There's nothing cheerful about a coffin - until you cover it with colourful pictures. The idea of decorating caskets is helping some people come to terms with that only sombre certainty we all have in life.
When Mary Tomes dies, she doesn't want a plain wooden box.
"I want a bright yellow coffin, one that says something about me. One brown box doesn't fit all. It doesn't show your personality or your sense of humour. My husband told me not to be so daft."
That was four years ago. Now Mary, a 62-year-old grandmother, not only has a sunshine-yellow coffin for when she meets her maker, but runs Colourful Coffins in Oxford, which prints customised paper wraps to stick onto caskets.
Her initially reluctant husband Kevin, 58, is chief designer, and the pair use their skills as printers to turn 3,000 caskets into visual representations of those inside.
"We've had the last of the Dambusters, who had a plaque on the top with bouncing bombs, the white cliffs of Dover and Lancaster bombers. And we had an ice cream van man, who had ice cream cones on his. He had the van leading the parade and they all stood round the grave eating Magnums," says Mrs Tomes.
Dr Bill Webster, a grief counsellor and author, says choosing a bespoke coffin is part of a move towards more individualistic funerals.
"It's a symbolic act to have this personalised colourful coffin. They are saying their loved one was special, that they were an RAF pilot, that these are his football colours. I have even seen one that was like a Kit Kat bar."
Dr Webster - who lost his wife in 1983, leaving him to bring up their two sons alone - says people do not talk about death enough or their plans for when it happens.
"Death is always an unwelcome experience. We avoid it as much as we can. When death happens, we wonder 'what would they want? What should we do? What's appropriate at the time?' I believe that a good funeral is the beginning of a healthy grief process."
While Colourful Coffins - and another UK company, JC Atkinson - print what are effectively colour transfers for standard coffins, Nottinghamshire's Crazy Coffins makes caskets shaped like cars, cricket bags and ballet shoes.
The tradition of adding designs or sculpturing coffins dates back to Egyptian times. In Ghana, for instance, hand-carved coffins are popular and can reflect the status of the deceased.
"It's a good idea for those who are bereaved to contribute to the funeral service in some way," says Father Nicholas Cheeseman, of All Saints Church in Reading. "Sometimes this might just mean joining in a hymn, but it might also mean choosing a coffin."
Once the concept occurred to her, Mrs Tomes set about researching demand. "One clergyman said: 'My dear, I can't see myself in one, but I think it would help many parents'."
A bespoke coffin costs about £800 - the same price as a pine version - and for each one that is cremated, a donation is made to Climate Care, which invests that money into emission reduction projects.
While the Tomes appreciate making something unique for what is always a distressing day, they do find it difficult when the coffin is for a baby or child.
"The first time we did one, we all cried," says Mr Tomes. "No one ever wants to lose a child. Children's charities tell us that a colourful coffin is so much nicer if a child has siblings. Instead of a white box, they remember flowers or fairies."
Mrs Tomes adds: "You can't take away the pain but you can lift the day."
After their 15-year-old son Hamish died of pneumonia in October 2006, Katharine and Stuart Broadhurst chose a rainbow coffin to symbolise the colour the severely disabled boy had brought into their lives.
"We wanted something incredibly bright because his eyesight wasn't 100%," says Ms Broadhurst. "He wore colourful clothes, he was the colour in our family."
The casket had his photo at the end facing the congregation, and a copy of a plaque from his door reading: "Brave knight sleeping, wake with extreme caution". Those at the funeral were "wowed" that it fitted Hamish's personality so neatly, she says.
When Jill Byrne's 89-year-old father Eric Thornton died, she chose a coffin decorated to look like a Halifax tram with the destination "Terminus".
"Trams were so much a part of Dad's life," she says. "He had always wanted to be a tram driver and was a director for Seaton Tramway on the south Devon coast.
"It was a real talking point and it just made such a difference to our family. It was exactly right and a fitting celebration of everything that was him."
Source: BBC Magazine
Complete the following sentences with a form of the word or expression from the above text.
- Mary is slowly ____________ the loss of her cat but she doesn't want any more pets.
- He was _________ in Newcastle but now he lives and works in London.
- She was left partially __________ after the accident.
- I found the scenes of the effects of the war particularly ___________ .
- My English is so poor, I don't feel I can ___________ any conversation.
- He was __________ to come to the party with me but he enjoyed it in the end.
- She __________ for many years and never really got over the death of her husband.
- I think that was a really ______ thing that you did; I'd be too afraid to do the same.
- A spouse is a husband or a wife whereas a ________ is a brother or a sister.
- Can you ________ it for me please? It's a gift.
I find the funeral procession and the coffin made for the ice cream man the most amusing.
What do you think of the idea? What alternative ceremony and coffin would you choose for your own funeral?