RIP Off! is Ken West’s thinly-fictionalised account of his pioneering introduction of natural burial to Carlisle in 1993. It contrasts the enthusiastic reception his invention received in the media and among the public with the fear and loathing it stirred up in local undertakers.
They didn’t understand it. They saw it as a threat to their commercial interests and their professional status. They didn’t like Ken’s mission to empower the bereaved with information. They didn’t like his advocacy of low-cost funerals and his imputation that undertakers charge too much. They were infuriated by his charm, his humour and his success in creating publicity for his revolutionary way of disposing of the dead. They conspired to undermine and discredit him.
Considering the battering Ken took in real life from the Dismal Trade, you’ll not be surprised to see him settle scores in RIP Off!. He does. But his weapon of choice is not invective but satire. He debunks but he doesn’t put the boot in. He is gracious in victory. This is not how some undertakers may see it. If so, they may console themselves that it could have been a lot worse.
I suspect Ken has cause to feel much angrier than he lets on, but he refuses to cast himself as victim and he rises serenely above rancour. This is descriptive, I think, of the strength of character he must have needed, as a local authority officer, to steer his innovative scheme through all manner of committeedom all the way to implementation. It is rare to see the public service at the cutting edge of anything. In addition to zeal, persuasiveness and perseverance, there must have been cunning, too – of the most ethical sort, of course.
RIP Off! reads more like a thinly fictionalised memoir than a novel because, though it has conflict a-plenty, it doesn’t have a conventional plot which concludes, after a period of suspense, in a resolution. It begins as story, then becomes more episodic and anecdotal. That’s not meant as a criticism. There’re plenty of insights into the hidden world of the funerals business to keep you turning the pages, together with some cracking stories reworked, they have to be, from personal experience; many of them are much stranger than fiction. As for resolution, well, in real time, we’ve still some way to go.
Ken sets out his stall early. He characterises undertakers as a “mafia” as early as page 2. He pinpoints with deadly accuracy their insecurities and vanities: “all Round Table and moral rectitude”. He has a go at their disposition to think too well of themselves. A great many people who work in crematoria will cheer when they read:
“The measure of a dominant funeral director was his belief that he could call the tune at all the local cemeteries and crematoria; that he could act as the top dog, as if he owned the entire facility and its staff.”
Okay, Ken can occasionally be cruel: “Brian said he could always get work because he had an O level, and this made the more cynical funeral directors refer to him as the professor.” But he can be kind, too. The portrayals of Roger, the cut-price undertaker, and Graham, who ends up working for a corporate, are not unsympathetic.
The undertakers’ trade association, BALU, embodies the pomposity and secretiveness of its members, viewing them as “the only ones who could judge what people really needed. They were convinced that too much information would confuse and upset the bereaved; that they can be told too much.” Not much change there, then.
If the independents are nothing to write home about, the corporates are worse. When one undertaker sells up to a corporate based in Manchester of all places, “it stuck in [his] craw that although he had not provided cheap funerals, he had never been this greedy.”
It is the settled view of the undertakers in RIP Off! that the hero, Ben West (see what I mean about thinly disguised) is “an isolated green weirdo” and a “fucking smartarse.” Worse, he is “an advocate of change and this … was intolerable.” The story is an account of the undertakers’ fightback. Each side enjoys victories. Or, rather, the undertakers win some skirmishes but Ben is in the business not of picking a fight with them but of campaigning in the public arena for cheaper, greener, more authentic funerals. Everyone is left standing at the end, by which time, the record shows, natural burial has gone global.
Not necessarily in the form Ben West originally envisages, though. West is an environmentalist and, appealing as natural burial is to those who would tread lightly on the Earth, and it is one of the undertakers who comes to understand what natural burial comes to mean to most people: “Graham realised that Ben had got it wrong all those years ago. Sure, there were a few people wanting to save the planet but the majority were seeking something else, here and now, something that enabled the soul to go on.”
Briefly, the future isn’t green, it’s spiritual.
It is Graham, too, who reflects at the end of the book “that [Ben] was still a voice in the wilderness. Where are they, all those young activists, the new greens, who were going to step into his shoes and give funeral directing a hard time?”
I think we may be slightly more optimistic. The novel describes restrictive practices, notably the prevention by threats of a coffin manufacturer and carriagemaster from dealing direct with the public. Today, a good many coffin suppliers deal direct with the public, as does James Hardcastle with his self-drive hearse.
Running alongside the story there are lots of good anecdotes in RIP Off!, many of them funny, some touching, some instructive. There’s an exhumation. There’s a glimpse inside a path lab. There are the messages people leave on graves for their dead ones, including one beginning with the words ‘We have moved…’ There’s a Last Supper coffin whose depiction of Christ and his disciples the audience mistakes for a depiction of Showaddywaddy. And here’s a thing: did you know that the corpses of alcoholics burn faster and fiercer?
The humour throughout is, come to think of it, dark shading into black. And Ken can be extremely funny. Roger’s ancient bearers occasionally let him down by dropping dead. “This was a double-edged sword; he lost a bearer but he gained a funeral.” There is no sex in the book, but it concludes with an exhortation to readers to have more.
RIP Off! isn’t just an account of the birth pangs of natural burial. Its broader theme is the British way of death and there’s no mistaking where Ken’s heart lies. It is with simple, down-to-earth funerals organised by empowered people whose farewells are heartfelt and whose understanding is that our dead bodies must be returned to the earth whence they came in such a way that they can give the most back.
RIP Off! offers the general reader a fascinating and demystifying insight into the secretive world, both exotic and banal, of death and funerals. It will likely encourage the brave and the self-confident to take matters more into their own hands. It won’t stop people using undertakers, but it will likely alter their relationship with them.
Those who work in the funerals business will agree that the book holds up a mirror of some sort to what actually goes on. It is unquestionably informative and very funny. Whether Ken’s mirror distorts truth, and if so how much, is a matter for hot debate.
Buy your copy in time for Christmas here.