Thursday, October 31, 2013
Or The British Way Of Death
By Ken West
Published by Matador, October 8th, 2013
First of all, this is not a Mitford-esque, factual expose of the British way of death. This is a novel, but one which is based on the extensive experience of Ken West, who has spent 45 years working in bereavement services and who set up the world's first natural burial site in 1993 in the UK.
It's an unlikely subject for a novel, but it works brilliantly and I read it obsessively from cover to cover, keen to find out what happened next.
Set in Cumbria, England, it follows the lives, fortunes and misfortunes of local undertakers/funeral directors as they go about their daily work, dealing with bereaved families, struggling with recalcitrant corpses, worrying about making ends meet, greasing the palms of gravediggers and crematorium workers and then, worst of all, dealing with Ben West.
Ben is their worst nightmare: a trend-setting, forward-thinking, environmentally-friendly Bereavement Services Manager for Carlisle County Council, determined to offer people the greatest possible choice when arranging funerals for their departed loved ones.
Graham, Ronson, Brian, Bill, Roger. Willy, Peter and Jack are the undertakers described, covering a large geographical area with a wide variance in the populaces they serve. They deal with sweet little old ladies, crooks, drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally unstable people and those who are prepared to lie about the ownership of a grave plot to get a burial on the cheap, people who want pop songs at funerals and those who are adamant they will not see their "late lamented" be buried in the wrong denominational section of the graveyard. They deal with it all, but the winds of change are blowing and they will have to decide whether to accept the innovations Ben West is hell-bent on introducing or face their clients choosing options other than the traditional funeral services they provide.
The full panoply involved in collecting, preparing, embalming, burying, cremating and even exhuming the dead is introduced in this remarkably clever book; it manages to be witty, sarcastic, thoroughly irreverent, thoughtful, funny and gruesome in equal measure, and I read it straight through in one sitting, laughing out loud in places and feeling sad in others.
It is well-characterised and on the whole very well written indeed; I did notice a few typos and would perhaps have preferred less dependence on exclamation marks, but still a clever book which lays the world of the funeral director wide open.