Creation from the wreckage

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

May 26, 2021

And so after 21 years as my business partner, and 17 years as my wife, Claire has left The Green Funeral Company for new pastures. I wish her well in whatever she chooses, though there is a possibility it will still be as a funeral industry upsetter, but in a different area.

We created the company together back in the last century, from an idea that arrived to me fully formed after years of early bereavement and inappropriate funerals, and Claire created the solid business base around this idea, without which we wouldn’t have lasted anymore than a couple of years. At the time there was nothing like it, and to be frank although it sounds boastful, despite a second wave of alternative funeral directors inspired by our work, there still isn’t.

Unlike me at that time, Claire had little if no experience of personal bereavement, but she totally got that the social currents that had formed both our personalities, the youth counter cultures of hippies, punks and ravers could be applied to funerals to shake them up, to create a more involved and appropriate experience for anyone going through the strange hallucinatory time out of time that is early grief. She also brought the same curiosity I had for people’s lives that is the essential driver for this work, and a gut instinct about the hidden working of a family dynamic that was to prove so extraordinary in figuring out what a family really need, rather than what they think they want. In many ways we didn’t make it easier for ourselves. This model, of trying to really connect with each family in a meaningful way is emotionally draining. The rewards are huge, for the family and for us, -some of my best friends have come from funerals- but immersing yourself in the sadness that goes with each death is gruelling, and both of us have come very close to burn out at times, but getting that close to the fire of other’s loss is the only way I can create a realistic portrait of the person who has died. It is one of our hallmarks, this conjuring up of the essence of the newly dead like a spirit hologram, showing them as they were known to their family in all glory and faults. When it works, it borders on the shamanic, raising up a recognisable personality that is honestly flawed and deeply sympathetic at the same time. A gift to be fully seen again, one last time. It is physically gruelling as well.

Feel my hands and they feel like the hands of an office worker, but work a day with me and see that a good part of the work is deeply physical. I do the lifting and moving of every body, dress each one, put them in their coffin. It’s not just my heart that hurts, it’s my back too.

We do funerals across Devon and Cornwall, not just Totnes, and always have done, and the families who use us are not just empowered middle class hippies who are no stranger to ritual. Our most satisfying funerals have been with working class families who had no idea what they were going to create out of the mangled wreckage of their grief when they first contacted us. Liberation from tradition and the creative freedom that follows is for everyone. We all die, but we do not have to be part of a machine which guides us blindly down paths which are increasingly irrelevant to us. Etiquette and tradition can be the enemies of resolution. Grief settles easier when you have laid it down yourself with your own hands and heart.

I am joined by Claire Burton, a former Occupational Therapist and former business owner of Hestia Care, an award winning company from Totnes which aimed to bring the same fresh approach to the work of looking after the vulnerable elderly at home that we brought to the closed world of funerals. Her natural empathy and cheery insightful, unflappable nature means she is the perfect new work colleague, and though she has just been with me since April, she has already gone through some initiatory events which reveal the seriousness of what we do, the sorrow and the risks as well as the rewards.

And so we remain, based in Dartington but covering Devon and Cornwall, offering what we have always offered; ourselves, and the invitation for you to join us in this universal but incredibly personal experience: dealing with the dead for the sake of the living.