Alternative Funerals: an interview with Rupert and Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company
CJ: Where in the history of the alternative funerals movement do you think you come?
Ru: We like to think that we’re the split end of the lunatic fringe, but that might be a little bit childish. The trouble is people think that alternative funerals are either about green issues or humanism…
Claire: …or pagan or new age, when actually it is just about participation.
Ru: Yeah. Absolutely, and I just wanted to point out to people that although we’re called The Green Funeral Company, for us “Green” is a hook, and while we do follow green principles throughout – so we don’t use chemicals, we definitely don’t embalm, and our coffins aren’t filled with horrible plastics – we feel really that it’s an approach which is way beyond the use of chemicals. Our refusal to embalm is quite controversial, amongst the wider community.
Claire: Embalming is a deeply unpleasant, invasive process that involves cutting a hole in the Carotid Artery and then pumping out all the blood and the body fluids and hoovering out the stomach with a big pointy Hoover-stick and filling it with formaldehyde.
Ru: Not all funeral directors do it, but they certainly used to.
Claire: Up until recently it was absolutely a matter of course. It came out on your bill listed as “hygienic treatment.” There’s no need for it. We have refrigeration. The point is just to preserve the body but there is absolutely no need for it now. We just have a room, chilled down, with some beds in it. What we do is wash and dress the body, which the family are very welcome to do with us, and we keep the body cool.
Ru: We encourage as much visiting to the body as possible, probably more so than a conventional undertaker. A conventional undertaker thinks it’s very irresponsible to show a body naturally decaying. We don’t use makeup, we don’t fuss over hair, we try to keep it as real as possible and quite often quite recently there’s been lots of our clients, where the body has been in some advanced decay, certainly starting to look very, very dead.
Claire: They all look dead, but starting to decompose. A recent client, her husband died four or five weeks ago: she has been coming to see him twice a week and spending time with him, and he’s looking really….
CJ: Don’t you think this is a problem? In Islam they get buried within two days. Don’t you think it’s a problem that you’ve got bodies hanging round for four weeks even?
Ru: Hygienic wise there’s absolutely no reason….
CJ: Why would they be hanging round for four weeks anyway? What’s the point of that?
Ru: This is an exception anyway.
Claire: Usually it’s about 2-3 weeks.
Ru: We believe that psychologically the more time you can spend with them, the better. I think that burying somebody within 24 hours is a psychological disaster.
Claire: When someone in their 20s, 30s or 40s dies, they know hundreds of people. So sometimes we do it where we just open up our premises, we put the body in the little Chapel of Rest – can’t think of another name for that – then we’ve got a bigger room with sofas and a woodburner and stuff and we just say, “OK, you take over this for a whole day and a night.” So a couple of hundred people can come in and spend time with the body. People bring food and music and flowers and more and more stuff gets put in there and it turns into a beautiful, temporary shrine.
Ru: And there’s also this thing, where somebody dies, I’m sure you felt it with your Mum when she died, there’s a part of you that knows it’s coming but when it happens you’re still absolutely gobsmacked. And coming to see their bodies time and time again is a really good way of aligning the part of you that knows it on an intellectual level, and the part of you that’s refusing to accept it on an emotional level. And so you come and see a body that changes slightly and usually by about three or four visits you’re like, “OK, they really have died, it’s time for the next stage.” It’s all part of the letting go process. Conventional funeral directors think it’s hugely irresponsible and like to present the person that’s just died looking like they’ve just gone on holiday. I think it’s a bit psychologically jarring.
CJ: So you’re decidedly on the very far-left of this movement then aren’t you? Even in terms of the alternative celebrant that we had for our Mum’s death, it still went through a conventional funeral director. I don’t know what they did with her, but once we’d had time with the body on the one night, which we spent with her on the night she died, we didn’t see her again, and we just buried her several weeks later, and then we had 20 minutes in the crematorium, and the only alternative part of the process was the fact that the celebrant didn’t bring in any religion into the funeral.
Claire: Increasingly the actual funeral ceremonies we are doing are taking hours and hours. Like the one we did on Friday: it took two or three hours around the coffin and then the coffin went into the grave and then the family went back and had a fire and they stayed way up into the night around the fire, so it can take hours now, which I think is much better.
Ru: I think it’s fair to say that, yes, we would consider ourselves on the far left even down to the way we eulogise the person. An awful lot of celebrants will just want to be a voice piece for the family, which is fair enough. So they get a lot of information from people who knew and loved them and then they rewrite your words and present them at the service. We do it differently. We tend not to show the family what we’re going to say because we want it to be as much for them as it is for anybody else. And we try to bring more of the shadow of the person. It is risky, there’s no doubt about it. And we’re partly helped with this because we also have the body. We get a lot more information organically from the family about what really has gone on.
Claire: We spend loads of time with them. We collect the body when someone’s died, and then spend time with the family and just sitting around chatting with them, meeting their friends, figuring out where they are in relation to the family and friends, their community, you learn so much about them just by accident.
Ru: We do go a bit further out on a limb than most people. In some ways it’s very obvious what is the right thing to say, it’s just having the nerve to say it. We bring in faults of people. We talk about the way they died as well. That is quite often absent from a lot of funeral services. So we talk about the way the person died because more often than not that is something that is hanging in the air, and once we’ve spoken it then it frees the family up to talk about happier times and to go back over their lives. The way we do eulogies is we kind of start proceedings and set the tone, and talk about life and death in general. And, yeah, we go a little further out.
CJ: How much are you involved in the natural death movement? Are you on the committee?
Ru: I was on the committee for about five years. The guy who started the natural death movement, Nicholas Albery, I saw him on the telly and that was it: I decided to be an undertaker. I bought the book and read it and years later they asked me to be a trustee so I rewrote the book. That is the current book.
Claire: That’s the fifth edition. We read the third one.
CJ: You mentioned Ken West and the Woodland burial movement in the book.
Ru: Yeah, absolutely. Ken ran Carlyle cemetery and is still very prominent in the world. Ken was coming from a council position and is a very strong environmentalist, whereas Nicholas is coming from a social position.
CJ: The question is, I’m writing for Kindred Spirit magazine, it’s what people need to search for regardless of their views. As I understand it, the celebrant movement attempts to take in people’s beliefs, although when I was talking to Sue Goodrum, the celebrant at our Mum's funeral, she said that you may have a variety of different views.
Claire: And all their needs have to be met. You’ve got three generations of the family there, if you’re lucky, and really diverse belief systems and views and emotional needs and they’ve all got to be OK. That’s the balancing act. And by the time someone’s died there’s quite often two factions of the family who aren’t even talking, that isn’t unusual, so it often involves negotiations between different sides of the family, and there’s bitter divorces and there’s children and people can get really angry and sometimes you have to get really stern with them and go “you know there is an 11 year old boy here.” There’s a lot going on.
Ru: The funeral we did on Friday: the woman was 52, a professor, she was Jewish but progressive reformed Jewish; so I was the celebrant, but they sung the caddish, there were Jewish prayers, there were all sorts of secular elements and the way we do it, we kind of bind the bit that everyone can agree on. There are some fundamental truths, whether you are a Christian, or New Age, or a Buddhist: there are certain things you can agree on, and that generally is about the worth of a human life, the centrality of love and how death can bring everything else in life sharply into focus. That’s the way we do it. We kind of strip it back. There are other alternative celebrants, funeral directors who do a mishmash which can get a bit overcrowded if you know what I mean. You can have lots of elements from different religions in a ceremony but it can all become a bit jarring. That’s one of the reasons we’re such big fans of the idea of a funeral pyre. If you’re going to do that, you don’t need to do much else. You just need to gather everyone around it and light it. And the law is looking increasingly in the favour of people who want to do that.
CJ: You’re campaigners for that idea?
Claire: We’re behind the campaign, yes. All a funeral is, is the people that loved that person to be gathering around their body for the last time and just talking about what they meant to them, how they changed their lives, just talking about them with honesty and love, and if you’ve got that it doesn’t really matter what else there is, if you’ve just got those central things then it works and it’s incredibly powerful. We don’t have bearers. We don’t have these four creepy blokes dressed in black with their mournful expressions. We get the family and friends to carry the body. If you do nothing but carry the coffin of your Dad and then lower him into his grave, that’s a profoundly powerful thing to do. It’s the last thing that anybody can do for that person on this Earth.
Ru: The thing is, when somebody dies, you’ve got a captive audience. And if you start off, if you start a sermon straight away by being honest and talking about things which nobody can disagree with and dispute…. we tread very carefully when talking about an afterlife. I might send you the eulogy I did on Friday, which talks about transcendence, but doesn’t specifically go into the idea of a Christian afterlife. If you talk in this way, which is extremely honest, people are listening and you’ve got them. And once you’ve got them you can get quite complicated ideas, then you can almost start to sermonise. In some ways, what happened when Christian religion started to need to be changed and the humanists came along, the ceremony started to be entirely focussed on the person who’d died, and we think that if it’s entirely focussed on the person who died then there’s a missed opportunity because, in some ways, people only really pay attention if it’s about themselves. So that’s where Ministers in Christianity had it so good. They could talk to people about their lives and what death meant to them and how they should live their lives. So we do quite a bit of undercover sermonising, but without, hopefully, any kind of judgement or morality or afterlife. Death has so much to teach us it’s a shame not to run with it when people are actually standing around somebody who’s died.
CJ: It’s funny because going through it today, reading the stuff, it’s had me back in my emotional state, thinking about my Mum.
Ru: I have to say, I’ve got your Mum’s order of service on our family altar at the moment. And the reason I’m doing this, I didn’t do any of this for my parents. I fluffed every one of their funerals, so it gets me in an emotional state every time we do it. This is so early for you. Was it a year ago?
CJ: It’s a bit more than a year. It’s about a year and half ago now. After she died we spent the whole evening with the body, the family, and sat with her and drank a load of whiskey and chatted, with the body in amongst us. That was me: I insisted on that. It was the right move.
Claire: For you and the people who were there that was almost the most powerful thing. That’s the bit that you’re going to take with you. When you get to the funeral almost all of the work has been done. You and your family sitting round your Mum, drinking whiskey and thinking, that’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
Ru: That’s what the natural death movement is about.
Claire: It’s empowering people to do stuff like that and making it OK.
Ru: If someone dies in a Nursing Home, they’ll ring us up at 2 in the morning and they want them gone as quickly as possible. We encourage people to stay at home for as long as possible really. Because, as Claire says, that’s where it all happens. The funeral is just the finale to the process of dying and the beginning of grieving.
CJ: So what has the natural death movement got to offer Kindred Spirit readers?
Ru: I think what it has to offer them is the whole idea of not allowing it to be hijacked by an industry…
Claire: So they’re not turning up to a funeral and just being an audience. What it has to offer them is empowering them to create the ceremony themselves. The ceremony that they want. For them to participate in it, for it to be their ceremony and not somebody else’s.
CJ: Are these the two central character then, Ken West and Nicholas Albery?
Ru: I reckon so. They are the twin architects. There’s a guy called John Bradfield who’s the first person to work out that you didn’t have to be legally buried in a churchyard. That is a massive, massive thing. But the Natural Death Centre has been the driving force for years behind this idea. It’s thanks to them that funeral directors have to send you itemised bills. Before that they could just send a final figure and you had no idea of what it was for. So, yeah, Nicholas Albery and Ken West.
Claire: There’s been a revolution. Basically the same revolution that happened around childbirth in the early 70s is happening around death. The natural death movement is just empowering people to take control, the way people take control over the way they give birth. Taking control of the way we deal with out dead.
Ru: We do a lot of young deaths. We do a lot of drug misadventures and we do a lot of car accidents and we do a lot of people who have killed themselves. We probably do about 4 or 5 people a year who’ve killed themselves. The way I’ve described it is a combination of ghost writing, and almost a little bit of channelling and a little bit of sermonising. It is uncanny the way I can pick up on how they really are. Spending a lot of time with the family and the body, that’s the crucial bit. You can spend some time with the family, you can be with them, and then 5 or 6 days later they suddenly mention something that just hasn’t come up, it suddenly sheds a huge amount of light on their relationships. We get to hold some extraordinary secrets. We form very intense emotional relationships with people.
CJ: Isn’t this very difficult?
Ru: It’s incredibly uplifting. You've got to be very interested in people.
Claire: The thing is, what you find out is that everyone, just the most normal people, all of us have this incredible core of strength and life which you can call on when you need to, absolutely when your worst nightmare has happened, when you child, your teenager has gone out for a weekend and hasn’t come back. Everybody’s worst nightmare. And we can do it, we can deal with it. And our communities. That’s when the community rises up. That’s when people bring round casseroles and cakes and do the shopping and they’re just there for them, and it’s just incredible to be around that, to be a part of it.
CJ: What about the future then?
Claire: People taking control. People not handing over their power to these men in suits who just school them in the etiquette of grieving so as to not upset anybody else. I see grief rituals getting longer, people being more involved in every aspect of it. Just being part of it instead of just turning up and being an audience.
CJ: Sue Goodrum was talking about taking the funeral out of the crematoriums. Putting the body in a social clubs, places like that.
Claire: We do them in football clubs, in village halls, in sitting rooms…
Ru: ….down by rivers, in fields, on beaches…
Claire: …in woods.
Ru: This is one of the reasons we’re so behind outdoor funeral pyres. Crematoriums are so not serving anyone. And even the new-build ones: there’s one just down the road from us. It was a couple of years ago. God knows how much they spent. It still looks like a Humanities block from a 70s Comprehensive. They’re all prize winning architects. They’re just bloody awful. We like to see one cremation a day in a crematorium, and redesigning them completely so that you can stay there and have an entire experience around it, instead of this in and out….
CJ: Like a production line, almost literally because the body is on a conveyor belt.
Claire: We’ve got quite a big sannyasin community nearby, followers of Osho. They keep the body at home. They’ll have the body at home for 3 or 4 days and they’ll have a lot of people coming in and meditating by the body, and they need to see the body actually go in to the cremator, go into the flames, so we do that, which freaks out the people at the crematorium, but they let them do it. The other thing that people need to know is that somebody can be buried anywhere with the landowners permission. All you have to do ensure they are so many metres away from a water source. You don’t have to do anything, you just do it. It’s just a case of informing the registrar where it’s been buried. You don’t have to ask anybody’s permission except from the landowner. You don’t have to ask any officialdom whatsoever.
Ru: If you start asking permission you run up against some under-informed officious little twerp who is horrified with the idea.
Claire: So we do loads of own land burials.
Ru: We manage an incredible burial site for Sharpen Trust which has a central fire pit, with views down river and Dartmoor.
© 2014 Christopher James Stone