Front parlour to funeral parlour

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Until quite recently, in Britain, most people died at home and were buried in their parish churchyard. Preparation of the corpse would be attended to by an experienced person (not necessarily as grotesque as the midwife, Sarah Gamp, in Dickens's novel Martin Chuzzlewit), and the body would remain at home until it was time for the funeral. This would be conducted in the parish church, usually by a priest who might have known the deceased for many years.

This began to change during the 19th century because of urbanisation and population moves. Nowadays, death is less familiar than it was and we try to shield ourselves from an close knowledge of it. Most people die in hospital, but if they do die at home, the body is soon taken by undertakers who make arrangements with the church or crematorium. Relatives will be offered choices of coffin, urn and flowers, and guided sympathetically and expertly, through what may be an unfamiliar process.

However, we are taking more control of the funeral itself. If this involves a church service, it may well be conducted by a cleric who never met the deceased. So it is more common now for such a service to include tributes by friends and relatives instead of an address by the priest. There has also been some reaction against the "funeral industry", with a small but significant movement towards woodland burials, family-organised funerals and biodegradable coffins.

Burials often take place in cemeteries, rather than in churchyards, and cremation has become the most common method of disposal in Britain, rising from around one per cent in the 1930s to 70 per cent now.

Despite this growth of cremation, research in 1997 suggested that London boroughs had only a few years' burial capacity left. Suggestions for solving the problem included reburial of remains in ossuaries or a further increase in cremation. However, some religions, particularly Judaism and Islam, do not favour cremation. The most favoured suggestion was the re-use of existing graves, by deepening them and placing new burials on top. This solution was acceptable to most of the public, but there were many cases where it would be impossible. Several kinds of grave and tomb could not be re-used and all war graves were protected.

In any case, burials would not be disturbed for at least 100 years, by which time all immediate relatives of the deceased would have died.

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