Category Archives: funeral pyres

Making the case for open-air cremation

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Rupert and Claire Callender, who run their business from Dartington Hall estate have been at the forefront of the alternative funeral movement since their decision to set up as undertakers and celebrants 12 years ago. For the Tagore Festival they talk about their support for the campaign to legalise outdoor funeral pyres, something they have dubbed natural cremation, a campaign started by Davinder Ghai of The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Perceived by the public to be an exclusively Hindu religious tradition, funeral pyres actually play a large part in European cultural history. Is it time for them to return?


Saturday 7 April
2pm, Ship Studio
Tickets £6 / Concessions £5 / Students & U16s £3.50
Limited capacity, please book in advance
Running time approx 1hr


Tagore Festival website here

Pyreday 4 — a pig

Friday, 23 March 2012


 “It’s midsummer on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. Archaeologist Paul Duffy has a plan. He wants to know how our ancestors went about cremating their dead. He didn’t have a dead person handy, so he decided to cremate our closest relation in the animal kingdom – a pig.”

Ed’s note: A terrific pyre — interestingly, very similar in construction to funeral pyres in India. 

Here at the GFG we strongly support the movement to restore outdoor cremation to our island. If you’d like to know more, please contact the Natural Death Centre here. Read more here and here

Film lasts 4 mins 44 seconds. To bring it up to full size, click the icon in the bottom r/h corner. 

Huge hat tip to Morbid Curiosity for this. 

Pyreday 3 — Shelley

Friday, 23 March 2012




In an act of solidarity with the movement to restore open-air cremation to Britain, spearheaded by the Natural Death Centre, we survey some inspirational historic examples. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, drowned in 1822. His yacht was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Spezzia, Italy. His body was cremated and his remains later buried at the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Fournier’s painting shows the funeral pyre surrounded by three of the dead poet’s closest friends. From left to right they are the author and adventurer Trelawny and Shelley’s fellow-poets Leigh Hunt and Byron. In Trelawny’s own account of the event, ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron’, he described the hot August day on which the funeral took place.

Fournier chose to ignore this aspect of the description. Instead he depicted the weather as grey and cold to accentuate the sombre and dramatic mood of the piece.” [Source]

Ed’s note: Not nearly enough wood. Little wonder that, after the flames had abated, Shelley’s heart was found undamaged amidst the ashes. 

Pyreday 2 — Julius Caesar

Friday, 23 March 2012


In an act of solidarity with the movement to restore open-air cremation to Britain, spearheaded by the Natural Death Centre, we survey some inspirational historic examples. 

When the funeral was announced, a pyre was erected in the Field of Mars near the tomb of Julia. In front of the rostra was placed a gilded shrine, made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix. Within was a bier of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. [Source

Ed’s note: An exemplary pyre. Full marks to the Ancient Romans. Recommended by The Good Funeral Guide

Pyreday 1 — Hercules

Friday, 23 March 2012



In an act of solidarity with the movement to restore open-air cremation to Britain, spearheaded by the Natural Death Centre, we survey some inspirational historic examples. 


When Hercules was trying to take his bride Deianeira home, he had to cross the Evenus River. Nessus, a centaur, served as ferryman. First he rowed Hercules across and then, as he started to row Deianeira across, he tried to rape her. Hercules, justly enraged, drew one of his poisoned arrows and shot the centaur. Before he died, the centaur persuaded Deinaeira to take some of his blood to use as a love potion should Hercules ever cause her to worry.

In time, Deianeira became suspicious of Hercules’ interest in another woman, named Iole, so she smeared some of the carefully-saved centaur blood on a tunic and gave it to Hercules, trusting that it would act as a love potion and return him to her.

Unfortunately, the centaur had lied. The blood contained not a love potion, but a powerful poison from the poison with which Hercules had tipped his arrows. It had come from the Lernaean hydra.

When Hercules put on the tunic, it burned. He was in such excruciating pain that he wanted to die and had a funeral pyre built for himself. He then mounted it and had it lit. He died and went to the gods where he was reconciled with his tormenter, the queen of the gods, Hera. She allowed him to marry her daughter Hebe and live among the gods thereafter. [Source]


Ed’s note: Do not try this at home, not with so little wood.  The pyre manager should be fully clothed at all times. 

No smoke without pyre

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Unlike most countries, cigarettes are sold in singles in India and most shops that sell them have electric lighters attached to the wall for their customers to use. An anti-smoking campaigner fitted the lighters with a device which plays the Indian death chant every time someone lights a cigarette. “Raam Naam Satya Hai” is chanted when a dead body is carried to the funeral pyre. Most smokers observed in this experiment couldn’t bring themselves to light up.

Update: here’s the YouTube clip:




Tuesday, 21 February 2012


After washing his eyes reddened by a heavy dose of marijuana, Sadhu Premdas steps into the Bagmati river, looking for some half-burnt logs of wood to light a fire at his place.

Belonging to the Aghori sect of sages, Premdas does not accept fresh firewood distributed by the Pashupati authority: he loves a fire made from logs already used for cremating a body.

Another Baba from Benaras, India, Devananda Das, who arrived in Kathmandu four days ago, has also been collecting logs partially burnt with a body. Under the auspicious setting of the temple at this time of the year, every morning of these Aghori sages begins with the collection of charred logs thrown into the Bagmati after putting out a funeral pyre at Aryaghat.

“We only use logs burnt in the pyre,” Devananda said, basking in the warmth of burning logs on a warm Sunday. “I get divine satisfaction at the warmth emanating from logs already used to cremate bodies.” According to him, Aghoris consider it pious to apply ashes of wood already used in cremation. The Aghori Sadhus, according to Premdas, are “the master of spirits” and using such wood strengthens their control over the spirits.

“People may hate us for our behaviour, but we don’t care,” he says, arranging dreadlocks above his left ear. “This is how we are.” 



More fascinating info on the Aghori sect here

Let’s make the case for funerals

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Pic from The Green Funeral Co website


Guest post by Rupert Callender, owner of The Green Funeral Company


Often this blog can trot nicely along with the usual suspects commenting dryly from the sidelines, a good natured conversation amongst friends. It’s easy to forget it has a wide, international readership, easy that is, until a seemingly innocuous post unleashes a Bay of Pigs crisis, as it was with the recent posting about a rise in Church fees. Suddenly, we were neck deep in a debate about the merits of secular celebrants, and the rise of budget ‘disposals’. 

Unlike Charles, I didn’t think that the to and fro was particularly unpleasant, but it certainly was enlightening. There is still a large cultural chasm between most funeral directors and the people who increasingly take the ceremonies, and the way down is littered with jagged outcrops of things like class and money and religion. 

 We, and by that I mean all of us who make our livings from what happens next when someone dies, live in interesting times, as the Chinese and Scots curse has it. Our industry is in the tightening grip of big business, our economy is in meltdown, and most unpredictable of all, an unexpected blip in the death rate has meant that funerals are scarce. People will go to the wall, and often not those that Darwin would hope would. 

The debate about budget funerals has been the most interesting. Anyone who offers a funeral service will have been asked to quote for one. The generous transparency of people like Nick Gandon has explained to me exactly how they can offer such an astonishingly cheap funeral. The combination of mortuary facilities in the crematorium, and a flexible realistic approach from those who run them mean that Mr Gandon can offer people a seriously cheap, no service body disposal. More power to him for being able to react to the market. 

We can’t, even though our overheads are much cheaper than most. We are really not a product driven company. We don’t have a hearse as standard, or a vast range of coffins. The product you get is my wife and I.  Our professional fee is honest and clear and rarely varies, and never more than a couple of hundred pounds either way, though I would hasten to add we are still considerably cheaper than most of our competitors for all of our funerals. But our market share is small, so when someone comes and asks for a no service funeral we quote as best we can, but it rarely can compete with the budget service. 

And this is what the customer wants, isn’t it? Times are hard and the days of religious certainty are long gone. If people want things to be taken care of quickly and efficiently without their presence then they have that right, don’t they? 

When we have helped people to have this kind of non funeral, there have often been rumblings in the wider family and community. The impulse to mark and record this event cannot be fully sublimated by economic concerns. We have experienced what we can only describe as “pop up” funerals, taking place alongside the simple practicalities, friends and family gathering in our premises for what seems like a chance to see the person and say goodbye unmistakably crystalising into a spontaneous ceremony. Unless the person who has died was particularly disliked, people want to gather with their body one last time. A ceremony without the presence of the body is a vastly different beast from one with, and to throw away this chance for a few hundred quid seems to me the opposite of a bargain. 

I don’t blame funeral directors for trying to accommodate these wishes. Despite the deeply entrenched hostility towards funeral directors that surfaces even on the pages of this enlightened blog, it is a bloody difficult world in which to make a living, and whatever they need to do to carry on is understandable, and don’t they say that the customer is always right?  We live in fear of being seen as exploitative and paternalistic, a stereotype which unfairly haunts us in this age of unscrupulous life insurance companies, bonused bankers and intrusive government, it is hardly surprising that some funeral directors are betting that the next big thing will be no thing, literally nothing, and have decided to make a virtue of necessity, and become, in essence low key removal men. 

But in my heart of hearts, I know this is wrong, that we are colluding with a public who, in the face of  spiritual uncertainty and the opportunity to avoid something so painful are choosing the easiest option, and that in doing so we are doing them and us a huge disfavour. 

I became an undertaker and a celebrant because the grief I had avoided turned toxic. The funerals I didn’t go to had much more power over me than the funerals I did and had influenced my life in ways it took years to fully understand. I honestly believe, and I am sure most funeral directors agree with me, that there is no way around grief. It can be displaced for years, decades even, but sooner or later, and of course it is usually sooner another significant death in your life forces you to go back to the beginning and face your original wound.  So what happens to these people we are excusing from the difficult task of saying goodbye to those they love? I believe that more often than not, they will come to regret their brisk efficiency, or worse, never realise the impact and influence it has had on their grief. 

We are into an area that most funeral directors will think this isn’t their territory. Words like ritual and ceremony make them uncomfortable, and traditionally have been the preserve of the priest but the truth is that the pulpit has been empty for a while now, and secular celebrants, good or bad have moved in to occupy it. The withdrawing of conventional religion does not mean that ritual becomes less important, quite the opposite, and funeral directors, marked and lined by our awareness of mourning and bereavement are exactly the people to be helping to create something new. 

Perhaps another strand of what is happening is people’s increasing dislike of crematoriums, and avoiding them and the funeral is a two bird one stone offer that is just too tempting. 

We did a funeral last week in the function room of a bustling drinker’s pub in Plymouth, much to the relief of the deceased’s family, who wanted to honour his wishes to be cremated, but were dreading visiting the place. The actual cremation happened the next morning. The funeral wasn’t expensive, but it was deeply satisfying for all who attended, filled with spontaneous gestures like everybody forming two columns in the narrow downstairs room to pass the coffin along between them. This meant more to everyone there than a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Working out that this was a good thing to do wasn’t difficult, but neatly highlights the benefits of being both undertaker and celebrant. 

Perhaps this is why we embrace the idea of natural cremation or funeral pyres with such enthusiasm. Here is a chance to strip things back, both in terms of technology and ritual. When faced with something so profoundly simple and elemental as a huge fire in a field, then the lines that seperate celebrant and undertaker, mourner and professional may well blur, and we may find that the doing has become the meaning. Won’t cost much either. 

So I urge you undertakers to stand up and enter the debate, to argue your merits and put your case forward. If you believe that you make a difference to the bewilderment of a family, if you have ever made a suggestion which has transformed a funeral and helped people move successfully beyond this most traumatic of human events then now is the time to speak, before we find ourselves in a place devoid of meaning and participation, squeezed between the pre-paid homogenised ‘personalised’ funeral of the big boys and the budget operators, where the only measure of a funeral is how little it cost. That would be a tragedy.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Photo Brandreth Collection, c. 1860


A fancy gaff? No, a tomb. The tomb of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, aka The Lion of the Punjab.

His ashes repose in the middle, on the spot where he was cremated, in a marble urn shaped like a lotus. 

There are eleven other urns, those of his four wives and seven other women who threw themselves on his funeral pyre. 



Purifying flame

Friday, 10 February 2012



In Lucknow, India, Rajan Yadav is standing for Assembly elections on a  manifesto of rooting out corruption.

He wants to consign corruption to the funeral pyre, he says, and he is underlining this by conducting his campaign from a cremation ground. To make the symbolism complete, he has nicknamed himself Arthi Baba, the name given to the bamboo stretcher used to carry a corpse to the  pyre.

He says:

“I am a misfit in the present system as I am a honest person. In today’s world, an honest person cannot survive …  Corruption, adulteration, dishonesty, bribe are common these days…if you want to cleanse the system, they must be killed….democracy cannot survive in such a situation… I tell the people that ultimately they have to come to the cremation ground….so vote for me for salvation and cleanse the system…that is why I have opened my election office at Rajghat on the banks of the Rapti river, where bodies are burnt.” 


Full story here.

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