Where The Bodies Are Buried: Ru Callender On Undertaking & Acid House

Undertaker-slash-author Ru Callender talks to Will Burns about dreams, ritual and MDMA

Photo by Thomas Ecke

Rupert Callender has lived a life filled with both trauma and transcendence, has survived perhaps the last gasps of the determinedly Victorian, truly brutal British boarding school system, experienced the uncanny English landscape through the phenomena of crop circles, and found a tribal sense of belonging at the height of acid house. All this, and perhaps most importantly, his eventual discovery of a true vocation as a radically different kind of undertaker has been poured into his book, What Remains?, a contemplative, clear-eyed study of both one person’s life, caught as it is somewhere between the spiritual, the psychological and the physical, and the broad philosophical questions that life, as lived, inevitably raises.

Callender’s prose always talks straight and his critical faculties spare none – not the industrial complex behind the business of funerals, the choices of his own family when confronted with grief, and most profoundly, most movingly, his own decisions and shortcomings. The result is a memoir of genuine originality, covering ground that skilfully ties together aspects of culture, particularly the culture of dissent, perhaps even of anarchy, with the very biggest questions we face as living beings, possessed as we are of the fore-knowledge of death. It’s a moving, heavy book that also yields moments of light and finally asserts the awesome potential of human love.

The following interview took place for that quintessentially post-Covid forty minutes over Zoom.

I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to ritual and the idea of ritual. Is it something you were conscious of being interested in as a child or did it come a little bit later?

I suppose it’s very difficult to untwine ritual, magic and art. So it probably has gone back a long while, and certainly the two things that influenced me as an undertaker were, as I say in the book, my experiences at raves and my experience around crop circles, which sound almost contradictory things. But when I was eighteen I was lucky enough to find myself in the nascent acid house scene – not right back at the beginning by any means – but I was lucky enough to discover it. And it changed my life. Just being plunged into a thing which seemed to be conjured out of nowhere, really, this joyous essence – a sexless, classless, ageless place profoundly influenced me. It also showed me that really you could create something which was basically religious in its feel without any kind of dogma.

There’s these contradictions, complications throughout the book, the spiritual and the material, the ecstatic and the conceptual. Is that something that your interests and vocation have taught you?

I suppose it is. A lot of what I say in the book and a lot of what I believe is contradictory. It’s that Whitman quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well…” My own beliefs and hopes about what might happen after death come, like everybody else, from a fear of death. But I very much feel that my work is absolutely about separating any kind of ideas of other realms and just concentrating on the family. Thomas Lynch, the undertaker, says “people always say, I want to remember them as they were.” And he says, “well, remembering them as they were starts with seeing them as they are.” So there’s a kind of dichotomy between the way I work with families, which is very kind of material and I feel that it’s not my job to offer any kind of sense of the numinous, but allow people to discover it.

I was interested in the etymology of the word ‘undertaker’. You’re at pains to talk about language and its use around death and grief. I wondered if that was always something you’ve been interested in?

I was always interested in words and their impact, and I think probably it goes back to when my father died and there was a lot of unspoken euphemism surrounding his death. My father was an elder in the in the Church of Scotland in his local kirk and the minister came to give me a sort of ‘this is where your dad is now’ talk. Elvis had died the month before, which was the first public death that I cried over. And I can see in retrospect that it was pre-mourning for my dad. And then Marc Bolan died the day after. And the idea of the heaven that was being presented to me then seemed just absurd. So I think my argument against all these euphemisms goes back to that kind of religious fluffiness. The funeral industry thrives on euphemisms too. Their euphemism for embalming is ‘hygienic treatment’, which makes it sound like you wipe someone down with an anti-septic cloth instead of what you’ve actually done. So right from the beginning of the work I could see that euphemisms were deeply, deeply unhelpful because they’d been deeply unhelpful to me. No one had really been clear to me when my father was ill that he was dying or that he could die. And I’d been told that he wouldn’t. And then when he did die, I was furious, because I felt like I’d been excluded from a family secret.

You use this phrase towards the end of the book where you say that you experienced an ‘existential loneliness’ in a postmortem room. And I thought that phrase was a kind of retrospective keynote for the book – your life at boarding school, your bereavement and grief, life at the mill. I wondered if you think that existential loneliness is something you’ve carried through your life – perfect material for the ‘metaphysical bridge’ you describe yourself as between the living and dead?

Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but absolutely it did. I think that moment shone a spotlight on how I felt. It is a retrospective thread and it’s something I still battle with, really. I’ve been in therapy for thirty years now, with two therapists on and off. But writing this book has kind of sent me back into a kind of different form of therapy, where basically I realised I should have had supervision. When I was working with my ex-wife, Claire, we didn’t really need supervision because it was unspoken. We went through the experience together, so we didn’t actually need to talk about it afterwards. It all stems from that crucial year when my father died and I was then exiled to boarding school. And really I’’ve weaponised it to become what I am. As soon as my father died and I realised that people you loved could just walk out of the door and you’d never see them again. And that terror of that happening has been a part of my life.

I wondered if writing and doing the other work you do now feels different, somehow, in the face of the climate disaster that we all know we face?

Well, I suppose they’ve changed as I’ve got older. I did used to think that things like writing a book was an act of posterity and you would carry on into the next generation. But now writing a book is for the moment – there’s no guarantee that I’m going to live forever, actually, because I’ve written a book. Undertakers have this dream – I haven’t had it, but Thomas Lynch talks about it – in which you’ve buried everybody else on earth and there’s only you left. I think that is a burden that undertakers take on whether they know it or not. To not slip into nihilism about it is really the thing. What keeps pulling me back and has kept pulling me back and held me there for twenty-three years is just the courage and humanity of everyday people, of completely ordinary people who are plunged into the worst thing ever. And to watch them not fall apart and to watch them support other people around them and be supported is incredibly, incredibly uplifting. But when faced with the idea that might be gone in fifty or a hundred years – the idea of human love – it’s quite difficult.

I talk in other parts of the book about anyone who works with trauma benefiting from some form of therapy. And I talk about the use of MDMA, which is now becoming quite medicalised. And I do think that all of us who work in these fields have a duty to ourselves to kind of shake off that trauma. But now that’s everybody, really. And how we collectively shake off the trauma. And it’s very difficult to know, I think.

I read a quote that I think was Tennessee Williams that we are living in a perpetually burning house and we must save from it, all the time, is love. That’s all we have to take out of it. And it is hard to do in practice because, you know, life overwhelms you. The tedium and the drudgery and the stress of everyday life overwhelms you. And I hope I haven’t completely nullified it yet. I hope I’ve avoided nihilism in the same way that I’ve avoided false hope. I didn’t want to make it absolutely bleak. I didn’t want to make it uplifting. But I did want people to know that my primary experience of being around the dead is that whatever, wherever they are or wherever they’re not, it definitely feels okay on a kind of fundamental human level. It doesn’t feel that they’re in some awful place. And that’s the only kind of realistic hope I can kind of offer – other than the redemptive power of loving each other.

What Remains: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Ru Callender is published by Chelsea Green

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