How to have a green funeral, without offending Derek

Directgov seems intent on amplifying our fear of mortality

Most worries, I think, can be boiled down to worrying about dying. What to have for lunch? A prawn sandwich? What if I'm knocked over by a bus? But I like the idea that, whatever worry you might have, even if it's death itself, there's someone out there with a plan or some good, solid advice. I can't understand why people get annoyed by the government telling us what to do. But there is a problem, I admit, with the way the government tells us what to do. In principle, it's a great idea. In practice, it's bloody annoying.

The government is pretty good on dying, though. If you go to Directgov there's a section called If I Should Die: Practical Advice, which implies it's going to give you advice on what to do after you've copped it. (Lie still! Stop breathing! Come back as a ghost!) In fact, it takes you to a nice,candlelit website - - which cites Jade Goody's last words and offers tips on cremation and eulogies ("Start at the beginning"; "Make copies available").

But back on Directgov (this is a bad word, isn't it? How are you even supposed to say it? When I try to say it out loud it comes out as "Derek Guv", which is fine, but probably not quite what they were after), it seems intent on amplifying any worries you might already have about the whole mortality/staring into the dark pit of infinite gloom lark. There's a bit, for example, about how to have a "greener funeral" and it's pretty unashamed in its pointers, suggesting that you should avoid putting shoes in the coffin and that it might be wise to follow Environment Agency guidelines if you're thinking about scattering ashes in water. I'm all for green things, funerals included - but then there's this: "If you're burying ashes, think about using a biodegradable container that will break down naturally."

Don't tell me what to think about when I'm burying ashes! Don't tell me what to think full stop, but for God's sake stay away from the ashes. The ashes, Directgov, are of a person, an actual human being who lived and breathed and laughed and cried. I think I'm going to be more preoccupied by the existential challenge posed by the transformation of said person into grey dust than I am about the container in which his ashes now rest.

I quite like to imagine, in these situations, that the government is a person, not a thickening swamp of websites and call centres. There I am, preparing to bury, reeling from a death, contemplating my own . . . and in an absolute frenzy of panic about the ashes being in a Tesco own-brand Tupperware box, which is about as biodegradable as a giant fridge. Then, enter Derek Guv.“Hello, madam." (He's very old-fashioned, Derek, probably wearing braces.) "Are you aware that your ashes container does not meet Green Funeral Guidance Requirements™?"I'd like to think that at this point I would punch him. But more likely I'd just nod pathetically, a single tear bouncing off my incriminating plastic box. "Sorry, Derek."

Sophie Elmhirst's column will appear fortnightly
Next week: Mark Watson

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people