I am delighted to be able to host a Q & A interview with Ken West, author of "R.I.P. OFF!: Or The British Way Of Death".
Based on questions sent to me via social media, Ken has very kindly answered many people's queries about matters relating to funerals, and so without further ado, here is the interview:
1/ What drew you into becoming involved in the funeral industry?
Ken: At age 15 years I wanted to be a gardener and there was a vacancy at the cemetery
nursery. Later, the Superintendent offered me other posts so I moved internally, firstly
as a cemetery sexton, which meant meeting and supervising each burial and checking
grave excavations. I then moved to the crematorium to meet and supervise services and
subsequently cremate the bodies, then into the office and later into management. This is
how many people progress, starting perhaps as gravediggers, mowing operatives or office
staff. You do not progress if you do not enjoy funerals or the feedback from helping the
bereaved. The Institute of Cemetery & Crematoria Management (ICCM) have a diploma
course, and are well organised nationally. For anybody interested, my detailed CV is
available on my website at www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk.
2/ Is it a particularly stressful occupation, do you think? Dealing with the raw
emotions of people who are newly-bereaved must be very difficult sometimes……
Ken: I don’t think of it as stressful, in general. The raw emotions, as such, are quite rare and
probably expressed within the bereaved’s home situation. Some people lose their cool
occasionally, but most bereaved people have little experience of funerals and so defer to
the staff in the industry on most issues.
Obviously some people find it stressful, and they quickly leave the work. I have known
a number of people start work, and finish, within the first week. Often, they say that
this is because their partners or family are uncomfortable when they explain what the
job entails, but this may be an excuse. The stress is, I think, more a matter of reflection.
For instance, operating a cremator, with so many bodies passing through, seems to
have this effect. Once in the work, people clearly slot themselves into arenas in which
they are most comfortable. For instance, some people dislike the atmosphere of the
crematorium so stay on the cemetery side. Yet cremators are sophisticated and expensive
boys (and girls) toys and appear to fascinate some people. Gravediggers often do the
more gruesome work, not least exhumations, and this is pretty onerous in wet weather.
I have known cemetery managers who dislike exhumations and so ignore the fact that
they should supervise, and leave it entirely to their gravedigging staff. Many excellent
gardeners enjoy the horticultural excellence of crematorium gardens, but rarely, if ever,
go into the building. Cemetery grounds staff, even cemetery managers, can be enraptured
by trees and make that their focus, in a sense ignoring the fact that burials are taking
place in their beloved wooded cemetery grounds. But it is not an industry that embraces
change, consequently, it is change that really causes the stress. For instance, reducing
mowing to create wildflower areas, introducing new types of memorials, changing the
design of the Garden of Remembrance, introducing natural burial or re-usable coffins, all
this upsets somebody and they complain to you, or to councillors.
I recall that in the 1970’s, as a new manager at Wolverhampton, I met a woman whose
stillborn had been interred some years earlier. The child was in an adult sized common
grave, sometimes called a pauper grave. There were nearly 200 stillborns in that grave,
added periodically over some years, one on top of another. She asked me to agree
to remove the child’s body, something she had asked previously and been refused.
I explained to her that it was not possible because the position of the child’s coffin
was not known, neither were permanent names placed on the coffins. Consequently, a
Home Office Licence to disinter would not be approved. I left the graveside vowing
that I would never be guilty of perpetuating such practice. I devised a new scheme to
inter stillbirths in small, individual graves, which the parents could visit and tend as
they wished. The plot was to be called The Babies Memorial Garden. I was shocked to
find that even though this was to be done at no extra cost to New Cross Hospital, they
would not agree, neither were some of my staff supportive; they all preferred the status
quo. Ignoring them, I told the hospital they had no choice and gave a start date. They
wrote a dismissive letter to me, stating formally that I was changing “a time honoured
arrangement.” They were correct, and as far as I could tell, it had started in 1855! This
approach is now general in the UK, although not universal. A similar situation occurred
in the 1990’s over fetal remains and these are still poorly handled in many parts of the
3/ Do you ever have nightmares about work?
Ken: This is a challenging question. I wish I could say no but that is not true. Firstly, bad
dreams would occasionally arise, perhaps at times of stress. Most typically, I would
dream that I was supervising a funeral and running late, as holding up a funeral is an
heinous crime. Then the coffin would jam as it was lowered into the grave, because of
an error over the coffin size, my error. I would typically be looking on, unable to cope.
The nightmare, or is it just a really bad dream, was to do with operating a cremator. In the
1970’s, cremators were designed to cremate typical body sizes, to a maximum weight,
then, of perhaps fifteen stone. The very rare heavier bodies, say twenty stone, always
worried the cremator operator. They would be left to the last cremation of the day, and
sometimes proved too much for the cremator. A scenario developed in which the body
fat, something akin to petrol in incendiary value, burned at such a rate that, progressively,
the operator realised that all the various cremator controls were overwhelmed and the
cremation was out of control. Black smoke would pour out of the chimney and then
the smoke would ignite, with a blast, inside the trunking that linked the cremator to the
chimney. The smoke stopped instantly and the building literally drummed as the fire
raged in the trunking; this was called a runaway. On rare occasions, the clear body fat
ran out of the cremator and over the floor. It was the cremators version of a chimney fire,
when the soot used to ignite. The crematorium supervisor I worked with simply ran out
of the building and into the back yard and would not return until the fat burned itself out,
perhaps thirty minutes later. I used to relive this experience and occasionally wake up in
a sweat. Cremators improved greatly in subsequent decades but I am lead to believe that
the weight of current bodies has again overcome cremator capacity, and runaways are on
the increase. Where crematoria have older, and therefore, smaller cremators, they have to
refuse to cremate current large bodies.
4/ Do you think the American practice of having viewings of the deceased is one
which would ever become common-place in Britain?
Ken: It is already commonplace, and the majority of the bereaved now view bodies. In part
this is because hygienic treatment (embalming) and viewing are included in the funeral
package. This is a commercial assumption that both are essential as part of the good send
off, a fact which is not proven by any research. The implication of all this ‘care’ suggests
that viewing the deceased is routine and expected. It takes a strong person to say no, the
more so when other family or relatives and friends ask to view the body and feel it is
a slight not to do this. Few will mention the fact that nobody recognises the embalmed
Some Americans have, albeit rarely, moved beyond casket (coffin in US) viewing to
couching. This is where the body is out of the casket, placed on a chaise-longue, in a
relaxed and animate position. The intention is that the bereaved enter the chapel, by
appointment, suitable music is played and they are confronted by the deceased looking
hale and hearty, and very, very relaxed. The intention is to create a good ‘memory
picture’ and perhaps the bereaved leave the room with the belief that death is not so bad.
I might mock all this in R.I.P. Off!, as it offends me, but it may have great value for some
people. This type of service is expensive and I tend to oppose anything that pushes up
funeral costs. I also think that this denial of death is unhealthy. Whether I am fair in this
approach is a valid question.
5/ Can a person be cremated or buried without having a service or any family/
Ken: Yes, the person ordering the funeral has complete control, and can arrange this. But
at a crematorium the coffin is always taken through the chapel so given an appointed
time, and no discount on the cremation fee is given just because a service is not held.
No coffins are ever taken through the back door. With a burial, the coffin can be
taken ‘straight to grave’ so any chapel fee will not apply. One might assume that as these
direct funerals are much easier to arrange and manage, that the funeral director would
charge less. This must not be assumed, as many will still charge a package funeral price,
and would not reduce this. Such a funeral would qualify as a ‘basic’ funeral and at least
prove to be the least expensive of a number of options. Some funeral directors, often
the smaller independents, will quote for what we might term alternative funerals, so it is
necessary to contact them all and ask the pertinent questions.
As I mention in the R.I.P. Off! postscript, ‘direct cremations’ are now arranged over the
internet, and at about 50% (£1500 - £1800) of typical funeral package prices. Some of
these companies, I believe, are owned by mainstream funeral directors, hiding behind
subsiduary companies. This is because they fear that this kind of funeral is going to
increase, so want to penetrate the market at this early stage. Typically, they collect the
body, take it to a crematorium for cremation with no ceremony, and place the cremated
remains in the Garden of Remembrance at the crematorium. An additional fee can be paid
to have the cremated remains returned to the bereaved in a casket. This is ideal if it is
intended to hold a funeral service over the cremated remains, perhaps at home or at a
favourite beauty spot, where the remains are to be strewn. Where people are comfortable
with this approach then they might find that their local funeral director will quote for
such a service, so it is worth asking.
The internet firms can be assumed to own the crematorium or have a contract with
the owners, which also assumes they negotiate a reduced cremation fee because of the
numbers involved. Some of these companies will use a local crematorium of your choice,
but a higher charge can then be anticipated. A number of natural burial sites also collect
the body, inter it, with or without attendance. The bereaved will still buy a lease for the
grave and be free to visit subsequently.
This direct approach also avoids a clergy or celebrant fee, typically about £150.00. Any
family member(s) or friends can act as the celebrant at any funeral, of course, and avoid
6/ Is there any particular funeral you will always remember?
Ken: Funerals are remembered for often bizarre reasons. Where somebody shouts out
profanities, or there is a lot of laughing, then these are always remembered, as are
funerals of murdered or abused infants or children, and drug deaths. It is not unusual
for one mourner, usually a male, to attend such funerals, manacled to a prison warder.
Because I started natural burial in the early 1990’s, and the bereaved decided that they
did not need to conform to old stereotypes, I shall always remember those funerals. The
first use of cardboard coffins, or coffins painted with flowers and suchlike, a grandchild
reading his book on oak trees over the open grave of his dead grandad, a family pouring
malt whisky over the coffin; all these things were revolutionary in the early 1990’s.
7/ What is the longest funeral service you have known?
Ken: Cremation times have always been programmed, and up to 1990, thirty minutes was
the norm and just a few authorities restricted services to twenty minutes. Thirty minutes
just about allows a routine religious service with two hymns. This was not enough time
if a high number of mourners attended, as it takes more time to enter and exit the chapel.
There were increasing complaints about this conveyor belt process which lead to myself
and others suggesting that 40 – 45 minutes should be the norm. This is generally the case
now, and some crematoria offer one hour. Even where time is restricted to thirty minutes,
it has always been usual to allow a double time upon request, often for an additional
charge, so a large funeral can be managed.
Burial, being just 30% of total funerals, has much higher capacity because it is often
spread over a number of cemeteries, so they were rarely restricted on time. That said,
funeral directors and the clergy often have other funerals to attend so would still work
closely to the thirty minutes. More time would be anticipated for funerals where we
expected a large congregation, which in the past would include deceased auctioneers,
hotel or garage owners. Now, the large congregations attend tragic deaths, such as those
of a young person. West Indian and traveller funerals are well attended, and have long
graveside services. They often want their own mourners to back-fill the grave, or they start
this and then watch the cemetery staff complete the work. Most cemeteries would make
this the final funeral of the day, and anticipate several hours before everybody leaves.
Many chapels have pews in wood, which are usually hard seats and often with poor back
support. Consequently, I found that elderly people could find long services very tiring
and uncomfortable, so seating needs considering. Services outside are also challenging,
especially for the old and in inclement weather. The majority of services are now secular
(63%) and often more than one family member will give a homily. These tend to be
longer services but are often entertaining, emotional and sometimes funny, and nobody
seems to mind the extra time taken.
8/ With the problem of obtaining enough land for burials, how feasible would it be
for woodland burials to become more popular? Is each “plot” rented for a set period
of time and can it then be reused? What would happen to any skeletal remains in a
plot if it was re-sold to someone else to use? What do you think about the re-use of
grave plots generally after a period of time?
Ken: Land used for woodland burials becomes an ecological resource benefiting clean air
and wildlife diversity. The sites are often surrounded by farmed soils, which are rapidly
declining in quality due to the use of artificial, oil derived, fertilisers. Woodland or
natural burial is open space in its purest form, and an ideal way of ‘resting’ the land and
allowing it to recover its natural balance. The real problem is that the available land is not
where the people reside, so people in urban areas are denied woodland burial. In theory, a
body can be moved from the city and interred in the countryside, but if people then drive
to visit the site every week, then any environmental benefit is lost.
Each grave is leased, usually for a period of up to 100 years, whether natural burial or
conventional grave. This is called an ‘Exclusive Right of Burial’ and is granted to the
person arranging the funeral, who is then required to authorise each burial, except his or
her own, which is a given. Graves vary in depth and one burial (4’6”deep) or two burials
(6’ 0”deep) is usual, with some cemeteries doing three or four burials, usually those
which started as Victorian cemeteries.
The graves cannot be re-used, unlike in Europe. Even where the lease has run out, we are
not allowed to disturb human remains without a Home Office Licence and/or a Faculty
from the Church of England. A colleague of mine, Ian Hussein, proposed a new re-use
technique called ‘lift & deepen’ but although it has broad support, the government will
not draft the legislation to permit it. The idea is to excavate the grave after, say, 75 years,
place the remains in a small box, and inter these deeper in the same grave. That would
allow two new burials in the grave and it could be repeated ad infinitum. It is anticipated
that some existing grave owners would be keen on this, as it would avoid the cost of a
new grave, and keep family members together. Where existing grave owners do not want
to maintain ownership, the plot would be sold to new owners. This will ensure that burial
space is always available for the use of the local community. I am in total support for this
process, not least because the Parish churchyard operated this way for perhaps a thousand
years. This was because, unlike in cemeteries, no lease was (or is) sold in churchyards
and the vicar has total control. In the past they buried over a churchyard, tipping the spare
soil over old graves. Then, as graves were not marked by memorials, they simply carried
out further burials over the previous ones. It kept the churchyard relatively small, so was
efficient and low cost.
With natural burial, the situation is more complex. At sites where trees are planted on
the grave, re-use will not be anticipated or feasible. But many natural burial sites, those
on farmland and interring in meadows or glades, would have the opportunity to re-use,
assuming the legislation is introduced. In my first book ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’,
a process to use natural burial in old urban cemeteries is described, but it has yet to be
implemented. It reduces grave maintenance costs by 80% and greatly increases wildlife
diversity and air quality. Incidentally, it costs about £4.00 per year for a council to
decently maintain a grave. If you inflate this over, say, a 75 year lease, it costs the council
well over £2,000 per grave. Many councils only charge £300 - £500 for a lease, which is
why cemeteries operate at a massive deficit, which is charged to council tax.
In London only, special powers exist to allow unused space in old graves to
be ‘reclaimed’, a process I managed at Croydon. The grave must be over 75 years old,
and a list of grave numbers to be reclaimed must be published in local newspapers and
in the absence of any interest from families, the unused grave space is re-leased. The
existing burials cannot be disturbed and only the space over them is used. Any memorial
on the grave can also be reused, with the new lessee required to put this into a safe and
decent order. This all helps to tidy up neglected grave plots. Overall, because no new land
is used, and the grave is already under grounds maintenance, this is a low cost option and
is well used, in Croydon at least. The problem is that only about four London Boroughs,
of 33, have actually introduced it. Whether this is due to lack of skill, or the avoidance of
stress, has yet to be explained. The press usually have a field day when such proposals
are made, and councillors lose their nerve.
9/ Could councils provide general funeral services as part of their current remit in
providing crematoria/cemeteries? Could it be made cost-effective to provide such a
service but also more affordable for those families who might otherwise struggle to
pay the normal cost a funeral but are not eligible to receive state help with the cost
of a funeral?
Ken: Firstly, an average cremation funeral costs £3,500. A burial based funeral is about the
same but as a memorial is assumed, this will cost a further £1500. In London, expect to
pay a few hundred pounds more for cremation, but as graves often cost £3,000 alone, a
burial might reach £5,000 - £6,000 plus the memorial.
Councils can provide a funeral service but do not have the powers to act as a funeral
director, which is legally defined as ‘the conveyance of a body and coffin’. Consequently,
if councils want to do this, which is rare, they are legally required to contract the service
out, usually to a local funeral director. He or she must advertise the service as, say,
the ‘Cardiff City Funeral Service’. In Cardiff, where I re-tendered the pre-existing service,
a cremation funeral was available at around £1500. As a ‘basic’ funeral, it requires the
family to use a standard coffin, restrict viewing to convenient times in the day, and
not expect the funeral director to order flowers or do things they could do themselves.
When the funeral cortege arrives at the crematorium, I would challenge anybody to see
any difference between this and a non council funeral. As it explains in R.I.P. Off!, the
expensive coffins people often choose with a funeral director are still chipboard, and the
appearance is purely superficial.
The problem for councils is twofold. Firstly, they need a skilled Bereavement Services
Manager to prepare a funeral specification and manage the process. Secondly, they
need to locate a funeral director willing to break ranks with their profession and submit
a tender. Even where this happens, there is the suggestion that on occasion the funeral
directors have agreed amongst themselves only to submit high tenders. As I mention
in the postscript to the novel, the Direct Cremations now offered by some internet firms
holds cremation funerals down to £1500 or thereabouts, so this may influence the funeral
market. No internet direct burial options are available.
10/ Would you advise people to seriously consider documenting what their wishes
are for their own funerals, and making their immediate family aware of their
Ken: Yes, and this is one of the reasons why I wrote R.I.P. Off! Many of the problems
with bereavement arise purely because people will not talk about or prepare for their
death, which creates the crisis scenario when it happens. Death is not an illness but it
is inevitable, and often abrupt. It is important to know what kind of death is wanted,
where it should occur, such as at home, and what kind of funeral is desired. This clears
away much of the dissonance which occurs after death, and it is then therapeutic, and
involving, to follow those wishes. There are two considerations here, a will and an
advance funeral directive. If ones death can be discussed, the making of a will is more
likely, which is the only certain way to protect partners and children, and ensure they
can control any estate as well as the funeral. It also means the survivors know the more
practicable stuff, such as whether the deceased’s pension died with them, and what their
financial future looks like.
Detailed funeral wishes are rare in a will, and the will may be read after the funeral has
occurred. The solution is an advance funeral directive, in which funeral details are clearly
expressed. This completed document must be known and available to the person who will
be arranging the funeral. There are significant, psychological benefits with this process.
For instance, if the deceased left precise instructions that the funeral should be basic
and low cost, it empowers the survivors to hold out against commercial exploitation.
Otherwise, they will be made to feel guilty if they do not spend, spend, spend. For me,
and many I suspect, I prefer donations to the hospice instead of flowers, no embalming
and no viewing. If you visit my website www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk then one of the
downloads is a free advance funeral directive.
Elizabeth @ The Garden Window: Ken, very many thanks indeed for taking the time to answer our questions in such detail. It's a subject which every family needs to discuss and plan for, and both your book and the information you have provided in this interview will be used by our family members. Thank you once again!
My review of Ken's brilliant novel can be found here.