Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
U.K. restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s newest project, a style-forward funeral home called Exit Here, aims to shake up a very traditional industry.
Oliver Peyton knows one thing about his death: Thin Lizzy will play at his funeral.
His Spotify playlist is already queued up. Peyton is Irish, and the ‘70s Dublin hard rockers behind “The Boys Are Back in Town” played the first concert he ever attended. He’s thinking that “Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight),” off 1977’s Bad Reputation, might be the first song to kick things off.
Peyton’s funeral soundtrack doesn’t sound even slightly sepulchral. It also features ’90s groove tracks by Arrested Development, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, a nod to the first London establishment he ever opened (a hip-hop club). Peyton is nothing if not an entertainer: The longtime restaurateur is a judge on the BBC’s reality chef show, Great British Menu, and he earned an honorary British order of chivalry for his service as a caterer. When it all goes down, Peyton means for his funeral to be something special.
“I want every detail of my funeral to be choreographed,” Peyton says. “I don’t want my family or friends to think, ‘I wonder what Oliver would have liked.’ I think it’s so rude, in a way.”
Six years ago, when his father died, he came to realize that there isn’t enough choice in death. Since Victorian times, Peyton says, Great Britain’s death care industry has been served by a single prevailing model, a traditional means of commemorating life and ritualizing mortality—and it doesn’t suit him. So Peyton launched Exit Here, a funeral parlor, if that’s the word for it, in London’s Chiswick neighborhood.
“After my parents’ deaths, I just kept thinking, there’s no choice. You’re just on a conveyor belt,” Peyton says. “I didn’t achieve the things I know that certainly my father would have wanted. I was too traumatized.”
At first glance, Exit Here looks like a concept cafe, the sort of place where you might expect to order a flat white by day and a craft pour by night. The splashy, neon-backlit script over the entrance could be promoting a brasserie or raw bar (both of which Peyton has experience operating) instead of a funeral home. Nevertheless, Exit Here is a full-service provider of funerals and mortuary services, from traditional wakes to exotic possibilities.
“If you want a party on a beach in Goa, we’ll organize that for you,” Peyton says.
Style distinguishes Exit Here from the competition: It’s death, but hipper. The shop stands out for its considerable cheek (and chic). For example, Exit Here offers bright-colored urns shaped like capsules, a punny line called the “Bitter Pill” series. Bespoke caskets include a Día de los Muertos–inspired option and an English willow wicker coffin. Inside, teal and goldenrod hallways, blonde wood floors, and arched doorways (designed by Transit Studio) set Exit Here apart from traditional funeral-home interiors, with their dark woods and drab carpets.
There’s a growing movement to update the funeral business with offerings that reflect a wider range of customer choices. Los Angeles mortician and author Caitlin Doughty, who runs the Undertaking L.A. funeral service, also founded a collective of death care professionals and academics called the Order of the Good Death to help speed the adoption of more inclusive, less environmentally harmful, and more “death positive” practices within the industry. Other efforts, like the nonprofit Death Over Dinner and the Death Cafe initiative, encourage groups to talk openly about their demise, via public dinner events. Exit Here is entering an increasingly vibrant market for style-forward dying.
Since its opening a month ago, Exit Here has hosted four funerals. Peyton won’t talk about them in detail, but he says that the private services have ranged from the traditional to the extravagant. Everyone who has come through his doors has asked for something different. Funeral homes largely serve local neighborhoods and communities, and Exit Here is no different in this regard. Barry Pritchard, Peyton’s partner in the endeavor, is a third-generation funeral director who serves on the board of the U.K.’s National Association of Funeral Directors. All the services associated with a traditional funeral home, from collecting and preparing the body to hosting the reception, are available; the options simply go further.
When I ask him what an extravagant funeral might look like, he gives as an example the services for Aretha Franklin. Her televised 2018 funeral featured testimonials by the likes of Reverend Jesse L. Jackson and former President Bill Clinton, performances by Chaka Khan and Ariana Grande, and a procession of more than 100 pink Cadillacs. Peyton asks me whether I would describe the service as tasteful (I would). So why shouldn’t there be a category of funeral that falls somewhere between a faltering recitation of “Danny Boy” and a fantastic spectacle for the Queen of Soul?
Peyton outlines his philosophy on funerals this way: People plan their own birthdays, weddings, holidays, and vacations. Exit Here is for people who would like to plan their final departures as well. Plotting out the details, from the menu to the music, takes a burden off the shoulders of grieving loved ones and gives a person more control over the terms of their final departure. Peyton acknowledges the discomfort that some people might feel at the prospect of a trendy funeral home, but he says that’s ultimately discomfort with death itself. Convention does not ease a loved one’s passing, in the end.
So, what if I want to have a Star Wars-themed funeral? Somebody’s already asked him for a Star Wars casket, he replies, and he’s trying to figure out how to honor that request. Choice is the force behind Exit Here. In an increasingly secularized Britain, more people are searching for rituals that aren’t explicitly religious; other might like some extra flexibility within sacred traditions.
“Having spent most of my adult life in the restaurant business, you think you’re just helping people, and you are—you’re helping people to have a good time,” Peyton says. “But funerals are far more emotional. There’s far more attached to it. People’s grief manifests itself in different ways at different times. Being able to help people through that is a good thing.”
He adds, “It’s still, to me, a hospitality business. People say, ‘Oliver, why are you doing this?’ It’s about taking care of people.”
Costs for services at Exit Here run “a tiny bit above mid-market” for a traditional funeral, according to Peyton. The price point isn’t meant to be exclusionary. For services extending beyond traditional receptions, the prices run the gamut. “If you want a cheap funeral, you’re not going to come to us,” Peyton says, but “we’re definitely not out of reach.”
Peyton and his partner weren’t expecting to do any funerals before Christmas. But there’s clearly a lively market for Exit Here: About four weeks in, Peyton is already thinking ahead to opening as many as four similar establishments in the future. He says that he is fielding regular queries about franchise opportunities, something he hadn’t predicted (and isn’t considering for now). While Exit Here might look like an effort to disrupt the industry of death, there isn’t any private equity backing the venture. A service is still a service.
Peyton is willing to describe one funeral in detail: his own. It will begin with a lunch, he says. At about 3:00 p.m., when everyone’s thinking about heading home, they’ll bring out the really good wine. From there it’s DJs spinning his favorite music from different periods of his life—Patti Smith, Desmond Dekker, the Ramones—so that people will leave with a lasting memory.
The cliche is true, Peyton says. Funerals are not about the dead. They’re for the living. In its own way, Exit Here reaffirms the unique vibrant register of every life. Perhaps the memorial service is not the period at the end of the sentence, but an ellipsis. Maybe with a question mark stuck on the end.
At the very least, funerals don’t have to be so morbid.
“On a personal level, I do want a nice casket. I just do,” Peyton says. “I want something that looks cool. I can’t help that. The place I want to be buried, I know where that is, and I know how I want that to be. That’s all tickety-boo for me.”