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Press articles: Green Endings - Humanist undertaker, funeral director London & M25 Area.

Personal undertaking
by John Cunningham, Wednesday January 16, 2002, The Guardian.

"Roslyn Cassidy doesn't claim to be able to turn grief into joy at the funerals she organises, but she can conjure up a sky blue coffin painted with white doves, or provide a torch song singer at the graveside. Indeed, she takes on as a cheerful challenge almost anything a bereaved family requests to personalise a burial and break with the ossified British rituals surrounding death.

As such requests have included fulfilling an elderly man's wish to be buried in his back garden, it is not surprising that Cassidy is an undertaker who specialises in eco-friendly - and highly individualised - funerals. However, that hardly describes the extent of her work.

Born in South Africa, Cassidy has been in London for more than 20 years. She spent a decade as an NHS physiotherapist, in hospitals and community clinics, trained as a counsellor and obtained an MBA with the idea of going into health service management. But then she heard about a green niche in the funeral business.

Though most funerals follow the well-trodden path from prayers and parson to hearse and headstone, and though many local undertakers have been bought up by big companies, Cassidy sensed an unmet need for something different. "Death has been taken out of our hands," she says. "Not only do the majority of deaths occur hidden in hospital, but funeral directors have accepted responsibility for the whole funeral.

"I could see that while traditional directors offer a good service, they don't offer choice. People's lives are so individual, it just seemed crazy to me that a funeral is like a conveyor belt, when it is possible to create something completely different."

That in part means environmental, woodland funerals. Also, it is about getting the bereaved family involved to a degree that used to be customary until a few generations ago, when relatives and neighbours washed and dressed the corpse, then held a wake around it. And it means family involvement in planning a ceremony that is not a standardised ritual, but devised specifically to reflect the life of the deceased.

Cassidy, 44, who set up her own business, Green Endings, 18 months ago in Tufnell Park, north London, recognises the important role still played by churches and hospitals in helping the dying and their relatives. But, as with old-style undertakers, there is a limit to what they can do - and what is expected.

She has been to church funerals where the mourners have not known when to respond "Amen" to the prayers. She has seen families distressed because well-meaning nurses in hospital viewing rooms have crossed the arms over the chest of a dead person, and put flowers in their hands, when it was not the way they remembered their relative in life.

To bypass these hurt feelings, Cassidy says she wants to "empower" the bereaved. But personalising the funeral - which could involve arranging a graveside picnic, or finding a lesbian or humanist celebrant, or even a white witch - is only part of it.

Cassidy's concern is equally with the living. Relatives need consoling and comforting in the trauma of loss, she believes, and the hours she spends with them are a form of counselling. Indeed, she says there is enough need among her clients for someone to do this full-time. It is not a regular part of an undertaker's role, but why shouldn't it be - especially for someone trained in co-counselling, as Cassidy is?

She replies that it is something she would very much like to do, but details the problems and practicalities that would be involved. "What I've found is that everybody can use a bereavement counsellor; there has to be some degree of being able to tell their story."

By being a sympathetic listener when relatives are distressed, she is, of course, filling that role on an ad hoc basis. But making it part of her service? "I'm not sure how I'd fit it in," she admits.

At the moment, she says, when she asks people if they would like her to put them in touch with a counsellor, they think she means a psychologist. "And if you need a psychologist, you're bonkers; you must have a mental health problem. It's quite difficult getting people to talk outside the context of the funeral.

"Yet I could go to someone's house and be there for four hours, easily, because they want to tell you how sad or furious they are. But it's difficult to cost that in, to say: 'I'm charging you for this time.'

"I haven't worked out a way of doing it, but it's a very interesting problem because that's the most meaty bit of the work. My role is to hold everything together until the day of the funeral; and to add another role to that - to set up a separate relationship where they relate to me as the counsellor - that takes a quantum leap, I think, for an individual. But we'll see."

Earth to Earth
by Mary Flanagan, 2002, The Independent Magazine.

Most of us have a fantasy funeral; a horse drawn bier, a flaming long-ship, ashes scattered on the Aegean. But since we seldom prepare for it in advance, our families usually find themselves on the British conveyor-belt rite of passage. Death has been appropriated by hospitals, doctors and undertakers.

A woodland funeral and burial location. Green Endings - Humanist undertaker, funeral director London & M25 Area.
Like many gardeners, I'd love to be buried in my own plot where my nearest and dearest could plant an apple tree on my grave and later consume me in my fruity incarnation. But is this possible in prosaic Britain? The answer is yes, and I've just met a woman who can arrange it.

Her name is Roslyn Cassidy, you can find her at Green Endings in Tufnell Park in London, and she is the capitals only funeral director to specialise in eco-friendly and personalised funerals. She also offers religious, humanist, DIY, pre-planned and traditional ceremonies. "I want people to know they have an alternative."

I was surprised to learn that garden burials have always been legal, even in small urban gardens. There is no need for an officiant, religious or otherwise. In fact many people conduct their own ceremonies. In 1994, the department of the Environment confirmed that planning permission was not required for burying two people in a back garden. However it is a good idea to contact environmental health officers, since they have the power to prevent burials that might present a health hazard. Embalming is, in most cases, unnecessary.

But what happens if you move house? The ideal arrangement is, of course, that the dwelling remains in the family perpetually, but such happy stability is rare these days. Those with the requisite space often set aside a burial site with its own access and a provision that the land will never be sold with the house. The grave must also be noted on the title deed and you could add a provision for visiting rights. None of these is likely to tempt prospective buyers.

Alternatives do exist. Ashes are more practical, provided you want cremation. They can be scattered over the garden and the event commemorated with a tree planting or a portable memorial. You could also bury the ashes in an urn, retrieve them if you ever sell and consign them to a new garden. Many stone carvers will supply alternative gravestones, bird baths or sundials, which are easily transported.

In fact the only limitations are finances and imagination. The wake and service could be held in the garden and the body cremated or interred elsewhere.

A secluded woodland l burial location. Green Endings - Humanist undertaker, funeral director London & M25Woodland burials are also growing in popularity. Not only are they cheaper than traditional funerals, but they are more environmentally friendly. (The formaldehyde in embalming fluid can contaminate watercourses, coffin handles are often plastic and smoke from crematoriums compounds the greenhouse effect). Woodland burials require biodegradable coffins, and a tree is planted on or near the grave. Some sites are meadows where bulbs or wildflowers are substituted for trees.

The pioneering Natural Death Centre founded the Association of Nature Reserve Burial Grounds in 1994, and new sites are being created around the country, some in beautiful mature woodland like the South Downs Natural Burial Site in Hampshire but most in newly established grounds.

Woodlands should replicate those existing naturally in the area, so only native trees, shrubs, seeds and bulbs should be used. There are no markers or memorials. One communes with dead simply by sitting in natural surroundings. Many local councils are now establishing burial sites within existing cemeteries such as Forest Gate in East London. Outside the capital, there are many more.

Its rare to hear the word 'gorgeous', especially when referring to their trade, but this is how Roslyn describes the ceremonies she has designed. Coffins are painted or draped in sumptuous fabrics and services have included poetry readings, picnics, music, singing, dancing and photographic exhibitions of the dead. Usually there are no formal floral displays. Instead, each person brings one flower to lay on the coffin. Some families adopt the African custom of mourners helping to fill the grave, while others also push the bier. I read of one extrovert who had his ashes shot up in the sky in fireworks and of a cortege that became a 250 mile pub crawl. The most touching description was that of the funeral of an eight year-old girl whose grave was lined with moss and leaves, like a nest for a baby bird.

Roslyn has always been interested in issues of loss and grief and regards funerals as therapy. She encourages her clients not to shrink from death but to embrace it, inviting family members to see the body and to help with washing and dressing, as Muslims and Sikhs do. "Most people are afraid at first, but they find they are pleased to come and often don't want to leave". She also acts as a counsellor, spending time with clients, allowing them to talk, to cry and be 'passionate'.

She believes that funerals should be unique and celebrate the life of the deceased. Green burials place death within the "richness and fecundity of life and so reclaim it from the medical profession".

So why doesn't everyone want them? Mainly because they are unaware of the options. "Its simply a matter of informing people", she says. In which respect, you do no better than acquire The Natural Death Handbook, a fascinating and invaluable guide to burial sites, cemeteries, prices, legalities, coffins, funeral directors and DIY funerals, which is available from the Natural Death Centre ().

Sean O'Hagan Observer Article

An aernative woodland funeral. Green Endings - Humanist undertaker, funeral director London & M25 AreaWhen the deceased come crashing into our lives without warning – at least three times in the average lifetime – they tend to shatter not just our routine, but our fragile sense of self. They fill us with sadness and loss, and sometimes capsizing grief, but they also mock all our earthly attempts to deny or ignore the truth that they – the suddenly, shockingly, unbelievably dead – convey: ‘As I am now, you too will be’. Death, to borrow one of Thomas Lynch’s favourite expressions, may just be another one of life’s many ‘unremarkable and verifiable truths’, but it is the final and irreversible one. That is why we are in such a state of collective terminal denial about it.

Or are we? Of late, there have been signs that we may be finally coming to terms, belatedly making some reluctant accommodation with eh great inevitable. In recent years, there has been a spate of best-selling books that have dealt with the intimate bonds between the living and the dying. Then there’s the recent cult success of Six Feet Under, the imported American television series set in a funeral home. It would certainly seem that a new realism, albeit an irony-tinged one, is being expressed towards death and dying in the popular arts.

More revealing still of our changing attitudes is the growing popularity of the alternative undertaker. On a Friday morning, I am on my way to another kind of funeral, a green one to be exact. I want to see, first hand, if a less sombre, more celebratory, ceremony will alter my own longstanding refusal to countenance, never mind plan, the manner of my own departing. I am being driven down to Hampshire by Roslyn Cassidy, a petite and engaging South African whom I met for the first time a week ago, and am quickly getting to know. In the back is John, whom I have never met before, and will never get to know. He is lying horizontally across the folded-down seats, encased head to toe in untreated pine.

My newfound familiarity with the dead is not making the journey seem any less surreal. The coffin is covered with a woven blanket so as not to startle passing lorry drivers or daydreaming motorists idling at a red light, but I keep wondering what will happen if we have to break suddenly.

Or if we crash. The dead, as Lynch attests, may not care, but they still matter, not least to their living loved ones. Our destination – John’s final one – is the South Downs Natural Burial Site, set in a 53-acre woodland area. There, in a simple, non-religious ceremony with only a handful of close friends and family in attendance, he will be laid to rest in his unvarnished, biodegradable coffin amid hawthorn, hazel and birch, hymned only by birdsong and the lowing of nearby cattle. Later, a tree of his family’s choosing will be planted on his grave.

This is the new, ecologically friendly face of death and dying; the funeral as an acknowledgement of our transient place in the natural world rather than a religious ritual marking our passing into the next one. It is a rapidly expanding industry.

Celebrating a woodland burial. Green Endings - Humanist undertaker, funeral director London & M25 Area‘We are fast becoming the local funeral directors’, Roslyn had told me earlier when I visited Green Endings, this bright and welcoming north London funeral service she runs. ‘Put simply, we offer more. People nowadays are used to choice in everything else so why not their own funeral?’ To this end, Green Endings does a brisk trade in biodegradable coffins made from bamboo, wicker (Adam Faith was buried in one) and cardboard. ‘Many of our clients aren’t that alternative, they just don’t want to feel restrained by the constraints and regulations of a traditional church ceremony. They want to say goodbye to a loved on in a more personalised way that befits that person’s life.’

The week before, Roslyn tells me, she oversaw a woodland funeral attended by two busloads of friends and family. They sang African songs instead of saying prayers, buried the body themselves, then partied around the grave long into the night on champagne and wine. ‘It seemed,’ she adds, smiling at the memory of a job well done, ‘so much healthier.’

It may appear, then, that as a society we are finally finding new, more open and more healthy ways to make the passing of our loved ones. Or maybe we are simply finding new ways to make the death of another seem more palatable to ourselves, to make the leave-taking a less final and less formal ritual. In the woods, it struck me that the question this kind of ceremony asks is not just what a funeral is for, but whom a funeral is for? Is it for the person in the box or the people standing beside it?

Or is it, as the funeral director knows more than anyone, some deftly executed accommodation of the two?

In his recent, provocative book Straw Dogs, the philosopher John Gray writes: ‘We deal with the death of a friend in much the same way we step aside to avoid a falling slate. We may be in doubt as to how to show our sadness or comfort others who have been bereaved, but if we succeed in doing so it is not because we have altered our beliefs or improved our reasonings. It is because we have learnt to cope with things more skilfully.’

Maybe, then we read the books and hold the parties not to find our more about death but simply to cope better with loss; to keep grief at bay, to stop the darkness echoing. And maybe, as Gray suggests, our time would be better spent listening to the darkness echoing, learning to live with it, or even in spite of it, but not pretending we do not hear it. There is as yet no evidence that a celebration assuages grief any more effectively than old-fashioned sombre leave-taking.

In death, as in life, though, you pays your money you takes your choice. (And it’s another of life’s verifiable truths that a funeral, whether traditional or alternative, will always cost more than you think, even, as is increasingly the case, when it has been paid for long before death. An English funeral costs £1,800 on average, more so in London, where a single grave can cost as much as £1,200.) There are 600,000 deaths a year in Britain and most of those bodies end up not in the ground but as ashes. Cremation is popular because it is cheaper and because it has been thrust on the public by local authorities. The shortage of inner city space to bury the dead has also helped the growth of green funerals, which often take place in woodland sites set aside by re4sourceful farmers no longer making money from tillage or grazing.

In the business of death and dying, the essentials don’t change. As the mobile sounds, there’s another job, maybe to the hospital or the mortuary or the terraced hosue stilled and stunned by the phone call they never expected to take, the bad news they never expected to hear. Roslyn Cassidy undertakes the job with diligence and enthusiasm, tending to the dead and more crucial even than that, taking care of the living who have been left behind.

Green Endings by Chloe Blackburn

Wicker Coffin: environmental alternative woodland funeral.There is a parable, recently re-told in a book about the Dalai Lama, in which a woman who has lost her only child asks the Buddha to restore him to life. He agrees to do this but tells her she must first go out and find hima handful of mustard seed coming from a house in which no-one has died. She fails in her quest, for she can find no home which death has not visited.

None of us wants to face the inevitable but death happens and over and above the shock and grief all of a sudden there are innumerable practical matters needing attention. The most pressing among them may well be finding an undertaken and perhaps tfor the first time arranging a funeral. Which way to turn? You cannot hang around, undecided. There are the obvious candidates to be found on a hospital or crematorium list, in the vicar’s diary or on a website, but many of us have a dread of men in black coats, of hardwood coffins, brass handles, pompous hearses and all the traditional paraphernalia of death.

I was lucky, if you can call it that, to have had two friends who quite independently recommended Green Endings. We rang the number and the same day were visited by Roslyn, a young woman in a smart grey trouser suit who instantly put us all at ease. She did not tell us what to do. There was no feeling of being on a conveyor belt. ‘We give you the funeral you want’ is part of their publicity and this is just what her company did.

We were offered coffins made of cardboard, unvarnished pine or plaited bamboo as well as a variety of conventional wooden models. We chose one of woven bamboo which turned out to be very beautiful as well as appropriate for a cremation, simple and environmentally friendly. When the day came and we saw the hearse arrive at the crematorium it was being driven by a very smart young woman, which prompted several of the family to comment upon how much Bill would have appreciated his chauffeur.

The only priest who would have understood our needs was in Texas so we decided to dispense with impersonal rituals and conduct our own service. Everyone present took part, family and friends concelebrating in a memorable and meaningful way.

Miranda, the organist a the East Finchley Crematorium, was another helpful and friendly young woman who, when we went to see her, somehow managed to produce every bit of music we suggested, including Toreador, to the sound of which we came out into the winter sunshine. Her contribution helped greatly to knit the hour into a coherent whole.

Throughout those few days nothing seemed too much trouble to Roslyn and her team. We changed our minds, sent faxes, asked questions, fussed about how the dread moment when the coffin disappears into the furnace could best be managed and never were we made to feel importunate or bothersome. In the end, the only thing we none of us could have planned was a two year old grand-daughter who, as the curtain closed, piped up, ‘Bye bye, Bill! Bye bye, Bill! Now let’s go outside.’ Few of us who were there will ever forget that moment.

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