Troubador R.I.P. Off!

Released: 01/10/2013

ISBN: 9781783061488

eISBN: 9781783068821

Format: Paperback/eBook

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R.I.P. Off!

Or The British Way of Death


Can the British laugh in the face of death and funerals? Do they really want to know what happens when they hand their body over to the men in black? You are a short time alive and a long time dead! Go on, risk it; read this irreverent fictionalised tale of real and astonishing events beginning in 1993. At times, deadly serious; at times, deadly funny. It’s the mysterious world of the funeral directors, as they try to kill off burial under trees and oppose DIY funerals. It’s a world of embalming, pink glitzy shrouds, crappy coffins, brawling at funerals and girl power. Nobody’s resting in peace. It spawns a revolution but twenty years later, who is really in control? Find out; if you dare!

Having been involved with over 100,000 funerals, and keeping detailed diaries of incidents that truly happened to him, Ken West has become somewhat of an expert on the matter. R.I.P. Off! provides a unique insight into the world of death and funerals that readers cannot gain by any other means.

R.I.P. Off! features the impact of divorce, religious dogma and belief, road and drug deaths, family disputes, poverty, obesity, health and longevity, commercialism and how death has a significant environmental impact. It shows how people deal with death in a myriad of ways, an approach that attempts to demistify death to some degree.

Written as a counter view to Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, West’s novel is an easy read that sets the scene for the UK’s own industry, which is acknowledged as a world leader in green and alternative funerals. The book will appeal to those with a penchant for black humour, who enjoy television programmes such as Six Feet Under and who possess a (not always healthy) morbid interest in death and dying.

My website includes a number of journal articles on death and funerals. These define green funerals, the changing nature of death, as well as spirituality and funerals. There is also information on my first book called 'A Guide to Natural Burial', the definitive guide to opening and managing a site, or chosing that kind of funeral. I have added a guide to Home (DIY) Funerals, focused unapologetically on low cost. Also, an advanced funeral directive, an extensive document in which a person's funeral wishes are expressed.

The Good Funeral Guide Blog, 12 December

Garden Window, 31 October, 19 October

I loved it. I very much appreciated the genre; your setting of autobiography within a professional-trade narrative. I loved the humour and I’ll be fascinated to see reviews as they emerge in different sectors. It is bound to become a classic amidst the ‘way of death’ books, and a very good one.

Best wishes


by Prof. Douglas Davies

After attending the ICCM conference this year I downloaded your book and found it amusing and interesting. To read in your latest book that you experienced similar problems and obstructions while trying to do a brilliant worthwhile job such as ours was comforting. Pioneering the natural burial sites will benefit all generations to come. There has been many occasions I have thought of writing about the experiences I have had over the last 15 years or hoped that someone else would. Raising awareness with members of the public about their choices, that they have them, when undertaking the difficult task of arranging funerals is all good. The more knowledge the better and I do support Dying Matters events.

Thank you for writing it.

by Anita Allen

Dear Ken
I am reading your book in a small "hotel" in Lalibela (Ethiopia)... Google it. I'm about 47% through the Kindle version. One word... Brilliant!
I've been involved with green burials for several years and a celebrant, somewhere between Humanist and Church, for about 10 years. As a green burial ground owner offering DIY funeral for <£1000, I'm not one of Lincolnshire's favourites with the local funeral directors, but that's life!
I hope this sends as the internet from here is not totally reliable.
Thanks for a chuckling good time.
Kind regards,Paul

by Paul Disley

Ken, I loved your book, R.I.P. Off, btw – it’s great. I think it may be one of the best ways to learn about natural burial – please feel free to put a link to it here so that people can buy it if they want. (And for you other comment readers, Ken West is known as the founder of natural burial in the UK, and I consider him my leading mentor.)

by Cynthia Beale - Natural Burial Company (USA)

Book Review: R.I.P. Off! By Ken West

RIP Off! Is Ken West’s thinly-fictionalised account of his pioneering introduction of natural burial to Carlisle in 1993. It contrasts the enthusiastic reception his invention received in the media and among the general public with the fear and loathing it aroused in local undertakers.

They didn’t understand it and regarded it as a threat both to their commercial interests and their professional status. They didn’t like Ken’s mission to empower the bereaved with information. They didn’t like his advocacy of low-cost funerals and his imputation that undertakers charge too much. They were infuriated by his charm, his humour and his success in creating publicity for his revolutionary way of disposing of the dead. They worked to undermine and discredit him.

Considering the battering Ken took in real life from the Dismal Trade, you’ll not be surprised to see him settle scores in RIP Off! He does. But his weapon of choice is not invective but satire. He debunks but he doesn’t put the boot in. He is gracious in victory. This is not how some undertakers might see it. If so, they may console themselves that it could have been a lot worse.

I suspect Ken has cause to feel much angrier than he lets on, but he refuses to cast himself as a victim and he rises serenely above rancour. This is descriptive, I think, of the strength of character he must have needed, as a local authority officer, to steer his innovative scheme through to implementation. It is rare to see the public service at the cutting edge of anything. In addition to zeal, persuasiveness and perseverance, there must have been cunning, too – of the most ethical sort, of course.

RIP Off! reads more like a thinly fictionalised memoir than a novel because it doesn’t have a conventional plot which concludes, after a period of suspense, in a resolution. It begins as story, then becomes more episodic and anecdotal. That’s not meant as a criticism. There’re plenty of insights into the hidden world of the funerals business to keep you turning the pages together with some cracking stories reworked, they have to be, from personal experience; many of them are much stranger than fiction.

Ken sets out his stall early. He characterises undertakers as a mafia as early as page 2. He pinpoints with deadly accuracy their insecurities and vanities: “all Round Table and moral rectitude”. He has a go at their disposition to think too well of themselves. A great many people who work in crematoria will cheer when they read: “The measure of a dominant funeral director was his belief that he could call the tune at all the local cemeteries and crematoria; that he could act as the top dog, as if he owned the entire facility and its staff.”

Okay, Ken can occasionally be cruel: “Brian said he could always get work because he had an O level, and this made the more cynical funeral directors refer to him as the professor.” But he can be kind, too. The portrayals of Roger, the cut-price undertaker, and Graham, who ends up working for a corporate, are not unsympathetic.

The undertakers’ trade association, BALU, embodies the self-esteem and secretiveness of its members, viewing them as “the only ones who could judge what people really needed. They were convinced that too much information would confuse and upset the bereaved; that they can be told too much.” Not much change there, then.

If the independents are nothing to write home about, the corporates are worse. When one undertaker sells up to a corporate based in Manchester of all places, “it stuck in [his] craw that although he had not provided cheap funerals, he had never been this greedy.”

It is the settled view of the view of the undertakers in RIP Off! that the hero, Ben West (see what I mean about thinly disguised) is “an isolated green weirdo” and a “fucking smartarse.” Worse, he is “an advocate of change and this … was intolerable.” The story is an account of the undertakers’ fightback. Each side enjoys victories. Or, rather, the undertakers win some skirmishes but Ben is in the business not of picking a fight with them but of campaigning in the public arena for cheaper, greener, more authentic funerals. Everyone is left standing at the end, by which time, the record shows, natural burial has gone global.

Not necessarily in the form Ben West originally envisages, though. West is an environmentalist and, appealing as natural burial is to those who would tread lightly on the Earth, and it is one of the undertakers who comes to understand what natural burial comes to mean to most people: “Graham realised that Ben had got it wrong all those years ago. Sure, there were a few people wanting to save the planet but the majority were seeking something else, here and now, something that enabled the soul to go on.”

Briefly, the future isn’t green, it’s spiritual.

It is Graham, too, who reflects at the end of the book “that [Ben] was still a voice in the wilderness. Where are they, all those young activists, the new greens, who were going to step into his shoes and give funeral directing a hard time?”

I think we may be more optimistic. The novel describes restrictive practices, notably the prevention by threats of a coffin manufacturer and carriagemaster dealing direct with the public. Today, a good many coffin suppliers deal direct with the public, as does James Hardcastle with his self-drive hearse. Things are getting better.

Running alongside the story, there are lots of good anecdotes in RIP Off!, many of them funny, some touching, some instructive. There’s an exhumation and a glimpse inside a path lab. There are the messages people leave on graves for their dead ones, including one beginning with the words ‘We have moved…’ There’s a Last Supper coffin which the audience mistakes the assembled disciples for a depiction of Showaddywaddy. And here’s a thing, did you know that the corpses of alcoholics burn faster and fiercer?

The humour throughout is, come to think of it, dark shading into black. And Ken can be extremely funny. Roger’s ancient bearers occasionally let him down by dropping dead “This was a double-edged sword; he lost a bearer but he gained a funeral.” There is no sex in the book, but it concludes with an exhortation to readers to have more.

RIP Off! Isn’t just an account of the birth pangs of natural burial. Its broader theme is the British way of death and there’s no mistaking where Ken’s heart lies. It is with simple, down-to-earth funerals organised by empowered people whose farewells are heartfelt and whose understanding is that our dead bodies are to be returned to the earth whence they came in such a way that they can do most good.

RIP Off! offers the general reader a fascinating insight into the strange and covert world of death and funerals. Those who work in the industry will agree that it holds up a mirror to what goes on. It is unquestionably funny and informative. Whether or not it is fair is a matter for hot debate.

by Charles Cowling

Briefly... I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As operators of several natural burial grounds, we share many of the experiences, which made the read particularly interesting.

The account of Ken/Ben's crusade highlighted for me the privileged position a public sector figure holds offering the ability to ruffle the complacent feathers of the funeral world, without suffering personal financial risk. We in the private sector have personal investment, investors and shareholders to consider, and run direct financial risk if we engage in such open warfare.

We exist because Ken/Ben stirred it up, and are pleased that he continues to do so.

by James Leedam

Few of us face death with the everyday familiarity of Ken West. The dead, the corpse, were the daily companions of Ken throughout his long career at Carlisle Crematorium.

He was involved with over a hundred thousand funerals and kept a detailed diary. More than that, he was a born innovator and campaigner. He saw the mafia of funeral directors, in their black suits and black cars, stifling change, controlling the funeral business to their own financial advantage.

With the backing of Carlisle Council, he was keen to introduce new, cheaper and more sympathetic ways of burying the dead. He found he had a battle on his hands.

Ken is interested in corruption, the corruption in the funeral trade, the shoddy coffins, the inflated prices and the sharp practices on the bereaved at the most vulnerable time of their lives. He fights the good fight against BALU – the British Union of Licensed Undertakers – as he tries to get the costs of funerals lower and introduces woodland burials and rentacoffins.

His novel is not a novel, but a collection of fictionalised anecdotes based on his experience at Carlisle. The man in charge is Ben West and the incidents, which he sees are stranger and more farcical than any fiction. “When a young man died (of AIDS) down the coast in Whitehaven, the council officers demanded that his coffin be encased in concrete, ( for fear that he would be contagious long after death.) He notes the rapidity of some cremations: “Another widow with a liking for the bottle . . . He knew that with alcoholics it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”

He can describe the farce of a chipboard coffin being raised from its next-to-last resting place. It was being raised because a careless funeral director had had it buried in a nondenominational plot. The family had wanted a Roman Catholic plot. “When the coffin was raised about a foot, they punctured the plastic coffin liner with a bar and the stinking water round the body streamed out of the head end and into the base of the grave. . . . They would all recall the odour for days, even in bed.”

Ben had his battles right from the start. This newly arrived “underdog” complained to “heart-throb” funeral director Flynn that his funerals were arriving late and his services over-running. A bitter show-down ensued, but Flynn’s fall “was every funeral director’s nightmare”. When the lid was lifted on Mabel’s coffin it contained Fred’s body and Mabel had found herself inside Fred’s coffin. The joke in the trade was that funeral directors got few complaints from their customers, but in this case, Flynn got the sack.

The one story Ken does not does not need to fictionalise is the robin who appears like a spiritual messenger. It rests a moment on the descending coffin, as it searches for worms in the freshly turned earth.

For Ken, “Death is ultimate leisure” and “funeral directing is the art of benevolence followed by a bill”.

This is the strangest of novels, but the most interesting of books.

Ken West writes with expert knowledge of a subject that we hold at a respectful distance. He looks at the whole business with the critical eye of a committed professional and the cynical mind of the routine practitioner.

During his years at Carlisle Crematorium, Ken worked to change a system of funerals, which were formal and over-managed by funeral directors. He sought to make them more informal and sympathetic to the needs of the families concerned. In so doing, Carlisle Crematorium played a leading role in changing the way we bury the dead.

This book, fictionalised, anecdotal, amusing and opinionated, is the closest that perhaps Ken West could get to giving a full account of the important work he did in Carlisle.

by Steve Matthews of Bookends

Ken West

My writing is also my story, perhaps less a biography and more a social history; 1950's council house poverty; eleven plus failure; buying broken biscuits from Woolworths;nervously riding my BSA Bantam during the Cuban Missile crisis, but at least I had a job. In a cemetery!

Shrewsbury Cemetery, aged fifteen, watched the bullying of a conchie gardener; destroyed the environment,and the barn owls, using American herbicides; married and bought a new semi. To Wolverhampton, my first managerial post, as head of cemeteries and crematorium; it's not called the Black Country for nothing; negotiated with intimidating childish unions taking their cue from Red Robbo at British Leyland; racial hatred in senior management. Am accused by local maternity hospital of interfering in 'time honoured arrangements', (120 years!) when I replaced the burial of stillbirths in mass graves with individual burial in the 'Babies Memorial Garden'.

Moved to the Lake District, improved the environment through conservation management and brought back the owls; invented woodland (natural) burial and opened the world's first site. Created the first green funerals, promoted cardboard coffins, sent shrouds to Turin, introduced a re-usable coffin, wrote the Charter for the Bereaved and promoted DIY funerals. Call funeral directors gatekeepers and they say I say that they are a rip-off. Away from work, athlete; Northern Veterans 10K road race champion; fell runner; strong and fast on peat bog; poor on steep, rocky descents, but still hold the Stretton Skyline fell race record 27 years later.

Somebody noticed; awarded MBE for services to burial and cremation, and I am grateful. Retired, lifestyle green, organic gardener, godless and childless, in Croydon. Watch natural burial spread worldwide, its virtue defiled by increasing commercialism; me, its godfather,accused of being an eco-warrior and uncompromising. The augur, my wife Ann, says write the definite book on natural burial, so I do. This causes me to reflect on my career of over 100,000 funerals and my conviction that a good funeral is built on awareness. Other people tell me that humour is the only way that people will read about death, so turn some of my story into black humour and write my second book, R.I.P. Off! or: The British Way of Death. Conceived in 1961,it had a confinement of 52 years experience. It's a snapshot in time, when the British started a revolution in funerals, which is continuing across the world.

Now, I'm an anonymous coffin dodger, resident in the town with the oldest population in the UK; Christchurch, a place of virtuous bungalows, where a survivor can manage when half the team dies. Statistics suggest that's me, the physically strong yet physiologically weak male, and my grave in the natural burial plot is purchased; it waits, unvisited. My obituary is embellished when Durham University award me an Honorary MA, and a prescient reporter on the Manchester Guardian pens a line for me, a journeyman writer, to envey in perpetuity; a man who put his body where his mouth is!

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