Grief over the death of a loved one never really goes away. Even years later an unexpected memory can arise, bearing with it the pain of the original loss. It is vital then, when we say our goodbyes, that this is done in a way that fully expresses the love and the sense of sadness we feel when laying our loved-ones to rest.
This is a universal truth.
How we deal with death tells us a lot about the kind of society we live in.
First published in Kindred Spirit Nov 2014.
“There’s been a revolution,” Claire told me. “Basically the same revolution that happened around childbirth in the 70s is happening around death.”
Claire Callender is an undertaker. She’s been running The Green Funeral Company with her husband, Ru, since 2000.
They’re like a double act. They’re always finishing off each other’s sentences, carrying on with each other’s thoughts, occasionally squabbling, but always, finally, agreeing on what their purpose is.
I ask them where they would place themselves in the history of the alternative funeral movement?
“We like to think that we’re the split end of the lunatic fringe,” says Ru, with a twinkle. “The trouble is people think that alternative funerals are either about green issues or humanism…”
“…or pagan or new age,” adds Claire, “when actually it is just about participation…”
“…yeah, absolutely,” says Ru: “and I just want 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.”
Embalming is a deeply invasive process that was once a matter of course. It involves cutting a hole in the Carotid Artery, pumping out the blood and the body fluids, draining the stomach with a vacuum tube and filling the body with formaldehyde.
The resulting corpse, suitably made-up, primped and painted, hair spruced and styled, and looking like a shop-window dummy about to embark on a Mediterranean sea-cruise, was what once was presented to the grieving family for the funeral.
The process came listed as “hygienic treatment” in the itemised bill, and you got it whether you asked for it or not.
This is the measure of how much has changed. Even the itemised bill is a recent innovation. In the past all you got was the final figure.
Natural Death Centre
We can thank Nicholas Albery for much of this. It was Nicholas Albery, who, along with his wife, Josefine Speyer, founded the Natural Death Centre in 1991. Nicholas was already fairly well known as a cultural innovator and founder of such organisations as the Saturday Walker’s Club and the Institute of Social Inventions (later renamed The Global Ideas Bank). It was the unhappy coincidence of the birth of their son, Merlyn with the death of Nicholas’ father in 1988 that set them thinking about the rights and the rituals of the death industry.
The right to choose how you wanted your children to be born lay in marked contrast to the way the funeral business was managed. Secretive and inward looking, wedded to an outmoded set of cultural forms straight out of the Victorian era, the industry was, in all senses of the word, completely moribund by this time.
It was Nicholas Albery who, along with a number of others working in the field, by their persistent questioning and radical re-imagining of the possibilities, began to push the industry towards the greater choices we have today.
The second figure in the genesis of the movement to change the industry is Ken West. As a passionate environmentalist and the manager of Carlyle Cemetery, Ken was looking for something more sustainable than what was then on offer: rows of neat, numbered graves laid out in a pristine but sterile graveyard. He wanted something more natural, something more in keeping with conservation practice. What he came up with was the woodland burial, with a tree planted over the remains in place of the traditional headstone, an idea which is becoming ever more popular.
My own experience of the changing ways of death is framed by two funerals over thirty years apart. The first was my Grandfather’s funeral in the 1980s. He was a Jew, but married to a Christian. My Nan had died previously and naturally Grandpa wanted to be buried in the same grave. It was in a Christian graveyard, but, respecting his heritage, my Dad had asked for a non-denominational service.
Something must have gone wrong. Either the priest wasn’t aware of Grandpa’s background, or he felt the need to proselytise. Either way references to Jesus came up repeatedly during the service in a way that suggested that poor Grandpa was destined for an unpleasant afterlife. I could see it from the second row: my Dad’s knuckles turning white as he clenched the boards in front of him. I almost wanted to stop the service, except that this would have caused Dad even more grief and embarrassment.
Fortunately the day was saved by Grandpa’s pals in the British Legion who, coming to pay their respects to a fallen comrade regardless of his religious affiliation, played the Last Post and dipped the regimental colours as his coffin was lowered into the ground. This was a more dignified and fitting commentary upon his life than the misplaced eulogy we had been forced to sit through earlier.
The second occasion took place last year. It was my Mum’s funeral. Given the greater choice on offer, the family opted for an independent celebrant rather than a priest. It was the best decision we could have made.
The celebrant’s name was Sue Goodrum. She was serious without being solemn, dignified and supportive, and she paid attention to our needs as a family in a way which allowed us to construct a service entirely in keeping with Mum’s beliefs. Instead of hymns we listened to Nat King Cole and Cat Stevens. Instead of readings from the Bible we read our own selected texts. I wrote a eulogy and read it out and all of the members of the family were represented. It was, if you can imagine such a thing, a beautiful service.
Even thinking about it now makes me cry.
I asked Ru and Claire what the alternative funeral movement has 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.”
This is not always as simple as it sounds, however.
All of the people I spoke to made a similar point. It was put to me this way by David Spofforth, Priest of Avalon and independent celebrant specialising in pagan funerals:
“The first thing you have to consider is that in the whole pagan service, often the only person in the room who is actually a pagan is the one in the coffin.”
Or as Sue Goodrum put it: “There are different people in the family with different belief systems.”
The celebrant’s role is to create a service which will satisfy the whole family while reflecting the belief system of the one who has died. Often this involves having to negotiate complex arrangements between different parts of the family.
Meanwhile the place a funeral can take place is changing too. There are moves to take them out of the crematorium and into alternative venues such as social clubs, yurts or marquees.
I put the point to Ru and Claire.
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 and Claire are also behind a campaign, lead by members of the British Hindu community, to allow open air funeral pyres.
This may not be as exotic as it sounds.
According to Ru, in an essay in the Natural Death Handbook, this was the chosen form of death rite practiced by the people who built Stonehenge: “…it seems that part of the purpose of Britain’s most quintessential landmark… was as a ceremonial funeral complex, a temple to the dead in which, in an unmistakeable echo of the ghats at Varanasi, people of status were cremated down by the river, and from there, their ashes and bones were ritually processed up to the complex at Stonehenge, to be interred among the stones.”
Claire: “All a funeral is, is the people that loved that person to be gathering around their body for the last time and 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.”
The point, being, of course, that the forms of the ceremony are no longer fixed or being laid down by a monolithic religious establishment intent upon imposing its own restricted views upon the service.
We are free to create a funeral of our own making, one that fully expresses the love and the sense of sadness we feel when laying our loved-ones to rest.
Find Out More
- The Natural Death Handbook. Published by the Natural Death Centre, co-written and co-edited by Ru Callender and available from their website – http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/ - the Natural Death Handbook contains all the information you are likely to need to arrange an alternative funeral in the UK.
- The Good Funeral Guide by Charles Cowling. A complete guide to funerals, alternative and otherwise. Available here: http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/
- The Green Funeral Company: http://www.thegreenfuneralcompany.co.uk/
- Sue Goodrum, Independent Celebrant based in Kent: http://www.kentcelebrant.net/
- We Are Wiser Than The Angels By CJStone: http://cjstone.hubpages.com/hub/We-Are-Wiser-Than-The-Angels
For a complete transcript of the interview with Ru and Claire Callender of The Green Funeral Company go to: http://cjstone.hubpages.com/hub/Alternative-Funerals
Nicholas Albery, who died June 3 2001 in a car crash aged 52, was a prolific social inventor, writer and activist, who loved promoting his own - and other people's - brainwaves. An intellectual hippie during the 1960s, he refused to shed his irreverence, and developed a passion for lateral thinking to fill gaps in social provision and improve the quality of life.
The Institute for Social Inventions, which he founded in 1984, with Edward de Bono, Anita Roddick and Fay Weldon among its patrons, collects non-technological innovations from around the world and gives £1,000 annual awards for the best ones.
Albery and his wife Josefine Speyer, a psychotherapist, became interested in ecological approaches to death and funerals. In 1991, with Christianne Heal, they founded the Natural Death Centre, offering advice on DIY burials. The much-patronised centre provides midwives for the dying, death exercises, recyclable coffins and The New Natural Death Handbook, now in its third edition. The Befriending Network, an additional service, trains volunteers who visit the homes of critically ill people to relieve their carers.
A recent addition to Nicholas Albery's innovations is a web- site where anyone can post news of a participatory real-world event. It is available on www.DoBe.org. The Institute for Social Inventions is open for ideas on www.globalideasbank.org
© 2015 Christopher James Stone