There but for the grace...

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Green Funeral Company’s Claire and Rupert Callender offer an ecological alternative to traditional funerals, and here Ru recalls the community funeral they held for a homeless man whose life and death were on the streets.

It has been nearly eight years since we buried Michael Gething. Michael was a homeless man, a Plymouthian who lived on the streets of Totnes. He died outside the Methodist church, after a bitter hailstorm.

We decided to help Michael’s family, partly because we knew Michael a little, he was a distinctive character that we met, in a terrible piece of irony, actually inside the church he died in front of, but also because we were shocked to learn that Michael was possibly the third homeless person to die in Totnes that year. We had heard nothing.

If Michael hadn’t died in such a public space, we probably wouldn’t have heard about him either. We didn’t want him to just disappear from the consciousness of the town, so we decided to make his funeral as public as we could.

The difference between Michael and the rest of us is luck. His problems, issues with drink, self esteem, depression, a mild gambling habit are shared by a good deal of people I know, only they are safe under their roofs in the warmth of their family, people with jobs and security and love. We wanted to show that Michael wasn’t where he was through fault, or moral failing, but through a fall of the dice, and there but for the grace.

So we put the word out that we would be carrying his coffin up the hill that is our high street, and that all would be welcome. On the
morning of his funeral when we arrived, there were only film crews and journalists waiting. My heart sunk. I did a few pieces to camera, talked into microphones, but when I turned around, there were two hundred people gathered.

Over eighty people took it in turns to bear him up the hill. Off duty policemen, teenagers, the homeless, worried parents who saw their children’s future, grandmothers, some of the most fragile people in our town were there, looking more present than I had ever seen them. All for Michael. I have never been prouder of the town we live in.

Let’s raise our vision and look our homeless brothers and sisters in the eyes. Giving them money is controversial, but giving them the respect and dignity of really seeing them, of witnessing them as fellow citizens, well, we can all afford that.

This will pass.