These Radical Undertakers Want Funerals to Be More Honest and Participatory
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 Companyin 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.”