Dead ethical

Observations on green burial

When Roslyn Cassidy began the process of converting an old builders' yard into a mortuary for her eco-friendly funeral business, Green Endings, she had no idea that she would face an 18-month campaign of resistance culminating in an attack by vandals.

Not least because the location for Cassidy's small ethical business was the affluent north London suburb of Kentish Town, spiritual capital of the chattering classes - those well-heeled, articulate recyclers who go to the theatre, sip Médoc, shop at farmers' markets, fret about social issues and read the Guardian. Why, even the editor of that paper, Alan Rusbridger, lives there.

You might think such an area would be a bastion of reason but, much as we all fancy we are rational and intelligent, it appears that we don't much like being reminded of death.

Soon protest turned into sabotage. "Death Valley" was spray-painted on the yard doors, "Murky Endings" scrawled on Cassidy's vehicle. In the street, people verbally abused her.

She won her planning struggle back in August but, according to Cassidy, her opponents remained as angry as ever. "The other day I said 'Hello' to one of them and he replied: 'You're not my friend, why do I have to speak to you?' This from a 55/60-year-old man!"

She understands the opposition, saying death is not a "neutral issue" (though one cannot imagine quieter neighbours - surely preferable to the scaffolding lorries in and out of the yard before).

Opponents claim she "hoodwinked" them: erecting a large shed that was initially for the storage of coffins, before deciding to apply to install a fridge for eight bodies. They say they only discovered the truth when they looked at the planning application.

Cassidy counters that a hardcore of 10 "militants" mounted a campaign of disinformation that ranged from claims that hearses would clog the local streets to the suggestion this was a mortuary on an industrial scale. In reality, she says, she can handle a maximum of just three funerals a day.

Some claimed processing bodies would cause pollution and argued children would be frightened at the thought of the dead nearby.

Roz Maxwell has a flat that overlooks the builders' yard where the bodies are kept. A former nurse in her seventies, she says she finds the presence of the mortuary depressing - a constant reminder of death - something of which she'd had plenty of experience in her working life. She also complains that the people's wishes were ignored by the authorities.

In the normal course of things, argues Maxwell, the dead are discreetly stored away from the living. For example, she says, the mortuary at nearby University College Hospital is located in the basement away from the patients.

Actually, that isn't quite true. If you happen to be a cancer sufferer going for radiotherapy you must pass the mortuary if you take the stairs, as I found out when I got lost in that hospital the other day.

I live around the corner from this battleground and the level of opposition puzzles me. Perhaps this is because I grew up with my 92-year-old grandmother's story of how she and her brother, as children in Gloucester, would peek over the wall at the bodies in the neighbouring mortuary. They weren't traumatised. Just curious.

In my own street there is a nursing home for the elderly. Should we call for that to be removed because old age disturbs and because an ambulance may pull up to take a resident away and provoke morbid fears?

Not everyone opposes Cassidy's mortuary, including, paradoxically, a recently bereaved couple who lost a child.

"In the midst of life we are in death," says the Book of Common Prayer. In the midst of Kentish Town, we'd rather not think about that, thanks.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics