The fundamental truth about death

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Green Funeral Company’s Claire and Rupert Callender believe funerals should be more fundamental about the loss of a loved one. Ru reveals how he made it their business to bring a more fundamental truth to proceedings.

It was anger and unresolved grief which led me to my vocation as an undertaker, and righteous fervour which ensured that I actually became one.

My anger was not just at the funeral industry and the church, although both of these institutions had played a part in the mismanagement of my own bereavement, but towards us all, to a society which had allowed meaningless platitudes and soothing euphemisms to replace the truth about our fragile mortality, and was crushing the opportunity for growth that these fundamental truths offered.

And so my professional life began from the starting point of knowing exactly what not to do; numbly sleepwalk through a series of proscribed steps which were largely about not upsetting other people, not letting the panicky contagion of grief out into the wider world.

And this is what post war post belief funerals had become, an exercise in keeping up appearances, going through some ritual motions that were no longer applicable, both aesthetically and spiritually.

They had moved from their original function as a pledge from one member of the community to another to ‘undertake’ to deal with the dead for the sake of the living, to an exercise in upselling. Flowers, coffins, fancy cars, outdated public displays of private anguish without the comfort of the authority of a trusted and believed in priest.

This is all of our faults, and none of our faults. Two world wars in quick succession had industrialised death and delivered a heavy blow to our religious certainties. Things became practical, with no time or space for the prolonged ritualised grieving that the Victorians knew was the best way to approach loss.

So we started by stripping it all back. This took time and courage to implement. People still expected a secular funeral to mirror a religious one: three songs, some poetry to replace the bible readings, perhaps even some prayers, so we started by removing the more obvious things: the fancy hearse, expensive to run and out of place anywhere but a church or crematorium; the suited bearers, retired men of a similar height who would shoulder the coffin; a weirdly ornate coffin; itself hardly ever in keeping with the style and taste of the families, and replaced it all Just us and a Volvo and a coffin that was practical and environmentally friendly.

This meant that between us we needed to carry and lower the coffin, and this participation became the foundation on which our whole philosophy was built. Once you have shared out the practical responsibilities, that sense of honest transparency starts to develop until it inevitably becomes part of what you actually say and do.

There is no need to pretend that the dead person was a saint, human lives are complicated and messy. There is no need to talk of a better life waiting for us after this one; there might be but none of us know.

There is no need to alter our language with 19th century ideas of ‘passing over’ or ‘falling asleep’, they are fooling no one and worse, confusing and frightening children.

Once you have rid yourselves of these things that comforted us when we believed them then we can get back to some fundamental truths of our lives; bad things happen to good people for no reason, love and the early lack of it shapes and forms our interactions with everyone we meet, most people are filled with courage and compassion. Being parted from those we love by death is both unbelievably painful and incomprehensibly universal. These are the truths we all hold to be true, and they do not need to be varnished or gilded. They are beautiful.

This will pass.