At the outset I would like to congratulate wholeheartedly the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant, on her promotion. She of course followed my great friend Ann Widdecombe as Member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald and I am absolutely delighted that she has been made a Minister. I have every confidence that when she replies she will satisfy all my very reasonable demands.
I fully understand that the subject I am raising this evening is not the most cheerful one. It is taboo to talk about death, but none of us is immortal—I think—and the one thing that is certain is that we are all going to die. According to the Dying Matters coalition, two thirds of us are uncomfortable talking about dying and death. However, thinking about what happens to us after we are gone is likely to be of huge significance, not just from our personal perspective but from that of the loved ones we leave behind. That thinking will often centre on funeral arrangements, which provide the very last chance to leave a mark on the world that we have just left.
I have probably been to more funerals than I have had meals. I have never been to a truly happy one, but if the person has lived a reasonable length of time, I like to see the funeral as a celebration of that person’s life. That notion was gained from my time on the all-party group on funerals and bereavement. Recently, I have been to the funeral of my good friend Ken Hargreaves, Member of Parliament for Hyndburn from 1983 to 1992. We are having a memorial service for him in the Crypt on the third Wednesday of October; the date is up in the Crypt. The ceremony in Hyndburn was very moving and I had the honour of giving the eulogy. I also recently went to the funeral of Joan Short, my first election agent in the late 1960s. That was at the City of London crematorium.
I am not trying for a job, but I should add that a number of constituents have asked me to preside over the funerals of their loved ones. It has happened when the loved one has not had any particular faith. Although I have not entirely enjoyed presiding, if that is what the departed constituent has wanted me to do, that is what I have done.
Unless a Member has died and been resurrected, none of us can say what it feels like to be dead. Whether we are in some place looking down at our funeral services saying to one another, “My goodness—I can’t believe that hypocrite has turned up at my funeral,” I do not know. I have no doubt that at my funeral one or two people will go to the altar to check that the lid of the coffin has been screwed down tightly.
A funeral is a very important event. I have been to funerals at which there has been hardly anyone and to funerals with so many people that many are standing outside the church. Despite the importance of funerals, only a third of us have discussed the type of funeral we would like. I say publicly that I intend to be buried, not cremated; I hope that someone vengeful does not disregard my wishes.
Not wanting to talk about death leads to an unwillingness to address the many issues that surround it. Foremost among them is what happens to our bodies once we die. We owe it to our loved ones to ensure that what happens following our death is as smooth and pain-free as possible, while still providing a dignified remembrance. Cremation is overwhelmingly the choice of the people of the United Kingdom: about 70% of us are cremated, the highest rate in the world. In some respects, that is understandable—we are a tiny little country and we lack space. The argument is that cremation is efficient, hygienic and cheap and leaves no site behind that needs to be maintained, unlike burials.