Dead Good Funerals

Feature in Issue 9-4 | Winter 1997

Sue Gill & John Fox of Welfare State International have been designing bespoke funerals for more than 25 years. Baz Kershaw, of Lancaster University, considers the significance of personalised rites of passage ceremonies in our secular society.

I was buried alive once. That was in Bangor, North Wales, on a cold Sunday in October, 1996. In the pitch dark I was gently pushed against a wall which tipped backwards so I ended up horizontal. I felt myself wheeled around on a trolley and a cloth was put over my face. Then there was the thud of a lid going on and stony earth was shovelled just inches above my nose. I felt the blood draining from my face and shivered as an icy cold fear gripped my heart. I could swear it stopped beating for a moment.

Forgive the clichés, but they are entirely apt. This actually happened as part of an astonishing event staged by the Colombian performance company Taller Investigación dela Imagen Dramatica, under the direction of Enrique Vargas. The Labyrinth – Ariadne's Thread was a performative maze which you travelled through alone in search of your very own Minotaur. Some of this journey – besides the burial – was terrifying, but I never felt so scared that I wanted to stop or go back, because the maze was peopled by a community of carers whom you never saw, but who were always there with gentle hands to guide and support you on your way. They were the kind of people I'd like to have at my own real funeral, even though they were strangers.

In some senses funerals make us all strangers to each other, even when we know all the mourners really well. This seems to me particularly the case today in an individualistic society like ours. This is perhaps one of the reasons why, generally, we have accepted such thinly standardised forms of ceremony to see us through the loss. In performance terms, the normal English funeral is a minimalist ritual, usually staged by professionals, designed to keep death and the overwhelming emotions it generates at a distance, under control. Such dramaturgical coolness both responds to and reinforces the ‘strangers to each other' syndrome, forcing us apart when we might rather choose to be together in ways that rarely happen at other times. The reaction to Diana Princess of Wales' burial, the collapse of most of the nation into collective hyper-grief, can be seen in part as a pathological response to the inadequacies of the generality of English funerals. The 'mega-funeral' fills in the psychic empty space that all the other little funerals have produced, for a moment relieving us, perhaps, of all the loneliness that they generate. Such are the politics of grief in an age of abstracted icons.

A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral of my father's half-sister. She was one of the few left from that generation of the family, so all my sisters and my brother were there. In the church she had always used, we sang All Things Bright and Beautiful before the substitute vicar (the usual one was on holiday) said a few words about her. He'd never met her, but he'd done some homework and he managed a pretty gracious speech about what he'd heard she was like. On the way out of the church I commented on this to my brother-in-law, who said that he was glad there was a substitute because my aunt had never really liked the regular vicar and probably would have been happier with the one who didn't know her, the one who was a stranger to her. I found this oddly comforting.

From this kind of perspective, the work that Welfare State International have been doing on funerals in recent years, like most of their other projects, is profoundly significant. The company recently brought out a book called The Dead Good Funerals Book, based on their research into the options we might have in finding more personal and engaging ways to be laid to rest. Written by Sue Gill and John Fox, it has the usual Welfare State mix of visionary ideas, practical know-how, carefully judged humour, and down to earth suggestions (the pun is meant) about how to do a funeral yourself. They published the book themselves and hired a small distributor to manage the sales, so you won't find it in W.H. Smiths, but already they have sold several thousand copies. In some ways the actual number is less important than the network of contacts it indicates and what that implies for funeral practices in Britain. If each copy leads to a better burial than the norm, then most medium-sized towns in the country might have witnessed one before the millennium arrives.

This kind of pragmatic creative outcome, growing from sustained research, has helped to make Welfare State quietly famous: the lantern processions, the sculptural fireshows and the percussion bands have spread through the capillaries of regional and local community contacts like a beneficent infection. Though these forms, and others, stem at source from a deeply radical praxis, they do not dictate how the people should use them, nor what they should say through them, but they do gesture towards a healthier culture: one in which we will be less like strangers to ourselves and each other, in which the body will be reclaimed, the spirit revitalised, community restored. They also speak of a hands-on ecological creativity that can connect the local to the global, and vice versa, so strangers whom we will never meet become a crucial part of the picture.

The inclusion of funerals – alongside other domestic ceremonies such as namings, marriages and special birthdays – is a further step in Welfare State's lifelong effort to shape a new symbiosis between art and life. And it is an aspect of a wider ambition to create with the people of Ulverston, South Cumbria, where the company has been based since 1979, an annual cycle of ceremonies and festivals which aim to enhance its sense of life – adding to the warm-hearted and witty town-sized lantern procession that has run every September for the past fifteen years. A new centre for vernacular art and secular ritual is being created, to open in 1998, through a major rebuild of the company's base. Among the offerings will be courses on revivified funerals and other forms for the reclamation of the body in western society.

Welfare State's whole project raises important and radical questions about the way art and artists should be part of culture in late-capitalist liberal democracies, so their work is not without controversy and, at times, contradiction. But I think this is because an ethic of openness has always informed the company's work, signalled again by its willingness to engage with the absurdities thrown up by concrete creative problems, such as how best to design a low-cost eco-sound burial casket for the ashes of a football supporter. This kind of activity puts Welfare State among the artists whom Suzi Gablik, in The Re-enchantment of Art, identifies as ‘...prototypes who embody the next historical and evolutionary stage of consciousness, in which the capacity to be compassionate will be central not only to our idea of success, but also to the recovery of a meaningful society and a meaningful art.’ I'd count Enrico Vargas as one of them, too.

Being buried alive in Vargas' labyrinth was life enhancing because, paradoxically, the performance was inspired by compassion. Making ceremonial templates that encourage us to take creative charge of the performance of our own and our loved ones’ funerals, Welfare State is rooting in the same kind of direction. Having had a good life, my aunt thought death was not much to look forward to, but the improvised words of a stranger gave her passing a sustaining warmth. It's not just that funerals could be more fun, but also that a reinvented art of the mortuary could add to the making of a more caring body politic.

So despite the terror, being buried alive in Bangor was, well, reassuring. It helped me to, as they say, face up to my mortality.

The Dead Good Funerals Book by Sue Gil and John Fox is available from Welfare State International.

This article in the magazine

Issue 9-4
p. 12 - 13