Death becomes you: Picking the perfect coffin

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Media captionBurial park manager Fran Hall has a look at some of the coffins on display at the National Coffin Exhibition

Dying is the one thing we all have in common.

The novelist Maria Edgeworth remarked, "I've a great fancy to see my own funeral afore I die".

While you may not be able to take a seat in the pews, you can still have a say in your final send-off.

Image caption Coffins have come a long way from veneer and plastic

As anyone who has had to arrange a funeral will know, it can be a heart-wrenching process.

Many bereavement counsellors believe that pre-planning your funeral can be one of the greatest gifts you can give to those that survive you

And, perhaps as people act on such advice, in recent years there has been a steady rise in the numbers of personalised funerals.

Fran Hall is a former funeral director who now manages the Chiltern Woodland Burial Centre, and she is hosting this year's National Coffin Exhibition.

The event, "Handled with Care", organised by the British Institute of Funeral Directors, hopes to encourage people to have that difficult conversation.

"We really want people to start thinking about and actually talking about their own future funeral. It's a subject we don't like to talk about in British society."

Going green

Image caption Natural burial grounds insist on either a biodegradable coffin or shroud

Although the majority of funerals are still fairly traditional, humanist and civil celebrants are becoming increasingly common.

There are more than 200 natural burial grounds across the UK, and organisations such as the Natural Death Centre provide information on alternative arrangements, even DIY funerals.

Environmentalism is one driving factor. Actresses Lynn Redgrave and Wendy Richards, chef Keith Floyd and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick have all chosen eco-friendly coffins.

"Ten years ago it was all your stereotypical wooden coffins - now there's a whole range," says Julian Atkinson, managing director of coffin makers and distributors JC Atkinson

Image caption This surprisingly-sturdy coffin is made from 100% recycled newspaper

They include a hand-made woollen coffin made by Hainsworth. Sales have been brisk, according to Mr Atkinson.

"People like it because it's touchy-feely, it's warm," he says.

Craig Wensley of Daisy Coffins feels the use of the term "alternative" is misleading. His company produces caskets made from banana leaf and water hyacinth.

"For me, it was about offering modern products that aren't sombre, but look nice," he says.

"With willow, sometimes you can see through. We wanted to be green, but we also wanted it to look nice."

Newcomer Sunset Coffins has not looked back since launching last year.

Image caption The dyes used on this organic wool shroud are natural

"Business is good," says managing director Steve Ancrum.

"We've been genuinely surprised at how the public have received the product.

"We think it's partly because it's British-made, but it's also because it's 100% recycled newspapers."

Coffins are not the only choice. Bellacouche is a company that makes soft felt shrouds from locally sourced wool. The base is reinforced to make it rigid, so the body can be carried.

"It captured the essence of her"

Pamela Barton loved to paint, and made cards for family and friends. Before she passed away a few months ago after a long illness, she talked to her daughter about what she wanted.

Her daughter, Anne Barber, works for Civil Ceremonies, training civil funeral celebrants. She contacted picture specialists Colourful Coffins. A few days later Pamela's granddaughter Gemma visited their offices, armed with a painting of her grandmother's of snowdrops.

Image caption The design for Pamela Barton's coffin, featuring her paintings of snowdrops

"We looked at it and thought 'gosh, yes, it's exactly it'. The coffin was beautiful, really. It was exactly what she wanted," says Anne Barber.

"What I didn't expect was the difference it made to the funeral. What happened when the coffin turned up, the only thing I could say was it was perfect. And it really was. People would touch the coffin, they couldn't believe it wasn't wood. It captured the essence of her."

"I call it my own carriage"

For some people, simply decorating the coffin isn't enough. When Brian Holden takes that final trip it will be aboard the Alnwick coach of the Orient Express Northern Belle.

He and his wife first travelled on the the real-life Northern Belle eight years ago, as an anniversary treat. They liked it so much they became regulars, always travelling in the same carriage.

Three years ago, his wife Jean passed away. After 50 years of marriage he found himself alone.

"I decided I was not going to scurry into a little hole," he says.

"It was a good part of my life, we'd been married for 50 years when we first went on the journey.

"I found I could still carry on and make the journey on my own."

Image caption The man who commissioned this replica Rolls-Royce coffin was buried in it in his back garden.

After spotting an newspaper article about a company called Crazy Coffins that makes unusual caskets, he contacted Orient Express, which agreed to provide plans for the coffin makers to work from.

"The older you get, the less years you have ahead of you, and it was nice there. I thought, 'why not get to go out in an environment where you've been happy'.

"I'll go out in comfort, and disappear into the fiery furnace in the Alnwick Northern Belle carriage."

The company is currently building a Viking longboat and a Tardis. Complicated orders such as Mr Holden's need to be ordered in advance, but simpler designs, such as a skateboard they built for a 9-year-old boy, can be done in a few days.

Plan ahead

The funeral industry has been criticised for having pushed up prices in recent years

The president of the British Institute of Funeral Directors, Ken Satterly, says he would always advise people to shop around.

He blames the increases on rising fees.

"Over the last five years there's been tremendous increases in charges for cremations, fees for minister and church, fees for doctors, fees for issuing of cremation forms ... and the cost of fuel has risen steeply."

Given the expense involved, it makes sense to make provision before you go, or you could risk leaving your family struggling to pay, funeral directors say.

It does not have to cost the earth - the Natural Death Centre publishes a 14-point checklist of money-saving tips.

Image caption This cardboard coffin can hold up to 23 stone (146kg)

You do not need to use a funeral director, and you can even be buried in your back garden.

And if you still want a bespoke coffin - do not despair. Greenfield Creations has been selling cardboard coffins direct to the public for 20 years.

Will Hunnybel, whose father started the company, says he gets 50 - 60 internet enquiries a week.

A plain cardboard coffin will set you back around £130, or for a few hundred pounds more you can have the design of your choice printed on it, and have it delivered to your front door.

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