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These Radical Undertakers Want Funerals to Be More Honest and Participatory

Claire and Rupert Callender are breaking all kinds of taboos by asking funeral attendees to carry the coffin, talk about the manner of death, and reflect on their loved ones openly and honestly.

Rupert and Claire Callender

Claire and Rupert Callender have always done things a little differently. The pair made their foray into the funeral business in 2000 when they launched the Green Funeral Company in the United Kingdom, which was designed "to offer an ecological alternative to traditional funerals." Since then, the company has evolved to include much more than just ecological concerns. The Callenders want funerals to be honest, meaningful, full-participation affairs—an approach they call "radical undertaking."

I was curious about what "radical undertaking" might entail, so I spoke to the couple via Skype about the way their approach differs from more "traditional" funeral services, how they get people to become active participants in burials, and their fight to bring back funeral pyres.

VICE: You've referred to yourselves as self-taught radical undertakers. I get the self-taught part, but what do you mean by "radical"?
Rupert Callender: In the UK, you don't need a license to become a funeral director. There's two of us—we have now taken on someone else [for administrative work], but it's basically just us. So not the conventional model of having a big shiny hearse and a load of vehicles and a load of people, some of whose job it will be to answer the phone and some whose job it will be to go and collect the body, someone whose job will be to dress up in the pomp and all of that. We do all of that, including taking the ceremony for the person who's died if they are non-religious, which in this country is most of us.

Claire Callender: We don't even have a hearse. We have a 20-year-old Volvo. We don't have six creepy blokes carrying your mum to her grave. We get you and your friends and your brothers and sisters to carry her and lower her into her grave. That's radical in this country—weirdly.

To the extent that such a thing applies, what would a "typical" service look like with you?
Claire: They are all kind of different, but they all have a similar framework. Basically, a good funeral for me is you've got the person who's died in their coffin and then standing around them for one last time you've got people what that person meant something to. The family that loves them, their friends, whatever. And we are all standing, encircling their body for one last time on this earth, talking about them with honesty. So Rupert might open it and stand up and talk. If poetry means something to them, then somebody might say some poetry. We've done funerals near rivers, on beaches, in woods, in football clubs, in rugby clubs, in pubs, in village halls, in sitting rooms, in people's gardens. We do them all over the place.

Rupert: We buried a homeless guy who died in our streets here in a very public funeral in the middle of town, carried him up the high street.

Claire: Where 100 people from the town turned up. He froze to death on the streets in our little town. We have a high street that goes up a hill, and the town carried him up with different people taking over at different times, and then we go and lower them into their grave.

"If you get it wrong at a funeral, the consequences are enormous. So we're kind of treading a tightrope."

Would it be fair to say that you're encouraging people to be more than attendees at funerals, and to be participants?
Rupert: We do try to get people involved, you're absolutely right. The worst-case scenario is you are just an audience watching this thing unfold in front of you. And then some people also find it excruciating if you're going to make them do something out of their cultural norm. Like if you're an 80-year-old Catholic woman you don't want to stand with a talking stick and share your heart.

Claire: So we don't make them.

Rupert: What we do is we involve them by making them listen, right from the start. Too often you go to a funeral and whoever takes the service kind of stands up and [says] just a few words. The family afterwards asks you all to come back here and it's like housekeeping. So we don't do that here. We go in really quite hard and talk about first death and what that means. Then we talk about how the person died because that is often so absent from ceremonies.

Claire: The manner of death. Starting with their actual dying.

Rupert: And then we start to talk about the reality of who this person was and and so even if you're not actually physically participating in what you're doing, we've got your attention. You are like, Oh my God, someone is describing their last moments. We're describing their horrendous last six months or that blissful death or talking about their alcoholism or their tendencies to do this and that. And that that is a way of getting people to participate because you just bring them into the present. They're really there.

You also ask people to participate physically, right?
Rupert: The coffins we use have six load-bearing handles, so everyone can use it. We've had 90-year-old grannies and nine-year-old great-great-granddaughters carrying coffins.

Claire: That's a really useful device for getting people out there [participating], because you can be absent easily in this kind of situation. It gets them out of their heads and into their body by doing a heavy physical act. Brings you into the present and into the moment. Sometimes you have to carry them up a hill [with] some burial grounds. It's quite hard work.

Do you ever worry about people not being emotionally prepared to participate to such an extent?
Rupert: You know, it's very edgy work there because you're dealing with people who are very vulnerable. If you get it wrong at a funeral, the consequences are enormous. So every time we take this path we're treading a real tightrope. The ideal experience we want to give the family is we want to show them that they have shown us an aspect of their relationship with the dead person that they didn't realize they've shown us. That's why we slow it down. We feel into it and it might be five days down the line where they suddenly kind of mention that there was an alcoholic father or grandfather and you just go, "OK, now I'm starting to get a flavor of who this person is," and then we bring it. And everyone is a little bit astonished. They're so used to going to these these funerals where the person who's died is just this amazing character. When you bring up what they're really like, there's a release of tension in the room and there's a possibility for healing.

It sounds like you get pretty emotionally involved with each burial as well.
Rupert: We do. I hate to say, "We go on a journey with the family," but we do kind of accompany them. We do get very involved with them to the point where a lot of our best friends are now people we met through burying their dad or their mum. And we process it differently. So we cry a lot, we dance a lot. We kind of consciously do rituals to move it through.

I understand you are trying to bring back funeral pyres?
Rupert: We are involved in a campaign to try and re-legalize outdoor pyres, because that's how cremation started in this country. There was a guy [fighting for it] called Dr. [William] Price—a Welsh druid in the late 1800s. When it was legalized and he died, his cremation was on the top of a hill in front of 20,000 people. This incredibly theatrical event which is now being reduced to this incredibly undemonstrative, untheatrical, unmoving, bureaucratic process completely divorced from the fire.

In the UK, I'm guessing there are laws against similar burial practices today?
Rupert: It has gone to the High Court. And the word is that if you did a one-off funeral pyre in one place and it's for family, and you've done the right paperwork for cremation, it's unlikely you'd get prosecuted. It's more if you started to do another one in the same place then technically that would become a crematorium. There's all sorts of opposition to it, largely from the funeral establishment and the people who run crematoriums who make a hell of a lot of money out of it. I mean, the cost of the fuel to burn someone is twopence, and they charge not far off $1,500 for that 20-minute service. The returns are huge, so the crematorium establishment and the funeral establishment have a stake in not letting funeral pyres happen.

What is the biggest misconception about your profession?
Claire: People think it's depressing being an undertaker, and I just want to say it's the exact opposite. It's just the best job because you make really great connections with people. We come into their lives really intensely for two to three weeks and there's no bullshit. Bullshit is the first casualty of death and it's gone, it's out of the room and I love that. The faith that it gives you in your fellow humans is amazing. And that every single one of us—really normal, everyday people—you know when the worst thing happens, when your teenage kid leaves and doesn't come back, every single one of us has this amazing core of strength and light that we can draw on that you know that gets us through this and it's amazing to be around that. And people are great. You see your community at it's best when someone dies and everyone's there leaving a casserole on the doorstep, they're doing the shopping, they're bringing cakes. You see the community rise up and and support his family. So being around that day to day is very life affirming.

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