The Alternative Funeral
There had been too many dead bodies for this to be considered even a ‘below average’ Christmas. Toby had lost an aunt, a grandfather, and an old school friend already. “Bad things come in threes!” Toby’s grandmother warned. Then she died too.
The first few funerals had been the standard fare - sombre occasions with the usual amount of tears and silence. Not only was this incredible depressing, but it was getting pretty boring too. During the third funeral - for Toby’s grandmother - it had been hard to stay awake. This was made harder by all the old people who actually were asleep around him. At that point, Toby decided he had to do something. The next funeral would be different.
But different how, exactly? Well, the circumstances themselves ensured that the funeral would be different to the others. It was for Toby’s old school friend Andy, who had always had a reputation for being a bit… wacky. Andy’s friends had taken a lot of solace in the fact that Andy had died doing what he loved most. They just didn’t mention that what Andy loved doing most was taking huge amounts of heroin.
Andy’s death had already caused quite a stir in the local community. The local paper had used it as an excuse to call for a crackdown on ‘drugs culture.’ Toby’s paper itself had run a “No More Andy’s” campaign for a few weeks. This came to an abrupt end when it was hijacked by misguided activists who patrolled the streets attacking anyone with the name Andy.
But things grew stranger still. After an administrative mix-up, the coroner’s report into Andy’s death listed the official cause as “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Nobody had yet been able to explain why this was, and strict legislation unfortunately made it impossible to correct the error until a year later. So they were faced with a dead friend, who had died far too soon by tragic causes, and an aftermath that nobody really understood or could be bothered to clean up. Andy’s funeral, then, would have to be something special. It needed to match the way he had lived, and died. Or at least be interesting.
Toby had so far arranged the funeral for his aunt and grandparents so already knew most of the ‘ins and outs’ (ins: people in the church, body in the grave; outs: tears from eyes, money from inheritance). He put in the usual calls to the caterers (‘the usual, mate?”) for quotes and set out to find a venue and time. He didn’t want to go with the same priest and church as before though. They were perfectly adequate and reasonable, but Toby was after something different. Unfortunately, all the entries in the Yellow Pages offered the same services. Each one had the words ‘respect’ or ‘dignity’ in them, and that wouldn’t do at all. A quick search online didn’t result in anything promising either.
For a while then, Toby was disheartened. He had such high standards that everything disappointed him. His compassionate leave was coming to an end, so he resolved himself to just go back into work and resume the search later. He came in, accepted the usual condolences from his coworkers (who by this point were beginning to reuse sympathy cards) and settled down to start proof-reading the paper.
Toby’s section of the paper to proof that day was the classified ads, an often difficult section as most of the submissions contained at least one mistake. Some of these would be deliberate of course - most infuriatingly the job ads for proof-readers themselves (this was how Toby had found the job in the first place), but most needed to be carefully pruned out. There was a difficult balance between not removing too much (the customers wanted their ads to be shown exactly how they liked) and not improving things too much (they were charged by the letter, so adding more wasn’t allowed). But Toby enjoyed the work for the most part.
After dealing with a handful of error free ads, Toby turned the page and was immediately struck by the first one at the top of the page -
Alternative Funerals: We put the DUBSTEP in Funeral
- after this followed a telephone number and a picture of a grinning skull wearing a top hat. The top hat appeared to have the phrase “2spooky” emblazoned on it; clearly no thought had been given to how pixelated this would appear on the page by whoever had submitted the ad. Toby took a few moments to take it all in. It appeared to be just what he had been looking for! There weren’t any more details, but the starkness of the ad and the sheer boldness of the whole thing were enough to reassure him that this would be the right option.
He ignored the fact that the copy didn’t make sense (was that a pun? it looked like some kind of wordplay, but it wasn’t at all clear what it was supposed to be on) and rang the phone number. An automated response told him an address and that appointments were on an “open-door-policy basis.” The office was close to where Toby worked, so he decided to go and pay it a visit during his lunch break. Eager to find out more, he returned to his work.
A few hours later he was at the office, a standard-looking place on the first floor of an office in town. You certainly couldn’t tell by looking that this was a funeral director’s office at all, but it definitely matched the address that Toby had heard over the phone. He noted the skeleton motif on the door (this one was winking and holding a boombox over its head), and knocked.
“Yes?” came a cry through the door. A man’s voice, quite young by the sound of it.
“Erm.. hello? Is this Alternative Funerals?” Toby asked.
There was a brief pause and Toby thought that he’d made a mistake. After all, the ad hadn’t actually gone out yet and they might not even be ready for customers - the business did seem to be very new, after all.
But then the door suddenly opened and Toby was greeted by a man a few years older than himself. “Sorry about that. Candy Crush Saga…” he explained, “come in!”
The office was a small room packed with half-opened boxes. The office looked like it was still being put together. Lots of hi-tech gadgets were already strewn across the desk, and a flat screen TV was in the process of being attached to the wall.
“Are you open? Sorry if I’ve come at a bad time, I can come back..” began Toby, but he was soon interrupted.
“No, don’t be silly. It’s just taking us a while to put everything in its right place. Guess your saw our ad in the paper then?”
Clearly, the man wasn’t aware that the ad hadn’t gone out yet. Rather than explain, Toby decided it would be more convenient to just go with things.
“Yeah, I did. I’m Toby, by the way..”
“And I’m Charles. Great to meet you Toby!”
Charles was by far the most upbeat funeral director that Toby had ever met. In fact, he probably ranked among the top fifty upbeat people in general that he’d ever met.
“Just to make sure I’m in the right place. You guys do funerals, right?”
“Well I better bloody hope so, otherwise our business model isn’t really gonna work! You got someone need doing then?”
Toby hesitated. There was still time to go back. He could go back to the local church vicar. He was a nice man, he always offered Toby a custard cream and a cup of tea. If he committed now, Toby would have to follow through. He looked over at Charles, currently fiddling with the scart cable leading into a subwoofer on the floor and made his choice.
“Yes… my mate Andy. He died last week. Overdose.”
Charles paused for a second. “Sorry for your loss. But as we like to say ‘a dead friend is a great excuse for a party!’ - right? You’ll be our first customer by the way, but don’t worry. We’ll give you a show you’ll never forget!”
“…. right. When you say “we” - who do you mean exactly? I mean, I haven’t heard of you guys before.”
“Well, it’s me and my partner Tom. We set up Alternative Funerals after we both went to a funeral together last year for a mutual friend. It was all the usual boring old depressing stuff: coffins and hymns and blah blah blah. We got talking and thought, ‘hey! we can do better than this!” and here we are.”
“Oh, ok. And where is Tom right now?”
“Partying hard in Ibiza. A kind of well-done for setting up the company. I’m going next month after I get everything up and running and he’s back. So, you wanna talk specifics?”
Toby and Charles took their seats. Toby squatted on a bean bag by the speakers whilst Charles perched on the arm of an antique chair (“vintage, mate” he’d said, patting it gently). Charles explained that they’d just worked out a standing agreement with the local church so they could hire it out on an ad hoc basis.
“Aren’t they a bit.. funny… about you using the church for a non-religious ceremony?” Toby asked.
“Not with the money we pay them! And speaking of which…”
They then worked on figuring out the specifics of the ceremony for Andy. Not much time was devoted the actual logistics of timings and costs; Charles seemed to be much more keen to figure out the playlist.
“So was Andy a drum’n’bass kinda guy, or was he more into like jungle reggae? We wanna give him the right send-off, yeah?”
“Erm, well I don’t really know. I can try and get some of his CDs?”
“Nah mate, don’t worry. It was a heroin overdose right? Probably into some of that indie stuff. I’ll put together a Spotify playlist and send it over.” He looked up from his iPhone. “Yeah?”
An hour or so later, Toby left the office having worked out the majority of the details. Charles had assured him that everything would be fine and if Toby needed anything he could always be reached “over Skype.” He wasn’t feeling as confident as he had been going into the meeting but was now several hundred pounds down. He reminded himself that this was ‘probably’ what Andy would have wanted. Andy was really into doing things his own way - even if that way led directly to A&E or an early grave. He’s probably be killing himself over this situation, Toby reflected, if he hadn’t already choked to death on his vomit that night. Such is life.
In the days leading up to the funeral (which Charles had scheduled for a friday because it led into a bank holiday weekend so meant “no excuses not to do shots”) Toby kept himself occupied with his job and the more mundane - yet necessary - parts of the funeral. He sent out the invites - written on Rizla paper at Charles’ last-minute suggestion - and purchased the alcohol. He wondered if he’d bought slightly too much booze compared to the other funerals, but then again that was the whole point. This funeral was supposed to be different… in every way.
So on the friday, Toby made sure to get to the church early. From the outside, it didn’t look any different to how it usually did at a first glance. The one noticeable difference was the gang of cables snaking out of the church door. Toby followed the cables, around and over some graves, round to the side of the church. There he found an industrial sized power generator, the kind that he’d previously seen at musical festivals. Toby couldn’t quite figure out why it was here, the church had its own power supply, but decided to think nothing of it. Charles knew what he was doing, he was sure.
Inside the church, things were very different. The stocked bar, for instance, stood out as being extremely out-of-place. But even that was nothing compared to the huge sound system being erected over the altar. Charles stood nearby, leaning on a Jesus with a lager can. He suddenly noticed Toby.
“There you are, matey! Well… what do you think?”
“Well, it’s very different. Are you definitely allowed to have all this stuff in here? It seems a bit… blasphemous.”
“Yeah but God doesn’t really exist does he?” Charles said, with a cryptic wink. “Besides, these old places have the best acoustics - for all the hymns and that. Trust me, it’s gonna sound mega. Actually, stick around - we’ll be doing the sound test in a bit.”
Toby decided that he didn’t really want to stick around and made an excuse to go out and get some air. People would be arriving soon and he was starting to panic. Was it too late to pull out now? He’d already decided that going to the office in the first place was the point of no return, but you could have two points of no return, right? Like if the first one turns out to actually be a point of some later return even though at originally it looked like a point of no return. He’d have to ask Merv at work - Merv knew about points and things.
Toby’s anxieties were finally laid to rest when the first car pulled up (though it would be more accurate to say they were laid to rest-in-peace). He could hear Avicii blasting out from the church and suddenly all he could think was whether the stained-glass windows could handle that level of bass. A voice called out to him.
“Hello Toby. Good to see you.”
It was Sue, Andy’s mother. Toby gulped loudly and was surprised at himself (he thought only people in films actually did that). Toby hadn’t talked much to Sue about the funeral arrangements. He’d informed her of the time and the place and so on, but she had been too overwrought by grief to go into the specifics. He hadn’t mentioned anything about Charles or Alternative Funerals. He wasn’t at all sure how he should breach the subject.
“Such a lovely choice of venue, Toby. Nice and traditional. Just what Andy deserved…” Sue’s tears began to well up as she tailed off.
“Good to see you too, Sue. Let me get you a drink” Toby offered up as the best response he could muster, and quickly made an exit.
In the church, Toby took a pew. He looked down at the tiled floor and tried to think about what he could do. Other guests were arriving now and the enormity of his disaster began to set in. This was all wrong. Nobody wants to go to an ‘alternative funeral.’ There’s a reason we have traditions for this kind of thing. The dead need respect and dignity. This just made a mockery of the whole situation, and Andy deserved better. Toby looked around, there were people in the church now. They looked confused and bewildered. Some of them were looking angrily at Toby too. As they took their seats, Toby started to wonder how he’d convince everyone that this wasn’t his fault. Or maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. Charles had promised they’d get an actual “priest or sutin” to conduct the service.
After ten minutes or so of this, everyone was seated. Toby was sitting on his own near the front, whilst most of the invited guests had taken seats as far away from him as possible. There was near silence other than the sound of Sue weeping. A slow whirring noise began, which Toby recognised as an air raid siren. ‘Oh God,’ he though, ‘I am so so sorry.’
Klaxons blaring, the vicar took to the pulpit.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay tribute to the life of Andy McGillen, who was taken from us too early in tragic circumstances. We can be glad that so many of Andy’s friends and family could be here today to pay their respects and say their goodbyes. We will start the proceedings with a song picked by Andy himself, which we are told was one of his favourites.”
Toby suddenly realised he had never cleared a finalised version of the setlist with Charles. He had no idea what would actually be playing.
RUDE BOY, BOY
CAN YOU GET IT UP?
RUDE BOY, BOY
IS YOU BIG ENOUGH?
TAKE IT, TAKE IT
TAKE IT, TAKE IT
By the end of the first verse, several people had already got up and left. Some people had already made their way over to the bar and Sue was nowhere to be seen. Toby supposed she was probably collapsed on the floor. The music was not just totally inappropriate and obnoxious, but playing at a volume that was making everything shake. The speaker system, taller than Toby by quite some way and taking up the full width of the church, was pushing out sound waves like a hi-fi possessed. As the dry ice began to pour out from behind the choir seats, Toby just had time to make our Charles grinning madly and giving him a double thumbs-up. Toby could only politely smile back.
The service carried on in broadly the same fashion. Invariably, those meant to come and give readings had already left, or in one case made it halfway up the aisle before violently throwing up from the sustained nausea. After the vicar had given his final reading, Charles took the microphone.
“Phew! What a bore, eh, guys! Time to get this party started! LET’S DO THIS.”
On saying this he threw up the levels on a song (‘Drop the Pressure (Jack Beats ‘Rinsed out Rave’ Remix)’ by Project Bassline) and chucked his beer can out in the pews. The can hit Toby squarely in the face and was, unfortunately, still mostly full. Clutching a bleeding nose, Toby tried to make his way to the door.
But then the bass dropped.
Toby’s earlier fears had been correct. Stained glass isn’t meant to deal with modern day electronic music. All of the windows in the church shattered at once. The rain of broken glass was quite beautiful for a moment, as the laser light display created a lovely shimmering effect. But this was followed by immediate screams of shock and pain. Toby’s bloody nose was now a full-on torrent of blood, accompanied an extremely cut face and arms. He fell over as another wave of bass hit, cutting himself on even more glass. Toby briefly thought about whether the deposit on the venue hire was refundable or not.
Guests fled out of the door, but were managing to tangle the assorted cables in their hurry. Toby looked up and saw Sue attempt to hobble out of the door, catching one of her heels on the main power cable. Her stiletto heel went right through the cable as she struggled, sending sparks flying. Within seconds, hymn books and prayer pillows were ablaze. Andy had wanted a cremation, but not like this. Not like this.
Blood, smoke, fire, booze. Toby didn’t know what to do. The music was still playing just as loud. And Charles was nowhere to be seen. Toby was devastated.
It had been an alternative funeral. But an alternative to what?