral
Relatives can be buried in the back garden
By Liz Doig
Iris Murdoch's last request, to forego a traditional funeral, may have shocked some.
But the author was by no means alone in her decision to eschew ceremony and convention as her mortal remains were dispatched.
Under UK law - provided drains and mains services are not affected and commercial gain is not made - a body can be buried more or less anywhere.
Families can decide to pick up their loved one in their own vehicle and inter them in their own way - with or without ceremony or religion.
While few mourners opt for a totally DIY funeral - collecting their dearly deceased from the morgue and digging the grave themselves in their own back yard - increasing numbers are choosing the cheaper and more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional farewells.
There are now 85 woodland burial and nature reserve burial grounds around the UK, each laying to rest about 50 people a year.
A tree instead of a headstone
The "green" cemeteries aim to provide people of all beliefs with a means to determine their own funerals.
Generally, people using these facilities will opt for biodegradable caskets, made from cardboard or wicker.
Or they can choose to lay their loved one to rest in cotton or woollen shrouds - which as well as causing little or no pollution, cost a fraction of conventional wooden coffins.
Nicholas Albery, one of the founders of the Natural Death Centre, says: "If people want to bury a member of their family or a friend in their own back garden, there is nothing in law preventing them from doing so.
"If the person died in a hospital, they would have to contact the ward sister to get a release form, which would say that they, the family, are conducting the funeral arrangements.
"As a charity, we help people to do this if they encounter problems. At this stage, we would fax the hospital to remind them of the law in these matters."
'No need for a coffin'
Mr Albery says that families collecting a body from a morgue would have to ensure that their vehicle was big enough, and that they had a container or shroud to put the body in.
"The law in this matter says that the body must be decently covered, not naked, so there isn't even a need for a coffin."
And although planning permission is not required to bury a body in one's garden (just a check on the level of the water table and the position of underground mains supplies), he is the first to admit that home burial can be less than ideal.
Instead, he advocates woodland burial, where unlike the local crem, grieving relatives do not wait in line for the service of their loved one to be next.
He says: "People can carry out any ceremony they like. I went to one where a flute was played, and there were readings from members of the family."
The British Humanist Association provides advice and information for people wanting secular services - and attendants to preside over the ceremony if required.
Traditional funeral directors, too, play a role in catering for specialist funereal needs and requests.
Ashes blasted from 18th century cannon
David Didden, of the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, says the job of undertakers is to make sure that a funeral goes exactly to plan, and incorporates all of the grieving family's wishes.
He said: "I have heard of a man whose cortège was driven around a racecourse as his final farewell to his favourite pastime.
"There was also a peer of the realm who wanted his ashes blasted across his estate from an 18th century cannon.
"People can, broadly speaking, request any kind of funeral they like, and independent funeral directors will do their best to accommodate their wishes."
As with many traumatic and tragic occurrences, a ceremony of some sort is a way of reconciling survivors with events.
All parties agree that thinking about how to deal with death before it happens can make things easier when it does.
Agencies including Help the Aged - as well as the Natural Death Centre - provide forms, and living wills, so that people can let their relatives and friends know what they want to happen to them.
The NDC's Mr Albery adds: "It is the one thing we absolutely know for sure is going to happen at some time - and the best thing we can do for ourselves and our loved ones is to think carefully about what happens when it does."