The British Way of Death, BBC4

by | Feb 6, 2006 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

We hardly expected ourselves to be entertained when we turned on this opener to BBC4’s Death Night – which itself sounded as uplifting as Pauline Fowler appearing in a nine-hour Chekov marathon – but this documentary on the changing nature of the British funeral was insightful, authorative and diverting.

What was good about it?

• The programme traced the development of the funeral service from formal, sombre routine to informal, heartening celebration – and quite rightly demonstrated that the latter means a whole lot more to the deceased and their loved ones. We loved the sense of humour in some of the services featured here, from AC/DC’s Highway To Hell appearing in the playlist of a cremation to off-the-wall eulogies, and couldn’t help but agree that a funny funeral is a much more memorable and meaningful way of saying goodbye than wailing in black to long-forgotten hymns.

• The history of Britain’s attitude to interment was undeniably fascinating – for example, we learnt of the sexist discrepancy between social expectations of Victorian widows and widowers. Mourning males were formally allowed to court once more after three months whereas women were expected to remain on their own for much longer.

• The sheer variety of coffins Britain now offers to the deceased. From those inspired by music, film or sport to those with a conscience (such as the eco-friendly wicker basket), it was amazing to see how this once macabre burial feature is now a fashion accessory.

• A thoroughly suitable and wickedly funny clip from Alan Partridge in which the hapless hero interrupts his condolences by taking a call on his mobile.

• It was hilarious to see how humans are inherently unable to consider their burials without thinking of themselves in living form – archive footage of the British public revealed that most objected to burials because of the thought of worms being near their bodies.

What was bad about it?

• The ubiquity of Robbie Williams’ dreary Angels at modern day funerals. A song so overplayed and overrated, we can’t wait for it to be put to rest itself one day.

• Although the programme’s point was that we shouldn’t see death as taboo, at the same time the frequency of real-life corpses in the programme was uncomfortable to watch. Embalming was one thing but footage of stiff corpses on being on show while relatives sat nearby with cups of tea was unsettling and disturbing.

• Writer Virginia Ironside’s eagerness for people to see ‘as many dead people as possible’.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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