Out of this world

Coffins - Michael Waterhouse checks out alternative routes across the Styx

Long-serving undertakers will be turning in their newly dug graves. In case you haven't heard, there is growing dissatisfaction with the traditional coffin. Does it have to be the shape that it is? Do we need one at all? Is there a downside to cardboard and biodegradable handles? Funeral directors may not be tearing up their glossy catalogues yet, but the days of mahogany and brass could well be numbered.

This is hardly surprising, given the staggering cost of coffins and the high-pressure sales tactics of some funeral companies. But, more significantly, we seem to have reached a critical juncture in our culture, at which we can decide whether important ceremonies in our lives, such as funerals or weddings, are handed over to professionals, who have been doing them for years, or left to the likes of you and me to make of them what we can. The question is: are these events still endowed with a supernatural meaning, or can we bestow meaning on them ourselves?

The organisers of an exhibition, called "Dead", have been mulling over these issues for a decade. Welfare State International is a group of artists and performers based in Cumbria. In the past, their work has focused on "celebratory art", a term they coined to describe their particular combination of site-specific theatre, festivals and pyrotechnics, all of which celebrate the transitional moments in life. For "Dead", they invited leading artists and designers, from Britain and around the world, to create practical objects that might be used in a funeral of the future. The artists donated 17 works, and the proceeds from their sale will provide a bursary for other artists to study with Welfare State.

The exhibition emphasises the need for ceremonies to mark our rites of passage, but challenges the conventional forms they take and the prerogative of those who provide them. "Dead", according to Welfare State, is trying to break down the division between professionals and amateurs, and help people "reclaim responsibility for making these occasions personal and significant". We should cease to be spectators at old and dissatisfying religious ceremonies and become the inventors of our own.

The "Dead" artists and designers have done their bit for the cause. Byron famously compared a Venetian gondola to "a coffin clapt in a canoe", but the objects in this exhibition bear even less resemblance to traditional funerary art. Walking into the Roundhouse in north London, it seemed that I had stumbled on a warehouse of raw materials for a DalI painting. Within the spotlit circle ahead were a white wicker duck, a child's table and chairs, a vast egg and something that might have been mistaken for a micro-version of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Was this facing death with toys?

"Dead" is, in fact, an exciting exhibition, bristling with ideas and humour. Most of the exhibits are, in effect, coffins - or more precisely, means to dispose of the dead. Gavin Turk's massive egg stands five feet from the ground and glows a pale pink. Like many of the objects, it explores the idea of death as a journey. Life begins within the egg; it closes there, too. The fashion designer Hussein Chalayan contributed a coffin in the shape of a boat, but with a price tag of £30,000, most of us will be looking for cheaper ferries across the Styx. Perhaps the most engaging interpretation of the "journey" theme was Rose Finn-Kelcey's Return to Sender, a large envelope containing a cool corpse, complete with leather jacket and shades, across which floats the message "I am so happy to be dead".

Although the central stance of the exhibition is that funerals are for the living, few of the objects were designed for mourners. The most witty, Memento Kit: final breath, is a transparent box with a partially inflated balloon inside it. This, a name-strap informs us, was the last gasp of one James Newlands, preserved, if not for ever, then at least until the rubber perishes. The artists, Dunne and Raby, very thoughtfully provide spare balloons and tie-clips for future bereavements.

An exhibition of this kind plays an ambiguous role in today's debate about death. As a society, we are undoubtedly exercised by the value of existing funerary rites and many people are voting with their feet by seeking out alternative ways to commemorate their losses. However, "alternative" usually means cheaper, and it is hard to see these shrouds and coffins appealing to that market. But perhaps that is to miss the point. Practical as these objects purport to be, they are first of all works of art, making us rethink our assumptions. Why shouldn't we be disposed of in a duck or a boat? Come to think of it, given the beauty and expense of these and other coffins, it seems a pity that we are unable to spend any sentient time in them. But then, pace Goldsmith, few of us make corpses handsome enough for the coffins we're laid in.

Michael Waterhouse's The Last Thing I'll Do will be published by Constable next year

"Dead" transfers on 29 March to the Lanternhouse, Welfare State International's centre in Ulverston (01229 581 127), where it continues until the end of June

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again