Festive farewells for deceased

Malcolm McLaren was conveyed in a horse-drawn hearse followed by mourners in a green double-decker bus emblazoned with the words "Malcolm was here".

This week, Soho dilettante Sebastian Horsley was sent off in a casket dressed up as a giant present.

The rise of the unconventional send-off is proof of a distinct shift in British attitudes to the final journey of the dead.

Behind the baronial burials of figures such as the "godfather of punk" and Horsley, a man who went through a crucifixion in the name of art, lies a band of undertakers rapidly gaining a name for overseeing funerals that depart from the norm.

Requirements range from using a motorcycle sidecar as a hearse to making a death mask.

The boom in offbeat funerals, attended in Horsley's case by mourners in fishnet stockings and leather hotpants, is a manifestation of what funeral directors see as a general rise in the desire to individualise burials.

As one undertaker points out, a modern funeral, costing anything from £1500 ($3300) for a team of four horses to £12,000 for a mausoleum in London's Highgate Cemetery, is often every bit as elaborate as a wedding, "only you get a week to organise it".

Lori MacKellar, a funeral director for one of Britain's oldest undertaking names, Leverton & Sons, was, until three years ago, pursuing a very different career as a contemporary art publicist.

Following the death of her father and the realisation that if she and her family were to get the sort of funeral they wanted, she would largely have to organise it herself, MacKellar decided on a change of direction.

Together with the family of former Sex Pistols' manager McLaren, she was responsible for organising one of the more idiosyncratic obsequies seen in London in recent years.

The cortege took McLaren, who died of cancer aged 64 in April, along a route through his native North London lined by punk rockers before fans were called upon to observe a "minute of mayhem" rather than the traditional 60-second silence as a mark of respect.

MacKellar said: "The departure point is always what the family want to do. In the case of McLaren, the family had very clear ideas about what sort of funeral they wanted and we helped to arrange it. The bus was provided by a friend and there were so many ways that people were able to express themselves.

"We were a little bit worried that at one point some fans might give the 'punk salute' by spitting towards the hearse. Of course, that never happened and people were also very respectful. I think the family were pleased with how it went."

Levertons, which has overseen funerals from George Orwell and Kenneth Williams to Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, is even preparing for the eventuality of webcasting funerals for mourners who are unable to attend.

Richard Putt, one of the 221-year-old company's directors, said: "I think people wanted to bring more personality to the event after Diana. It has moved on a pace since then, with woodland burials, banana leaf or pineapple leaf coffins. Suddenly the 'weird' is just not weird any more."

Barry Albin-Dyer managed perhaps the biggest recent celebrity funeral for reality-TV doyenne, Jade Goody.

He said: "Since the 1990s people have begun to embrace funerals to the point that they're almost like weddings. As long as the person is properly buried or cremated at the end, more or less anything else can be arranged."


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