Photo of a pink hearse

The Great British funeral

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The Sky News presenter Colin Brazier has asked people not to wear bright colours at his wife’s funeral. He has told mourners to ‘leave their Hawaiian shirts at home’ and wear black.

What’s interesting is that he feels he needs to say this. But then he’s ‘ill at ease’ with some of the modern conventions surrounding funerals. He does not plan to deliver a gushing eulogy at his wife’s funeral and has politely asked friends and former colleagues to wear ‘black please, if you don’t mind’.

‘It’s unfair on children,’ he says ‘to insist that a funeral should mean rejoicing in a life now passed. Maybe grown-ups can handle the cognitive dissonance required in “celebrating” a life rather than, you know, being all morbid. But I seriously doubt children can.’

He says there is ‘nothing funky about turning death into a fashion parade and a free-for-all of self-realisation’, adding it can ‘inhibit the necessary catharsis of the grieving process’.

‘The old stuff – the black and the solemn – works because it distils the wisdom of ages,’ says Mr Brazier, who is a practising Catholic.

But he’s probably swimming against the emotional tide, for the Great British funeral has been transformed over the last 20 or so years. Increasingly, the ceremony is a ‘celebration of life’ rather than an act of mourning. Yes, death is changing its clothes before our eyes. Now it’s a time to be joyful.

Instead of pondering the sadness in our hearts and looking ahead to the afterlife, British funerals increasingly look back. They look back at the deceased’s life and celebrate their triumphs and idiosyncrasies… and their favourite songs. The tone is happy rather than mournful, celebratory instead of sombre. ‘Everyone wear pink!’ as I’ve been instructed to do on more than one occasion.

In this new world of loss, wearing black is often discouraged, and you’re more likely to hear Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’ than Verdi’s Requiem.

A survey of 2,000 people by ICM suggests that 54% wanted their funeral to be approached in this way. And according to the not-to-be-missed Co-op Funeral Care music charts, ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’ is presently the most popular song. (When I was taking funerals, we’d have to sit through ‘I Did it My Way’, more often than not. It was everyone’s choice. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.)

Meanwhile, back with the music charts, Queen is the most popular group, with nine tracks requested, including, ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. The theme tunes to Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and Strictly Come Dancing also feature. Meanwhile, JCBs, camper vans, pickup trucks, skip lorries and double-decker buses are among the vehicles that have headed funeral processions.

You may not be surprised to hear that I am uncomfortable when people tell me what to feel; when people plan their own funeral with upbeat, self-knitted ceremonies, and insist on a particular response. ‘I want no one in black, no one being sad – and I want you all to have a bloody good time! Go and get pissed!’

I’d prefer to be allowed to feel what I feel. This may mean I don’t wear pink. This may mean I cry. This may mean I rage at the person who has died, for the things they did. Someone else’s predilections and instructions don’t help.

I also think that the creation of the funeral is a helpful and healing act for those left behind. When I die, I’d like those left behind to plan the funeral, as they’ll know what’s necessary now I’m gone. I’m happy to pay for it, but I think they’ll create a better service than my ego would.

The shift in tone is perhaps not surprising. We are a secular society and most don’t believe in eternal life, so looking back at the life that has ended is really the only way to go. And because people are paying undertakers for a service, increasingly, they want that service personalised, whether it’s an Everton scarf on the coffin, or a camper van for a hearse.

Van Gogh had a quantity of yellow roses on the white sheet that lay beneath his coffin. They were chosen for him. ‘It was his favourite colour, if you remember,’ wrote his friend Émile Bernard. ‘The symbol of light he dreamed in our hearts, as in his works.’ Simple, but effective.

Princess Diana’s funeral, with its Elton John soundtrack and public displays of grief, is often cited as a watershed moment in which the British lost their stiff upper lip when it came to public mourning. This could be true, except that extravagant burials were a status symbol in Victorian times, so it’s hardly anything new. ‘I believe my marble angel is bigger than yours.’ There’s just more money around now for people to play out their fantasies.

The journalist Hunter J Thompson had his ashes sent skywards in a rocket. He asked his friends to remember him with the clink of ice in their whisky. While Jesus asked to be remembered in the breaking of the bread.

What is important in any funeral is that we’re allowed to feel what we feel, and remember as we need to – whether fondly, or in anger, sadness or both. And we’ll find the symbols that matter to us, symbols personal to us, whether instructed to or not.

It may be that having ‘a bloody good laugh’ at a funeral, dressed up in pink, is just the best thing for you; or it may be that it isn’t. Bereavement is a fresh and uncharted path, and a personal one, which we walk with honesty, self-kindness – and whatever musical choice seems good at the time.

Photo by mrbootle under CC BY-NC 2.0

Simon Parke

Simon Parke

Simon Parke is an author and novelist, and his latest novel, about the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, is The Secret Testament of Julian. He blogs frequently on his website,

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