It is a tribute to the power of marketing that the Association of Burial Authorities has launched a competition seeking ideas on how to stop cemeteries being dull.
This is a fine example of an organisation bowing to the modern imperative to move with the times. There are few greater sins to which a body, so to speak, as august as the Association of Burial Authorities can succumb than to be left standing in the past, heedless of the march of time into whose step we must all obediently fall.
One has to concede at the outset that the association has a point: cemeteries are dull places. Asked to put my finger on the problem, I should say that they lack life.
Historically, there is an explanation for this, which some of the older members of the association might have heard from the lips of still earlier members now peacefully laid to rest. It is that cemeteries are sacred places where the living go from time to time to commune with the dead, usually their forebears. This was always seen as a solemn, sometimes painful process, in which we come the closest in our daily lives to contemplating the inevitability and mystery of mortality.
Unlike the times pressed upon us with such an irresistible urgency, it was generally held that the memories of past loved ones and the numinous nature of the burial ground required respectful silence, or at any rate quiet reflection.
But, of course, life is no longer like that, and if not life, why not death also? Today we live in an impatient, noisy, hurried condition, for ever running, though if we were stopped and asked our destination few would be able to answer. Movement is all. Action is everything. Life must pulse to the disco beat. Let silence in and we might be made to think, and that would be too unendurable to bear.
To be dull is to be dead. And cemeteries fail on both counts.
The Association of Burial Authorities, even now guiltily pondering the sepulchral cloak in which it has allowed its domain to be shrouded, could do worse than take a leaf from cricket’s book.
Cricket, too, had failed to move with the times. It was, in the eyes of many, dead, or dead boring, which is worse. It was too slow for modern taste, too quiet, too colourless, too difficult to follow and too demanding to think about. Something had to be done, and it was. Cricket was made “more accessible”, the proper goal of every service provider, no matter what the service.
In came coloured clothing, a white ball, black sightscreens, floodlights, music, and dancing girls. And lo, the people liked it. Out went contemplation and subtlety and in came the crowds. That cricket had ceased to be cricket and become a garish parody of itself was of small consequence: the important thing was that it had moved with the times, it was not dull.
With just a little imagination, cemeteries could so easily adopt similar measures. To take just one example: clothing. It has long been the custom for pallbearers and mourners to dress in black. Now, how dull is that? If funeral directors would equip their staff in harlequin outfits the process of interring the dead would be transformed instantly into something of gaiety and colour. Simple modifications such as that can make all the difference.
As luck would have it, most cemeteries come equipped with trees and shrubs, made, as if by nature, for supporting sound systems. Just imagine how much more fun a cemetery would be – not to mention accessible – if the air throbbed to the strains of Barry Manilow or leapt to the beat of Status Quo. It is in subtle changes like this that organisations can transform themselves and win new friends.
There will inevitably be a few diehard, reactionary stick-in-the-muds, just like the cricket followers such as myself, who abhor change when it comes. There will be a few who will argue that hoop-la, noise and fun are unseemly in the cemetery. They should be ignored, and I’ll tell you why. Death is so out of fashion. It is the last taboo, which explains why it is to be avoided at all cost, and why anything that might invite its unwelcome entrance – salt, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, beef, illness – is to be avoided, and why we must all exercise until we drop.
It follows that cemeteries are gigantic monuments to failure. The dead have, in a very real sense, let themselves and the rest of us down. Seen in that light, to dance on their graves is only fit and right.
And what is life if not for fun? When you think of the thousands of acres of accessible land given over to accommodating and perpetuating failure, it beggars belief. So let us make a clean break with the past: bring on the bouncy castles and flashing neon in memoriam signs, let in the topless female sextons, wheel on the hamburger stalls, and roll out the barrel. It was some long-deceased poet who said the “grave’s a fine and private place but none I think do there embrace”.
Time to show him how wrong he was. We’ve heard enough of lifestyle. How about some deathstyle?