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The Upside Down: Why Our Rituals of Death Need Re-Thinking

John Mitchinson reflects on what he learned about the ‘baffling presence of absence’ when his father died in his arms

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It is one of the inevitable consequences of getting older that you spend more time at funerals. As friends and family age and fall ill, not only do questions about one’s own mortality crowd in, but the rituals – or lack of rituals – that surround death in our culture are brought into sharp focus. 

By the time of my own father’s death in June, I was already questioning the recent hours I’d spent in grim crematoria, feeling alienated by the mismatch between the people I’d known and loved and the one-size-fits-all nature of their farewell ceremonies.

And then I happened upon a book by a remarkable man called Rupert Callender. 

Callender is, defiantly, an undertaker not a euphemistically polished ‘funeral director’. A former punk, acid house raver and the creator of crop circles, he is not someone to be cowed by the faux-Victorian trappings of the traditional death industry, which he describes as “bad theatre”. 

His book, What Remains?, is part memoir, part polemic, part mystical text, and is grounded in his experiences of helping people bury their dead over the past 20 years. 

His Green Funeral Company is based on strong guiding principles: “I stand for less regulation and more personal responsibility. I stand for more risk and less caution. I stand for the electrifying moment of unfettered human to human contact”. It was that last phrase that resonated with me, as it so perfectly captured what I’d experienced with my own father.

Regular readers of this column will know about the slightly unnerving nature of my father’s death, in my arms on the way to a hot bath. I had seen dead people before but never had to deal with them in such a direct way. As my stepmother went to call the doctor, I managed to lift him onto the bed. He was very unambiguously dead, but still warm, his eyes and mouth open.

The Upside Down: The Ruffian on the Stair

For this month’s column, John Mitchinson pens a personal reflection on why knowing about what kills us makes it no less mysterious

There is an intimacy in being in the presence of a very recently dead person that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Callender captures it perfectly as “the throbbing dissonance between what you have been anticipating for so long and the fact that it has happened, that everything has changed – and nothing has changed”.

What happened next surprised me. I started talking to him, reassuring him that all would be well. I closed his eyes and undressed him, removing the incontinence pad he’d so disliked. Using a flannel and water from the still-hot bath, I washed and dried him gently, and dressed him in a clean pair of pants. Then I brushed his hair and beard and cut a couple of locks from each. I knew my brother would want some physical remains of his own to take home. 

Later, I sat and talked to him with a whisky in hand, pouring the last of it into his open mouth. None of this was what I’d expected to do; I just found myself doing it, making up my own ritual, balancing the sadness with love. 

Given how many people die alone in hospital, or how swiftly the bodies of the dead are taken from us, it’s hard to express how grateful I feel to have had this time with my father’s cooling corpse – not a shell but definitely not the person of an hour earlier. It touched the core of what Callender’s book is about: facing our fear and squeamishness about the dead and using our own bodies to understand the simple enormity of what has happened to theirs – “that baffling presence of absence”.

I never asked my father why he wanted to be buried but my guess is that he regretted the cremation of his parents in a municipal crematorium where the only memorial is a book of remembrance that opens once a year. I suspect he felt the lack of a place to go (I know I did).

The plot he and my stepmother had chosen was in the graveyard of a small 12th Century church in the next village. As he was lowered into the ground, on a sunny afternoon in early July, songs were sung, toasts were made, and malt whisky was poured over his sea-grass coffin. He would, we all joked, have loved it. 

Many of us knew what was in that coffin, had seen his body that very morning. My father was both there and not there, but more there than not. 

What surprised me was that this mattered. Knowing that what remains of him is under the earth, becoming part of the ground where for a thousand years people have performed their own rituals of farewell, doesn’t feel morbid or ghoulish. It feels right. 

To borrow Rupert Callender’s fine phrase, it feels like “the creation of a sacred space from nothing”.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher. He is the co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books, the co-host of the popular books podcast ‘Backlisted’, and a vice-president of the Hay Festival. He was a senior writer for BBC’s ‘QI’

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