Published later this month by Chelsea Green, Rupert Callender’s ‘What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking’ is our Book of the Month for September. Salena Godden reviews, finding a great work of craft and beauty, humanity, heart and soul, which is both deeply loving and revolutionary in spirit.
Don’t ever be afraid, of anything, ever, because you are already dead. This moment, here, now, this is the moment between the click and the bang…
Cosmic Trigger, Liverpool, November 2014. I remember it was a heroic weekend, a wild energy and a spirited gathering, brilliant art, big conversations and a momentous performance of the brilliant Cosmic Trigger Play by Daisy Campbell. I was there because I was invited to leap out of a golden apple at the command of Eris, the Goddess of chaos, and perform my poem ‘I Want Love’, and when I came off stage I was told I had pulled my Cosmic Trigger. I had surely pulled something that weekend, everything hurt from dancing and laughing, my cheeks ached from grinning. It was a Discordian revelry. Now looking back as I read about this particular weekend in Callender’s book, I am realising that this must have been the first time I saw Claire Phillips and Ru Callender, The Green Funeral undertakers, recite these words in the opening ceremony ritual. I seem to remember they were dressed in black, charcoal, the skull on the altar, the grey incense smoke curling in the air, the dignified stillness, maybe this was the first time I heard those bold words: Don’t be afraid…you are already dead
What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking is the compelling story of the world’s first ‘punk undertaker’. From start to finish Ru Callender draws you in with tenderness and candour. It is a powerful book, a debunking of myths, it is an unlearning of all things we have all seen about undertakers and funeral homes on TV shows. This book follows a journey from rave culture and ritual magic to the early days and first burials of The Green Funeral Company — the eco-friendly funeral directors Ru Callender started with partner Claire Phillips. The book also explores Toxteth Day of The Dead, the building of The People’s Pyramid — a 23-feet high pyramid built from bricks filled with burned and crushed human bones — and the establishment of Callender, Phillips, Cauty & Drummond: Undertakers to the Underworld with KLF’s Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, a partnership between The Green Funeral Company and The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu.
If you have a fascination with death and all the big questions around it then this is the book for you. My thoughts about death and dying are not at all morbid or maudlin, I have always had a curiosity about the unsaid and a yearning to listen to or comprehend the quiet around death, the mysteries of death. I’m interested in language, the words we use around loss, how we make space to honour these feelings, the meaning of all of this living and dying we must all do. Callender’s book dissects and explores this masterfully. This is an exquisite exploration of death work, death ritual, death politics, death truth and lies. Here is the human art of undertaking, the key words, human and art. This book is so generous with calm explanations and explorations of what might happen to us, what we might face when a loved one is going and then gone. What is done when we are undone. It is unsettling as much as it is comforting and it is all too brutally true.
…the way we have allowed ourselves to be led away from the presence of our dead, the way we have allowed our rituals of farewell to become meaningless – an echo of a faded belief system, someone else’s gestures and beliefs. It lies in our collusion that things like an expensive coffin or thousands of pounds worth of flowers, or a line of Mercedes limousines to take us to the doors of the crematorium can cover for feelings of guilt…None of this honours them and it doesn’t serve our grief either.
What Remains? begins at the beginning with an ending, with a childhood trauma. As a young boy Ru Callender lost his father. His writing about this early loss is candid and honest: he did not get to go to the funeral. ‘My absence at my father’s funeral is the single most important driver behind why I am an undertaker.’ I shared this experience; I lost my father at age nine, and I have also wished I could have gone to the funeral. This sharing moment in the book resonated with me in a deeply personal way, highlighting how important it is to allow children to be part of big conversations. Much later in the book Callender describes children hanging off the coffin handles and of Viking-style funerals; of how children fire flaming arrows at their father’s funeral pyre and how because of this, those children have been gifted a memory of inclusion in that otherwise traumatic event. My heart also broke reading the chapter titled ‘The Unthinkable’ — an incredibly moving, detailed description of a small child’s funeral and the tenderness for and care of Tallulah:
It was an extraordinary time, the week or so in which her body laid in state…Her schoolmates all coming to see her body, the worry and discomfort of all of their parents contrasting so completely with the insouciance of the kids, their absolute normality around her body…it was a ceremony filled with the chatter of children, the singing of familiar nursery songs and, at the end, everyone filed past her open coffin to sprinkle rose petals on her body. By the time Tallulah’s mother shut her bamboo coffin for the last time, she was already buried under a drift of red petals.
Callender writes passionately and fiercely about the role of an undertaker and the myriad of people they’ve worked for and with. He writes about preventable deaths and recalls the death of a local homeless man called Michael. Callender’s pages on this loss, this failure, this compassion, are so stirring. We are shown how a community spirit rises, how people gather to give Michael a decent and humane send-off.
We carried him slowly up the hill, blocking the traffic as we went. We stopped every thirty yards or so to allow other people to carry him…Around eighty people in all carried Michael’s coffin. Fellow homeless men read poems when we paused, but mostly we simply processed in silence. When we reached the market square, I stood on a bench and said my piece.
This book does not tip-toe about death, thankfully. Callender writes in fresh and frank tones about the nature of death. This book explores that nature, our choices, our individuality and our community, the effects of death, fear of the dead and fear of death itself, how that differs, how personal this is to each and every one of us. He writes about the empowerment and healing people might experience when given the freedom to care and wash their dead, to carry and bury their own dead, to process their loss and love for themselves and in their own way and own time. This book rings the bell for change and changing attitudes to how people may wish to honour their dead. Callender delves into death rituals, from the cultural and the magical to the mundane, and it challenges any mystery shrouded around the traditional, conveyor-belt style cremations in stark, sterile concrete buildings.
I was right that this small, immersive approach, intimate and shorn of all formality and the faux Victoriana traditions that characterised the traditional British funeral, was so much better for the families we were helping. I knew it was better to cry with them around their unadorned dead than sell them an expensive coffin. I knew it was better to turn up in a scruffy car and be real, rather than appear in black suit with a fixed patter. But I also knew we were risking so much of ourselves by opening our hearts and our heads, and our very lives, to this unending stream of sadness.
What Remains? is a great work of craft and beauty, humanity, heart and soul. I believe it could be used both as a teaching tool and as a comfort. I find Callender’s approach to this huge subject deeply loving and moving, but also revolutionary in spirit and courageous.
‘What Remains?’ is published on 15 September. Pre-order your copy here (£19.00).
Rupert will read from and discuss the book at several upcoming Caught by the River events: A Caught by the River Day Out in Kingston nr Lewes (10 September), Camp Good Life (16-18 September), and the book’s launch at The Social, London, where Salena Godden also reads as a special guest (26 September).
Salena Godden FRSL is an award-winning author, poet and broadcaster of Jamaican-mixed heritage based in London. Her debut novel ‘Mrs Death Misses Death’ won the Indie Book Award for Fiction and the People’s Book Prize this year, and it was shortlisted for the British Book Awards and the Gordon Burn Prize. Her work has been widely anthologised and broadcast on radio, TV and film. Her poem ‘Pessimism is for Lightweights’ is on permanent display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. She was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in summer of 2022. You can visit her website here.