R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death

By Ken West

In the 1960’s I killed barn owls. It was not a conscious decision. The people in control instructed me to spray the new wonder chemicals, invented by the Americans, over the old cemetery. The weeds and long grass disappeared, as did the voles, the food source of the owls. Nobody noticed – or cared!

This happened all over the UK. Ten years later, less ignorant and in control of cemeteries and crematoria myself, I introduced conservation management in cemeteries. The results were astonishing. Acres of rare pignut, a plant that once fed the poor, appeared, followed by voles; the owls returned.

Years later, and offering a Funeral Advisory Service, two women, possibly pagans, wanted advice on burial in their garden. I told them it was feasible, but that it would depress the property sale price. I discovered that they sought garden burial because this was the only way that they could be buried under a tree and thereby satisfy their environmental and spiritual philosophy.

Because of these events, I wrote a feasibility study for natural burial, the first time that human burial was integrated with conservation. This was accepted by Carlisle City Council and we opened the world’s first site in 1993. It was a traumatic time; funeral directors hated the idea, not least the prohibition of embalming. They were apoplectic when I first mentioned cardboard coffins. Natural burial was also a threat to cremationists because it highlighted the energy and pollution problems with the process. Increasingly labelled a weirdo, I was grateful for the support from pagans, environmentalists and the artistic community.

There are now more natural burial sites than crematoria in the UK (270+) and the idea is going universal. It has created the market for green coffins and reinvigorated burial. It also gave greater emphasis to the emerging funeral celebrant, expanding options for more spiritual and earth centred services.

After 45 years in the work, I retired with new purpose; to get people to discuss death and dying (see www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk). My first book, a specialist title, was ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ published in 2010.

Based on my experience introducing natural burial, I wrote “R.I.P. Off! or: The British Way of Death” to show how the funeral market is stitched up; how it shuts out innovation. I wanted to convey information, without the dry blandness of a self help book, so that the reader could take control of a funeral themselves, even to the point of doing one without a funeral director. But, as nobody wants to read about death, how could I appeal to readers? Bookshops welcome writers on children’s stories and romance, but not death. I opted for black humour, and a series of cameos based on true events; an expose of the funeral world.

Getting to the other side has never been easy; or cheap! The Egyptians needed their ornate tombs; the Romans to cross the River Styx and the Vikings to sacrifice an entire longship. The Americans renamed this palaver the death care industry and set new rules; the funeral director became a salesman in a black suit, the coffins were given fancy names like ‘The Balmoral’ and nobody was allowed to mention the word death.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death

  • Blodeuwedd

    I know Ken West a little, at least I have had a conversation with him and I am a huge admirer. I often forget, now that it is so well established, exactly how recent the natural burial movement is.It is worth pointing out, however, for the sake of completion, that the ‘funeral market’ is not quite so monotone and stuck in its ways as you might think from this. There are a number of funeral homes (mine among them, but we are by no means the only one) for whom this is a spiritual vocation. Innovation is not always a dirty word 🙂 We do not look (or, so we are told) sound like a funeral home. We happily assist people seeking natural burial and advise those who want a ‘home’ funeral. Whilst is is certainly possible to conduct a funeral with no funeral director at all, this does not suit everyone, and folks should be aware that there are honourable, honest, compassionate, reasonably priced and even Pagan friendly funeral homes out there. Having said that, prices and quality vary hugely among independent funeral homes and we always suggest that a family speak to at least three before making a decision. This can be a very difficult thing to do when you are grieving so its not a bad idea to make those decisions before you need to. I’m not suggesting a pre-paid plan (again, these suit some folks but not everyone) just a plan. A discussion with your family at some point where it is not urgent so you can take time to think and even laugh about it. You could even do what my aunt (who is in perfect health by the way) has decided to do and interview all the local funeral directors. If you are looking for a really good funeral director you could do worse than the Good Funeral Guide (yes, there is one) or the Natural Death Centre both of which carry lists of recommended funeral directors on their websites.
    My point is, its not all bad news about FDs 🙂
    I have read the book…its excellent!!

  • Sue Whitlock

    This sort of book and the information it provides is so badly needed – but the difficulty, as the author says, is getting people to read it!

    I’m a Church of England lay funeral minister and, on the training course I did for this, a funeral director came to talk to us. He mentioned embalming or ‘hygienic treatment’ as he carefully called it, and I asked him if he did this at the request of his clients.

    ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘We recommend it. We always recommend it.’ And, at around £65 a pop, I’m sure they do. He also showed us a photo of what he called their ’embalming theatre’. This must have cost thousands to construct, so they need to recoup this money from clients. I asked him where the noxious chemicals vented to and apparently it is just out into the atmosphere!

    I have planned my own green burial for when the time comes, chosen and paid for my plot and written the order of service both for the church service and prayers at the interment. My children were a bit upset when I told them but also VERY grateful that I had saved them from the need to make difficult decisions when they are in a confused and vulnerable state.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    We can bring death back into the discussion. I was recently interviewed for The Wild Hunt here in the USA and I made the point that I am ear the end of my life at age 69 having outlived most of the men in my daily. I pointed out that while I do make long range plans that it does keep me focused on the present that I can do something about and should appreciate it as the future is uncertain. Now I suspect I do have a few more years, but I still think my focus on the present and what I can do right now is the right way to live this stage of my life.

    By the way another option is to donate the body to science. As far as I a covered I have no regrets about my old body and I certain do not expect to hanging around for my funeral. Better to let the living use any assets that I have on the living and not on my funeral. People’s memories of me are enough of a memorial for me.

  • Aurora J Stone

    This is certainly a resource to begin the discussion and facilitate the process of bringing one’s kin on side for this final act in this manifestation’s journey.

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