We don't like to think about the practicalities of death. And yet, they are unavoidable. I know that after I’ve finished slowly killing myself with beer and hummus, someone is going to have to deal with my dead body.
They’ll probably like me much better if I come up with some vague plan before I go. So I decided to spend a weekend in the perfect place to do that: Britain's leading event for the funeral industry, an hour away from London by train.
It's called the Ideal Death Show.
Within minutes of arriving at the Ideal Death Show welcome drinks, people started telling me death-based statistics. A lot of death-based statistics. I was told that we personally organise 2.4 funerals per our own lifetime, but that they happen decades apart so each time we go in knowing nothing; the landscape of death is always changing. I was told there is no other consumer experience on earth like buying a funeral: 93% of people will drop £5,000 in the first funeral directors’ joint they walk into because no one thinks about this stuff until a time when they don’t want to think about this stuff.
I was told that within three years of being buried in a cemetery you will have – at most – two visitors a year. Within 70 years you will be forgotten, just another slab of concrete in a forest of swiftly dilapidating concrete. I was told that 100% of undertakers hate both spiral staircases and Andrea Bocelli. I was told that fat women over the age of 40 decompose faster than any other demographic. I was told that one in 300 bodies putrefies early, and that morgue fridges aren’t made to last forever.
And neither are we.
Everyone at the Ideal Death Show has accepted this – and yet you would struggle to find a happier group of people than this one, standing around in a repurposed Winchester student union wondering if the line-cleaner that we can all taste in the beer is going to kill us all.
The Ideal Death Show initially started out in 2011, not as an industry shindig, but as a Six Feet Under fan convention in Bournemouth. It was run by a guy called Brian Jenner, who is a professional speechwriter and not remotely connected to the funeral industry except for this one weird thing. That first weekend four years ago, the flyer – using the Series 2 DVD cover image of the single tree against a blue sky – boasted talks from Andrew McKie, former obituary editor of the Daily Telegraph; Charles Cowling, founder of the Good Funeral Guide; and an embalmer called Sheila Dicks.
When everyone turned up for the Friday night welcome wake, it was clear that what Jenner had accidentally organised was an industry meeting for people who worked with the dead; undertakers on a busman’s holiday, stood around a cardboard coffin in a room full of lilies.
The next year he stripped away the HBO pretext and just made it that: a bunch of people talking about death, once a year, with other people who know about death. They needed it – death can literally be a lonely business.
One thing I found: It’s hard to pack for the Ideal Death Show when all of your outfits are appropriate. Funerals are the only invitation I’m ever sartorially equipped for and this was a whole conference about funerals and dying. My bag was massive. And full of black.
Gathered in the bar were undertakers, celebrants, shroud manufacturers, coffin-makers (coffin-makers and shroud manufacturers will all comment on how tall and wide you are, I learned), embalmers, mortuary workers, palliative care nurses (one nurse tells me we’re all going to die of dementia, according to the current trend among the old and the number of Do Not Resuscitate forms she fills out on a daily basis), death midwives, gravediggers, stonemasons, crematory assistants, and natural burial ground owners. If the line-cleaner in the beer did kill us all, there would be no one left to deal with the bodies or, more pressingly, complain about the beer on BuzzFeed.com.
It was one of the weirder times a man has told me to “smile, it might never happen.”
If you’re single and treating a weekend with a bunch of morticians as a niche IRL Tinder, the thing you notice at the Ideal Death Show is that almost everyone here is female. The funeral industry is changing; there are no gaunt cartoon undertakers here for you (OK, me) to date, which is disappointing because everyone was smiling while talking about corpse disposal and where flies lay their eggs on dead people. A+ date chat imo.
(FYI, flies go straight up the nose, so keep your windows shut if you plan on keeping the body at home for a week.)
A nurse/former mortuary worker whose job it was to check the fridges every morning to see if the 1 in 300 bodies that putrefies early has putrefied early told me this female majority is part of the “vanguard of death”; the more progressive areas of the funeral industry are 95% women.
Traditionally, pre-death was a female domain – the hospices, the nurses, the physical and emotional care – while post-death was a man’s trade, with all the carpentry, digging, burning, hauling, slicing, and pumping of heinous chemicals into arteries and veins that a traditional funeral entailed. If you die now, it’s likely a woman is going to direct your funeral, and there are far more options than just coffin plus burial or cremation.
Here’s another thing I was told at dinner, which is a pizza from Zizzi that we had to walk through an actual graveyard in the dark to get to: Networking in the funeral industry is not like networking in the media. To a journalist, schmoozing means talking to editors and publishers when they’re drunk enough to offer you work, while in the funeral industry schmoozing means talking to hospices and care homes, circling the old and dying like vultures. Sounds crass, sure – but someone has to think about it, and frankly you probably won’t until someone dies.
On the way back from Zizzi we almost got trapped in the graveyard.
In the morning, after a full English breakfast and a chat about what code words to use when you’re burying someone everyone thought was twat (“make use of silence and pauses for thought,” says a celebrant) and how to mask a squeaky crematorium curtain with “ashes to ashes chat”, I got a lift to the show with Charles from the Good Funeral Guide and the nurse who gave me a good reason not to become obese in the next 10 years. She was just excited to get a lift in a car that wasn't not a hearse for once.
At the show were hand-woven willow coffins and miniature Viking boats to put ashes in and push out to sea, bespoke wooden coffins with the rough bark edges still on, societies of celebrants, funeral singers standing beside CD players playing their own CDs, interfaith ministers who would later argue about faith by a yurt and have to be separated, and startup companies who deal with the various aspects of death on the internet — online memorials, funeral planning, wills, and encrypted instructions for what to do with your terrible internet history when you die.
There were novelty hearses in the style of New York taxis or Triumph motorcycles with a side-car coffin compartment, humanists handing out pens saying there is no God, and various containers to put your ashes in including glass candleholders that make a centrepiece out of the bone grit.
There was even a spin-off ice bucket challenge – the "kicking the bucket challenge" with all donations going to the Natural Death Centre charity.
All throughout the Death Show was the sound of funereal wailing on a tinny CD player, punctuated by the metallic thud of punters kicking a bucket against a blackboard list of things people want to do before they die. My favourite was “spread the banter”.
Like, what does that mean?
In the back corner of the room with a bunch of mannequins wrapped in fabric was shroudmaker Gordon Tulley and his bowl of Bereave Mints. He told me that some shrouds are only fit for burial, not cremation, and glossed over this so fast that I had to know why. He said it’s to do with the flashback: The cremation machine is set to 750-800°C, and as you push the shrouded body in, any lingering vapour from a treated material is likely to throw flames out the door and burn the crematorium worker’s eyebrows off.
He showed me the plank of wood that gets inserted into a pocket in the back of every shroud to give the body some rigidity, “so nobody gets a saggy bum feeling and looks unsightly”. He said it makes it easier to lower the body into a grave, which is something that’s quite hard to do neatly. Basically, all that separates your shrouded loved one from a body in a bag thrown in a hole is a 80cm x 15cm bit of wood that comes with the shroud of your choosing.
As an afterthought, Gordon suggested shrouding the body immediately before burial, instead of doing it two weeks beforehand like some people would like to. “That way there’s no leakage,” he said, and very seriously added, “You might not know what their last meal was.”
This body was in the way of someone's coffin stall and had to be moved:
There was a shrouding demonstration in the park.
Anyone not connected to the Ideal Death Show thought it was a real funeral and that Dawn, the shroud volunteer, was dead.
The climax of the Ideal Death Show was a gala dinner with an award ceremony for work in the death business.
The trophies were Anubis statues in cardboard coffins sponsored by an eco-friendly coffin company called Ecoffins. I asked Brian, the organiser, how you judge who the Gravedigger of the Year is but he said it’s a trade secret.
I asked if they had a special shovel.
That is also classified information.
Each year the celebrity host is someone tenuously linked to dead people. Pam St. Clement hosted one year on the basis that her character, Pat Butcher, died of pancreatic cancer on EastEnders. This year it’s Ian Lavender, Private Pike from Dad’s Army, chosen by virtue of being one of the last cast members who’s not dead yet, and being a regular at funerals what with all of his friends on the show dying. Also because “someone like Julian Clary costs £14,000.”
Here’s the thing I learned about people who have been to a lot of funerals: Funeral people have practised at hundreds of wakes and know how to drink. I was fucked. I was so drunk that when the fire alarm sounded at 2:30am and I stood around outside the student accommodation with all the undertakers and funereal florists and embalmers in pajamas, I lost my bra.
Breakfast was like Cluedo. Everyone had a theory about who pressed the alarm, but no one knew for sure. “It was probably a vicar,” said a celebrant. “It’s always a vicar.” A coffin-maker made some ham sandwiches for the road and wrapped them in a napkin. “Look, I’m shrouding my ham sandwiches,” he said. He thought it was a vicar too.
I came home with a pocket full of undertakers’ business cards and a souvenir mug. After three days of hanging out with people in the death industry I still don’t know what I want to do with my corpse – but I do know that if these are the people who are going to be looking after me, it’s a far less terrifying thing to die.