What Remains – Rupert Callender

Published By: Chelsea Green
Pages: 336
Released On: 15/09/2022

When he became an undertaker, Rupert Callender undertook to deal with the dead for the sake of the living. What Remains? is the brilliant, unforgettable story of the life and work of the world’s first punk undertaker – but it is also a book about ordinary, everyday humanity and our capacity to face death with courage and compassion. To say goodbye to the people we love in our own way.

And in becoming the world’s first ‘punk undertaker’ and establishing the Green Funeral Company in Devon, Ru Callender and his partner Claire challenged the stilted, traditional, structured world of the funeral industry: fusing what he had learned from his own deeply personal experiences with death, with the surprising and profound answers and raw emotion he discovered in rave culture and ritual magick.

From his unresolved grief for his parents and his cultural ancestors to political and religious non-conformists, social outlaws, experimental pioneers and acid house culture, Ru Callender has taken an outsider ‘DIY’ ethos to help people navigate grief and death. He has carried coffins across windswept beaches, sat in pubs with caskets on beer-stained tables, helped children fire flaming arrows into their father’s funeral pyre, turned modern occult rituals into performance art and, with the KLF, is building the People’s Pyramid of bony bricks in Liverpool.

*****

Thanks to NetGalley and Chelsea Green for the advanced copy of this title in return for an honest review.

I’ve experienced my fair share of grief and funerals in my time, particularly in the last 5-6 years, but I’ve never really given much thought to the undertakers beyond them just being there to do their job, so this was a fascinating read for me.

It’s not a perfect book – I’ll get to that – but it is seriously powerful, and you’re swept up in such emotion reading it.

There’s more to Rupert’s background than I thought there’d be, probably the first 25%, and at first I thought perhaps it was verging on too much, but considering the next three quarters is full on undertaking it made sense to give some context to his career decision.

Some of his beliefs, some of the ways he works, are not for me. But who am I to say they’re not for anyone else? I’ve been to church funerals, burials, cremations, spiritual and humanist. And whilst they may not have all been what I would have wanted, they’re always perfect for the person in question, and I think Rupert has done a really good job and expressing the humanity side to death.

To me, undertakers are very polite, but quiet, professional and stoic individuals who help make a terrible day go as smoothly as it can. They show respect and they swallow their own feelings on the day. They don’t seem to get affected by the continuous death. They become symbols of death and of the funeral industry, rather than as individuals, and I think that’s where Rupert is trying to change things. Don’t get me wrong, he seems like a polite man, professional, caring, stoic in the presence of grief (I haven’t met him so he may not be any of these things at all but I hope he is), but he reminds us that undertakers and funeral parlour employees, and priests and celebrants are all human, and working hand-in-hand with death on a daily basis will of course have a huge toll on them, but it also gives them a huge understanding of bereavement.

I found the section about suicide incredibly moving. Like I said, I’ve experienced a lot of death in the last few years, old, young, middle aged, men, women, dementia, cancer, pneumonia – but the one that will always stick with me is the one by suicide. And Rupert was so tender and respectful that it was almost too moving to read.

I liked his idea that death and funerals can be uplifting and, almost funny. My dad’s funeral 5 years ago when he was jut 57 and I was 24 was a fun event. Sure it had the hearse and undertaker and the songs and whatnot. But it wasn’t religious. For the reflection part, we encouraged everyone to sing Frank Sinatra’s My Way as loud and as badly as they could, and we all left the room to Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. We then had a wake where lots of alcohol was drink and memories shared and it was a really fun day. For someone who hasn’t experienced death, that might be horrendous to read. But it really was. Granted, I’d have preferred if he was still alive and the funeral and wake were not needed, but we can’t control that. We can only control what we did, and we decided to have fun.

He’s a very sensitive writer, aware that whilst he believes in doing things a certain way, he understands that the whole grieving journey is difficult. He’s been very respectful around the case studies. He doesn’t give us too much information for us to identify the bereaved families, but just enough so we can empathise. He doesn’t beat around the bush or sugar coat things. Death is an ugly business but it is something none of us will avoid. It’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s important to know.

My one negative, and it’s going to sound really juvenile, is his use of big words. Now, I am a linguist. I write and edit for a living. But I found myself on several occasions having to stop mid sentence in order to look up a word so I could make sense of it. And it wasn’t for overly industry-standard words or technical terms. I would have accepted that. But complicated language had been used when I feel simpler words would have aided the flow of reading.

My mum couldn’t understand why I wanted to read this book, given the amount of grief we’ve experienced, that it must be depressing and morbid and upsetting. Yes it’s depressing. Yes it’s morbid. Yes it’s upsetting. At times. But it is also joyful. And loving. And hopeful.

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