He got away with it. Just. It’s against the law.
That’s the way Carl is.
The first time I saw him, at his office in Wallsend, he showed me bits of bone he’d just that morning retrieved from the pyre’s ashes. He then went on to give me all the time I wanted. He drove me round and we talked and talked. He carries a wicker coffin in the back of his car. Whenever he sees a nice field he poses it in it and photographs it.
He does things differently, does Carl. He does things so differently that other funeral directors in his area regard him as a cowboy and a joke. They say joke, but they’re not laughing. Carl is no respecter of ‘tradition’. He says, “I’m not here to be liked by the funeral industry, I’m here to change it. It’s just a weird industry. I think there’s a lot of arrogance within funeral directors. I don’t even know why they wear a uniform. I don’t know why they walk in front of the car with a big hat and a cane – what’s that all about?”
He says, “I’ve never been in a more bitchy industry in my life.” Well, even his most appalled critics will agree with him there.
Carl doesn’t do things differently for the sake of it. He’s a huge character but he’s not a huge ego. He really does put other people first. He wants to do what’s right for them, what’s best for them. He says, “We all live our lives as individuals, but when it comes to funerals we all go the same way, and that’s what I do not like about the industry; they do not offer choice.” He wants people to do what they believe and what they dare. He doesn’t want poor people to have to spend a penny more than they have to. “Did you ever buy him flowers when he was alive?” Carl will ask a widow. “Do you really feel you have to buy him flowers now he’s dead?”
He’s incredibly good value for money.
Carl empowers people. That’s how he got to take one dead man to the crem wrapped in his duvet with his feet sticking out, just as he wanted. More than once he’s filled a 54-seater coach with mourners and sent it off to the crem with the coffin in the luggage compartment and everyone singing. Cheap. Cheerful. He taps into that peculiarly British vein of anarcho-hilarity.
He looks after people. He buries ashes in cemetery plots for nothing. He digs the hole himself, saving the family around £300. The council doesn’t necessarily know about this.
You could say that Carl plays fast and loose, but always and only in a good cause, where his big heart leads him. Sure, he may flatten a fence or two on the way. Ah, well.
If Carl is a daring, dashing dreamer, his mercurial spirit is counterbalanced by the tranquil demeanour of his right-hand man, Billy Spencer. Billy is classically trained, a safe pair of hands, a lovely guy. Together, they make a brilliant team.
The case for open-air cremation goes to the High Court on 10 November 2008, brought by the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Carl wants pyres for all who want them, not just Hindus; he reckons there’s a lot of demand for them. Yes, and sky burial, too, if that’s what people want.
Whether you reckon his vision and demeanour to be revolutionary or reprehensible, there’s no denying that Carl is a serious man.
See him at work here.
See the open-air cremation here. As Carl and Billy put the body in the coffin, watch Carl. You can see that the body was, well, not in the best condition.