Book Review by Dr. Isabella Watts
What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022. ISBN-13: 978-1645020509).
In What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking Rupert Callender weaves information about the funeral industry with autobiographical experiences to share important lessons about the profession. Callender believes the industry needs to change so that individuals and their families experience a more humane ritual in their time of grief. My clinical work as a doctor significantly influenced how I interpreted this book, as I was constantly struck by parallels between the undertaker’s and the doctor’s role in ordinary people’s lives. Yet as death and funerals are unavoidable, people from all walks of life will find Callender’s message relevant.
I thought I knew a reasonable amount about death. I work in a hospital setting, and spent time in acute medicine during the COVID-19 pandemic. But after reading this book, I realised how much I didn’t know, and how important it is for doctors to learn more. You can never become numb to the experience of someone dying, but as a medical clinician, you get to step away once you have completed the formal act of “certifying” a death (when you ensure a patient has no pulse, breath sounds, or brain activity). Of course, you talk to the families and answer their questions about the illness their loved one faced, but often this is your last point of contact. Even the process of cleaning a body and taking the patient down to the mortuary is entirely done by the nursing staff and healthcare assistants. I had never thought about the next steps—very few doctors do. After reading Callender’s book, I pondered whether our ignorance is a disservice to both our patients and their families. Doctors, like undertakers, repeatedly bear witness to the human experience of death, yet we know as much about mourning rituals and planning funerals as the average person.
Readers of What Remains? will share Callender’s experience navigating the vulnerabilities that go along with this line of work. The book opens with Callender making crop circles in fields, his personal ritual for processing the mental strain of his job and then leaving the bad feelings behind. He explains that all undertakers have specific methods for dealing with the intensity of the work. His early relationships with grieving families brought him close to burnout, as he was naïve to the implications of working so closely with them without a method to offload his emotions (in subsequent chapters, readers witness just how intimate these relationships can become). A funeral director’s well-meaning advice led to his absence from his father’s funeral, and this lack of closure haunted his adult life, partly driving his passion to reform the industry. He details how he worked to include children in funeral rituals, getting them to fire flaming arrows at a funeral pyre or allowing primary school classmates to say goodbye to their friend in home setting (the girl’s body was kept cool in the family home rather than at a funeral parlour). Anyone reading the book will realise how important these personal interactions are to the funeral industry as well as how rare they are.
Undertakers witness the whole range of humanity, an experience I found remarkably similar to my day-to-day work as a doctor. Whilst you often see people at the lowest points in their life, you also witness the strength and compassion of the community surrounding them. I was particularly struck by a story in chapter twelve (aptly named “Extraordinary Ordinary People”) detailing how a community came together for the funeral a homeless man. The ritual ended with around eighty people carrying his coffin in a procession while other homeless friends and acquaintances read poems. This is one of those privileged moments when you see how far both friends and relative strangers will go to help one another. What Remains? highlights our communal spirit in the face of grief, a basic kindness that is surely at the root of our collective humanity.
Callender describes the undertaker as the “last touch of humanity” for families dealing with the loss of a loved one. For me, his approach to undertaking reads like a step-by-step guide to the profession from an individual who started as an outsider, wide-eyed and with only a battered car and a plank of wood for a stretcher, and kept his youthful faith. Traditional undertakers are often distant, and Callender pushes for more family interactions. He believes the funeral industry has become too detached from the realities of death and the struggles of relatives, focusing instead on profits. His own philosophy may be at the extreme end of the spectrum, yet without a doubt his focus is entirely on the families and friends of the individuals grieving. He talks a great deal about how acid-house and punk culture gave him a philosophy that helped his fight against the establishment (and a community that he can rely on during hard times).
What Remains? can act as both a teaching tool, a heartwarming story of humanity, and a perceptive guide to a changing industry. Most people do not think about the funeral industry until they come into contact with it; however, Callender’s insights about the personal nature of death, about how undertakers should treat families, and about how families can support one another (and especially children) in tragedy are fascinating human topics. All of us will be touched by death at some point, and I know that I will definitely return to this book. Callender’s stories have transformed how I approach families at the hospital bedside.