To Whispering Glades, the innovative, environmentally aware and generally cool cemetery a dozen miles out of town in sleepy, green Western countryside. This will be my mother’s ‘resting place’, as we anthropomorphically describe depositories for lifeless human remains.
The premise is this: the founder inherited a few hundred acres of pasture and decided that it would be better covered by trees. He sells 8ft by 8ft plots for interments, which may be marked by a flat slab (you get just the top 10 feet, thus no mineral rights – yes, I asked). As burials take place, trees are planted; the cemetery is divided into different zones: fruit orchards, traditional local deciduous, and so on. Some areas will be relatively dense thickets, while others will be more open.
The first area to be planted is now 20 years old and looks like real woodland, with tangled undergrowth slowly encroaching on the engraved stones marking the deceased. People are free to come and do a bit of clearing and flower-laying, but the general idea is that as the decades pass, it will all revert into nature. Already, birds, deer and badgers live in and around the place.
At the centre of the burial grounds is a cluster of 200-year-old buildings, formerly farmhouses. One is now a chapel and another is for wakes or receptions – essentially large, trendily furnished lounges with catering and other facilities. Even Powerpoint.
We are met in the admin block, a separate old farmhouse, by the visionary behind this idea – a slightly louche looking, long-haired, mid-50s guy in trendily sub-casual attire. More modern art dealer than undertaker. He leads us into a sitting room with a fireplace, stuffed leather armchairs, a faded carpet and a view of a cherry tree. “We only have one funeral a day here, so the place will be all yours,” he explains. “And we can do as much or as little in the way of preparation as you wish.” My brother and I decide to go for ‘as much’.
As we go through a checklist, a florist comes in. She’s a blonde, bangle-bedecked, aged hippy with a local accent and talks us through the possibilities with a brochure. You can have wreaths in the form of guitars, buses, teddy bears, dogs and all manner of floral vileness; we settle for something dignified but with character. The florist suggests adding aromatic herbs to the arrangements. Why not?
Then a young man enters, wearing a long dusty apron; small clouds of white powder fall from him as he steps up to us. He is the stonemason, and we finalize size, wording and typeface. We then speak to the caterer over the phone. My brother, never one to miss an opportunity to force his fanatical vegetarian diet upon hapless bystanders, attempts to order the most laboriously meat-free refreshments, but I overrule him. We will have ‘artisanal’ sandwiches and tarts, featuring neighbourhood goats’ cheese, ham and other produce.
We must choose a coffin. They have wicker, bamboo and sustainable oak, among others. We go for the simplest elm; our mother hated waste, and it will be cremated. Which brings us to transportation to the nearby crematorium. “We have the hearse used for Winston Churchill’s funeral,” explains the Whispering Glades founder. “Or you can go with a normal modern one.” Would it be ostentatious (unforgivable) or wacky (OK) to go with the historic vehicle? We decide against running the risk of being pretentious, in case she is watching.
My brother burdens the trendy undertaker/woodland fan at length with a terrible dilemma he faces. He and his wife have been agonizing about it for days now, and expecting me and a dozen others to do the same. Should they bring their two young children to the brief cremation after the service? Or should they leave them in the comfortable meeting rooms with relatives and friends who will be skipping it and heading straight for the sherry at the reception? If the kids come and see the process, they will ask questions. And, to make the quandary all the more insurmountable, the kids will have to be strapped into the car they go in. And if they stay, they will also ask questions about what has happened to granny.
I expect the founder of Whispering Glades to call in his logistics/child psychologist specialists to sort it all out, but instead he just sympathises and says in his experience it’s best to tell kids the basic truth about such things. I had previously suggested tossing a coin. It’s tough to have the first-ever toddlers in the history of humanity to lose a grandparent.
The stonemason comes in with a proof for us to sign off. The stone will be ready for when we bury the ashes the day after the funeral. We go out to choose a plot, which will also house an apple tree – expected to be a valuable source of nutrition for the aforementioned grandchildren. We decide on one well away from other people, which is beyond doubt what she would have wanted.
I ponder warning Mr Whispering Glades that mad Aunt S might turn up at the funeral, harangue mourners and wreck his exquisite New Age graveyard. I decide against it.