Caught by the River

What Remains?

23rd September 2022

An extract from Rupert Callenders newly published ‘What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking’ — our September Book of the Month.

The war on drugs is over fifty years old now and has caused devastation around the world, particularly for the poor and dispossessed. Our hypocritical attitude to the crutches we use to ease our own way through life and the way we view other people’s props has long been pointed out. We rush to condemn the use of disassociating and painkilling drugs like heroin for the socially dispossessed, yet cling on furiously to our own painkilling drugs like wine.

The drugs that have benefited me the most have been infrequent treats. I would go so far as to say that the uplifting surge of ecstasy probably taught me to properly love after the trauma of my childhood. And the bewildering visions of psychedelics have placed me humbly within the cosmic tapestry, made me feel no more or no less than everything else that exists.

I have publicly stated my position on this in interviews and articles. I felt it important to jolt my generation out of the amnesia that was setting in, the hangover after the euphoria. I could remember the utopian excitement and optimism, and didn’t want that swallowed up and compromised by the pragmatism of old age, put down solely to youthful hedonism. I believed those feelings of solidarity and transcendence were not just drug induced, but glimpses of a different way of being with each other in this world, and I still do.

Upsetting apple carts is a risky business. People always get upset, particularly those selling apples.

One night, early on in the winter, November, a short but bitter hailstorm blew through the town where I lived. It killed a homeless man who was sleeping under the shelter of the Methodist church right on the High Street on which I live.

I knew him a little. He hadn’t been there that long and this was 2012, before the current epidemic of homelessness. He was young, just gone forty, and I was shocked by his death. He wasn’t a drug user, and only a moderate drinker, it was the sudden soaking and drop in temperature that had given him hypothermia.

I was more shocked to discover that he was actually the third homeless person to die in our small town within the year. I thought if I don’t know and I am the local undertaker, then nobody must know.

It seemed obscene to let the council quietly cremate him, so I stepped in and offered for us to do his funeral. I made it clear that we would be doing a public funeral, that Michael deserved to have his life and death publicly discussed, the same as any of us, and that anyone was welcome.

It gathered some traction in the media. The plan was to carry Michael’s cardboard coffin up the long High Street that had been his home for eighteen months, carry him up the steep hill that ran from the tidal river at the bottom to the Norman castle at the top. The idea was anybody who wanted could carry his coffin and that we would stop every so often before arriving in the market square near the top, where I would deliver a eulogy, before carrying him to the town cemetery on the outskirts.

When Claire and I arrived with Michael in his coffin at the bottom of the hill and we got him out and placed him on the trestles, my heart sank a little. There was plenty of media – reporters and film crews – but no mourners that I could see, just ordinary shoppers going about their business.

I had heard rumours that some people felt this very public funeral was inappropriate for someone who was homeless. Michael was complex, of course, who isn’t, and could be a little hostile and wary of people. I heard that some of the more conservative townsfolk felt that giving a street drinker, possibly a drug addict, such a showy send-off was unbecoming.

Michael did drink a little, perhaps two cans of cider a day, what I would consider the minimal numbing for someone forced to live a harsh life on the streets. Michael’s real addiction was gambling – slot machines in particular. Around ten years before he had died, Michael had had a small pay out on a slot machine, just under a hundred pounds, and that was that, he was hooked.

What a brutal pointless addiction that is, the empty promise of another tiny pay out constantly dangling in the imagination. Out of all of the ways we allow ourselves to be distracted from the hardships in life, I honestly believe that gambling is the worst. A miserable form of slavery, capitalism at its worst.

I did a few pieces to camera about why we were doing this, talked to some reporters and then, at the appointed time, turned around to discover over 150 people had silently gathered around Michael’s coffin.

Every vulnerable person in town was there, every homeless person and every nearly homeless person. There were off-duty policemen and -women, parents of teenagers who were dangling over the precipice of problematic drug use and toying with the slippery slope of sofa surfing. There was a local woman who suffered from schizophrenia and regularly accused passers-by of being paedophiles. She looked as calm and as present as I have ever seen her, as if her reality and all of ours had finally aligned.

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 by the rope handles of his cardboard coffin. 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 up on a bench and said my piece.

I was angry, angry at this preventable death. Angry at a society that actively encouraged this money-stripping parasitic ‘game’ that took cash off our most vulnerable, and I was angry at the hypocrisy of judging this man and his life. I pointed out that most people I knew with a comfortable job, a loving family and a nice house still anaesthetised themselves each night with half a bottle of red wine, and yet, as Dr Johnson said, we cannot help but delight in stripping the pill barer for the poor.

It was wrong to let these people slip quietly from our conscience, wrong to judge them for their coping strategies, wrong to let them die unnoticed. It was preachy, without a doubt, and, as you’ve no doubt noticed by now, I am a little preachy, but a good funeral should be anyway. This is where the power of the church worked so well hundreds of years ago. It took an individual death and turned it into a universal lesson because humans are quite selfish and distracted and, unless something is about us, we tend not to pay attention.

Someone described this as funerals as activism and I was certainly seizing the opportunity to say something important because at a funeral everyone is briefly jolted out of their everyday apathy and there is an opportunity to teach everyone an important lesson. I took these opportunities, liberties some might say, to spread our wider agenda about how the way we approach death can ripple through all areas of our lives, particularly around the people we love and interact with.

I laid out these beliefs in my part of The Natural Death Handbook, conjured up the spirits of my ancestors, living and dead, calling out not just the funeral industry and the church, but all of us, for our failures, for allowing death to become trivialised, almost privatised, parcelled off from our collective experience, separated from the consequences of our lives and the inevitable indifferent response of a society we tolerated and enabled.

And we acted out our opposition to this state of affairs through the funerals we did, striving for honesty and context, participation and understanding, forgiveness and redemption. All old ideas, but ones which were not owned by religion, but were part of a deep, shared morality that everyone recognised.

Co-writing the handbook with my fellow trustees felt like setting out a manifesto. All of our ideas about how death and dying could be different were refreshed and restated. In it, we began to turn information into culture, advice into philosophy, grief into art.


‘What Remains?’ is out now, published by Chelsea Green. Read Salena Godden’s review of the book here.

The launch event for ‘What Remains?’, taking place this coming Monday at The Social, London, is now sold out.