London funerals have a very different quality from country funerals.
They’re more intense, and feel slightly unhealthy. They have something of the quality of a hangover. But they’re also solid and grand.
I recently went to the funeral of a friend, a poet, who died in his fifties. He went to paradise by way of Kensal Green: he was cremated at the General Cemetery of All Souls in London, W10, built in 1833, three years before the publication of The Pickwick Papers. Kensal Green was the first of London’s new ‘garden’ cemeteries, based on Paris’s Père Lachaise.
It’s a gloomy, heavy, Gothic place, faintly oppressive, with ivy everywhere and not an ounce of cheer, which I suppose is how a cemetery should be. It’s also intensely romantic. There are miniature Romanesque temples, Doric columns, statues of angels, wide walkways, plenty of horse chestnuts and low hedges.
Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Trollope are all buried here. Here is French acrobat Blondin, who in 1859 became the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He repeated the trick in later years, sometimes pausing to make an omelette on the way. The Blondin Memorial Trust holds annual toasts at his graveside.
The mourners at my friend’s funeral were dressed theatrically in top hats, velvet and black lace. There were a lot of them – too many to fit into the chapel.
The overflow sat next door and watched the ceremony on a TV. There were eulogies, poems, Biblical readings and singing. This mouse, on gloomily walking away from the chapel, and reflecting on the horrible unfairness of death, couldn’t help wondering what sort of funeral he’d like.
Would a good funeral for a mouse be some sort of eco-affair, with a wicker coffin and a burial site in a wood?
Or would I prefer a sombre and romantic Gothic send-off in somewhere like Kensal Green or Highgate, with crows circling about, preferably with added fog? I think the latter, don’t you?
As a child, I always wanted to be buried and have a traditional gravestone. But now I’m middle-aged and have become stingy and mean, I’m worrying about the cost of living – and dying.
You have to be quite rich to get buried at Kensal Green: plots start at £19,000, and that’s not including coffin, burial fee, memorial stone and undertaker’s service. That’s just to buy the plot. Highgate Cemetery, burial place of Karl Marx, has similarly high fees.
Cremations cost more like a grand. That sounds better; any other money can be given to the new generation of mice towards their deposit on a new nest, rather than on a tiny plot of land.
Coffins are not cheap. According to comparethecoffin.com, the cheapest cardboard coffin will set you back £335 and an Autumn Oak Hardwood Casket Coffin goes for £2,500.
There’s one very urban thing I’d like to do with my ashes. My friend Ru Callender is an undertaker based in Totnes. He’s sometimes called a green undertaker or a punk undertaker.
He’s recently written a book about his trade, What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking (Chelsea Green). He is working with former pop stars the KLF on a fantastically eccentric scheme called the People’s Pyramid. The KLF are the pair who burnt a million pounds. That gives you an idea of the regard in which they hold conventional attitudes.
The People’s Pyramid is being built in Toxteth in Liverpool and will require 34,592 bricks. The first brick will be laid on 23rd November. Each brick will contain a small portion of cremated human remains. They call these items ‘bricks of mu’. I quite fancy being a part of this pyramid. The cost is £99, which seems fairly reasonable.
To be part of a pyramid would be a nice add-on to my planned urban death – and a reminder of the 12 BC Roman pyramid tomb of Gaius Cestius near the graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. There will also be a sombre, hour-long funeral at Kensal Green (cost £1,150). And ashes to be buried (£540).
As for a memorial stone, I wouldn’t mind one by stonemason Neil Luxton. He has done some really lovely memorials at Highgate and Kensal Green. They start at around £1,400 for a tombstone in black granite with 50 letters.
Here lies Town Mouse.
What about you? How do you want your funeral to go?