Book Review: R.I.P. Off! By Ken West

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

The last word in bucket lists

It was nice to have Ann Treneman write for us last week about the vital importance of specifying where you want your dust or ash to repose. 

But I’m afraid I’ve got a big problem with her book, Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die. Dang it, you pick it up for a gentle browse and you just can’t put the darn thing down. 

What it was, exactly, that originally impelled the parliamentary sketch-writer of The Times to become a leisure-time graveyard rabbit we don’t know because, of course, she cannot fully account for it. You understand as well as anyone that mortality exerts a mysterious gravitational pull on people in myriad ways. The way it tugs Ann is to inspire her to go graving. That’s what she calls it, graving. 

It wasn’t long before Ann discovered that there are already lots of books about famous graves out there — so what makes hers different? 

She sets out her criteria. Her hundred graves had to be eclectic, iconic, accessible and ‘not too depressing or upsetting … I was also wary of murder victims. This book is about lives, not deaths.’ She also set herself the task of visiting every single one of them, a journey that took her as far as the north coast of Scotland. No wonder the book took four years to write. Around half are in London because, ‘per square mile, London has the most interesting dead people of anywhere in the world.’

You’ll find, of course, that some of your favourites are missing. In place of them are some you never dreamed of. There’s the grave of Anthony Pratt, inventor of Cluedo, in Bromsgrove, and that of Dusty Springfield in Henley-on-Thames. There are three graves of people obsessed with big cats. At Malmesbury is that of Hannah Twynnoy, torn to pieces by a tiger. At Hampstead lies George Wombwell, his tomb topped by Nero, his pet lion. And at Abney park rests Frank C Bostock, lion tamer, who died of the flu. 

In short, there can be no quibbling with the rich variety of people Ann Treneman has chosen to commemorate. 

The best thing about the book, after its subjects, is the way it is written. Treneman writes with light-touch humour which moves easily to touching seriousness when describing, say, the graves of the Hancock family of Eyam, six little children’s headstones clustered round their father’s, victims of the Plague (pictured below). 

Yes, it’s a very good read. Hint strongly to your partner that you’d like it for Christmas — or surrender to temptation and buy it now. We give it five stars. 

The presence of the dead is essential

We bear mortality by bearing mortals — the living and the dead — to the brink of a uniquely changed reality: Heaven or Valhalla or Whatever Is Next. We commit and commend them into the nothingness or somethingness, into the presence of God or God’s absence. Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going the distance with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to. And we’ve been doing this since the beginning. 

The formula for our funerals was fairly simple for most of our history: by getting the dead where they needed to go, the living got where they needed to be. 

Ours is the species that deals with death (the idea of the thing) by dealing with our dead (the physical fact of the thing itself). 

The presence of the dead is an essential, definitive element of a funeral. 

These four essential, definitive elements, then: the corpse, the caring survivors, some brokered change of status between them, and the disposition of the dead make a human funeral what it is. 

Stements extracted from an essay by Thomas Lynch here

If Mr Lynch is right, how much more essential and elemental to bring the dead to their funeral for all to see and mourn, as in the case of of Mitul Shah, killed by terrorists in the Westgate mall in Kenya. 

Care more

Posted by Vale

Seth Godin has been called ‘America’s greatest marketer’. Well they go in for superlatives don’t they? But his blog – Seth’s Blog – is full of interesting ideas and reflections about the way that businesses operate.

He recently blogged about caring more and what it might mean for a business:

Politicians are held in astonishingly low esteem. Congress in particular is setting record lows, but it’s an endemic problem. The reason? They consistently act as if they don’t care. They don’t care about their peers, certainly, and by their actions, apparently, they don’t care about us. Money first.

Many salespeople face a similar problem–perhaps because for years they’ve used a shallow version of caring as a marketing technique to boost their commissions. One report by the National Association of Realtors found that more than 90% of all homeowners are never again contacted by their real estate agent after the contracts for the home are signed. Why bother… there’s no money in it, just the possibility of complaints. Well, the reason is obvious–you’d come by with cookies and intros to the neighbors if you cared.

Economists tell us that the reason to care is that it increases customer retention, profitability and brand value. For me, though, that’s beside the point (and even counter to the real goal). Caring gives you a compass, a direction to head and most of all, a reason to do the work you do in the first place.

Care More.

Spot on! If we are looking for a sense of direction as the funeral world changes around us, thinking about how we can care more seems to me to be a really good place to start.

You can find the whole piece here.