A Life Inspired by Death
Death has played a big part in Rupert Callender’s life since he was a young child. Born to older parents, Rupert’s father died at the age of seven. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. Rupert spent much of his childhood in the hospice where his mum worked and he saw death at first hand. However, it wasn’t until his late 20s that the subject of death really took hold of his life.
“I switched on the TV and Janet Street Porter was on, doing a programme about rambling around Britain. She was talking to Nicholas Albery, the founder of the Natural Death Centre, about green funerals. I was absolutely blown away. It made me want to be an undertaker right there and then.”
A sense of purpose
Up until that point, Rupert had done very little with his life, describing it as “an alcohol-numbed existence in Cornwall” and experiencing “a low level nervous breakdown. It was a delayed response to the death of my father, for which I wasn’t able to grieve properly at the time.”
From the moment he saw Nicholas speaking, however, Rupert was inspired to lead a different kind of life. “The next day, I picked up the phone and rang Nicholas Albery,” says Rupert. “We talked for about half an hour and he sent me a copy of The Natural Death Handbook. I went into the pub that night and announced that I was an undertaker.”
What was it that led to Rupert’s epiphany moment on the subject of death? “I realised that all the grief that I had been feeling, grief that I had not dealt with properly at the time, I could help other people to avoid that. Instinctively, I understood what to do and what not to do.”
Rupert read The Natural Death Handbook from cover to cover, which explained the “how to….” of being an undertaker. He also bought a copy of Maria De Hennezzel’s amazing book Intimate Death, which is a personal account of her time working in a hospice. “It is an incredibly uplifting book,” says Rupert.
He adds: “I didn’t have to do any training or take any qualifications. Anyone can set up as an undertaker if they have the courage and the knowse. The reason for this is that a family need not use an undertaker if they don’t want to. In a very real sense, the family themselves are the funeral director. To over-regulate the industry would cut families off from this opportunity, creating a system like in the US, where the family are obliged to use a licensed funeral director, which costs a minimum of $1,000.”
Rupert certainly did not lack courage or knowse when he set out to become an undertaker. He arranged with a woman in Somerset, Barbara Butler, who was a pioneer of family-centred funerals, to go and see a dead body. “I wondered if I might faint,” he admits, “but it was absolutely fine, very peaceful.”
Trusting to instinct
With the zeal of someone who has found his calling, Rupert contacted the local media to talk about natural funerals. “I did a piece on Radio Cornwall that went out at 6am. By 6.30am, I had received a call from someone who ran a natural burial site asking if I could come and take a ceremony. My career took off from there. I had had no formal training of any kind, I just trusted to instinct.”
That was in 1999. At the time, Claire was a friend. “We had known each other for years. She was intrigued by what I was doing and, in 2000, came and helped me with a couple of funerals. We had both split up from our partners by then. I remember, one day, a lady asking us if we were a couple. We laughed and said “no”. The lady said “I wouldn’t be so sure…” After that, it didn’t take long before we realised that we were in love.” The couple married a few years later and have continued working together since 2000.
“Claire has an extraordinary ability to comfort people who are grieving. Like me, she has had no formal training, it is just an instinctive thing.”
Funeral Director of the Year 2012
In the Good Funeral Guide Awards 2012, The Green Funeral Company was named as Funeral Director of the Year, alongside fellow Totnes undertakers Green Fuse. So, what is it that the couple does that is so different from conventional undertakers?
“Conventional undertakers take over, they wear suits, they assume a mournful expression, they follow a rigid formula. We’ve dispensed with all of that. We aim to form a relationship with the family, to slow everything down, to ask people what they really want to do.”
The Green Funeral Company has no expensive hearse to transport the coffins. “A new hearse is £90,000. We couldn’t afford it. If we need a hearse, we hire one. Otherwise, we put the seats down in our Volvo and transport the coffin in that. When we are not using it for funerals, it doubles as our family car.”
This characterises Rupert and Claire’s down-to-earth, easygoing approach to death. Even their offices are unconventional. On the day I visited, it was a scorching hot Summer’s day. The office is located in a converted stable block on the beautiful Dartington estate. The double doors of the office were thrown wide, allowing the sun and smells of Summer to flood in. The couple’s amiable dog, Carter wandered about and we sat on squashy sofas in a room reminiscent of a comfortable bedsit, complete with woodburning stove. Rupert explained that, sometimes, family members stay here on the night before the funeral to be close to their loved ones, who lie in a room at the back. It all seemed so normal, so lacking in drama.
This ability to normalise death is one of Rupert and Claire’s core strengths. “It’s not about the cars, the flowers, the coffin, it is about involving the family and creating a ceremony that is fitting for the person who has died.”
Involving family and friends
Rupert believes that, by involving family and friends in the ceremony, it helps them to deal with their grief better. “Traditional coffins have plastic handles that just pull off. All of ours have proper handles that you can use. That means that family and friends can help to carry the coffin. It makes for a, potentially, more fraught experience as we have to explain what to do to grieving, shocked people. But, it changes the funeral from a performance into something authentic and real. People like that.”
Rupert and Claire have also torn up the rulebook on how to handle people who are grieving. “It used to be that doctors in Britain were taught how to deliver bad news to people in a way that meant they would not become emotionally involved – standing apart from them and slightly above them; it became known as The English Position. I don’t know if they are still taught this. We are the complete opposite. We dive in and experience the raw emotions with people. Claire cries at every funeral we do and I cry at most of them. Some of our best friends are people for whom we’ve delivered funerals.”
One imagines that it would be easy for the couple to burn out with this level of emotional intensity at work. “It helps that we are married,” says Rupert. “It might be difficult, otherwise, to try and explain what had happened that day at work. And, we love to dance. It gives us a joyful outlet that helps us to shrug off painful emotions. You let it in and then you let it out and it’s OK. We can do an intensely emotional funeral for a family and, within half an hour, we can be arguing about towels. We have a very healthy balance.”
Rupert explains the amazing rewards of working with people in the grip of raw emotion: “When someone dies, people are at their best, even though it is one of the worst experience of their lives. People show themselves to be brave and full of love. They have a core of strength that is incredible to be around. The “Facebook” world that we all live in is stripped away and you see people for who they really are. It is incredibly liberating to be in the moment and it makes you optimistic about people in general.”
Sharpham Natural Burial Site
Rupert and Claire moved back to Totnes, Claire’s home town, five years ago. The couple’s latest venture is to create a Natural Burial Site, in conjunction with The Sharpham Estate just outside Totnes. “We have been trying to do something like this for nearly 14 years. The location for the site is stunningly beautiful, with a view over the river and sea. We will have a simple shelter up there for ceremonies and a fire pit with a design around it based on a crop circle. It will be an amazing location for funerals.”
A community funeral
Over the last 14 years, The Green Funeral Company, as Rupert and Claire christened their business, has performed many moving and memorable funerals. When a homeless man, Michael Getting, died on the streets of Totnes in 2013, the company organised a community funeral, with local people being invited to carry Michael’s cardboard coffin up the high street to the civic square to hear a eulogy delivered by Rupert. More than 80 people helped to carry the coffin, including other homeless people, and the funeral was attended by around 200 local people.
At another funeral, Rupert described how a woman’s young son sat at the graveside and read the final chapter of a book he had been reading to his mother in hospital before she died. It is the poignant, personal touches like these that make for a truly memorable occasion and one that will be treasured for the family in the years ahead.
Room to speak the truth
“The best funerals turn into conversations about the person who has died,” explains Rupert. “When we first started out, there was more of a tendency to follow a formula, but now our funerals are much more stripped back. This leaves room for people to speak to truth about the person who has died. We’ve come to understand that this is the best way to allow people to say goodbye to the person they have lost. We encourage people to visit the body of their loved one as many times as they need to. We don’t embalm the body, we prefer to leave it in its natural state. When you see death, and how peaceful people look when they have died, it takes away some of the raw pain of grief and allows the people left behind to begin to move on.”
© Uplifting Stories