The Progressive Death Movement is a growing movement that aims to give mourners a more intimate and personal chance to mourn their loved ones after they have passed. Film maker Rehana Rose takes an intricate look at the movement and the subjects which surround it in her impressive documentary Dead Good. We conducted the following interview with the director.
Our thanks to Rehana for her time and to Porter Frith Ltd. for arranging the interview.
How did the documentary come about?
I had made several short films over the last 15 years, and in 2012, when I was at Montreal Film Festival with one of my short films, my mother died. I was responsible for dealing with her funeral arrangements – something I had never done before. Then a year later an ex-partner died, and the following year a young friend in Brighton too. It was at this point I witnessed how different the process could be. I was surrounded by death and the experiences I witnessed close up of how both the bereaved and the dead were dealt with were fascinating. I immersed myself in this world, learnt as much I could, from taking part in Death Cafés to doing a Death Doula foundation course to learn what that was all about (and for me to have more understanding and sensitivity to talk to the dying and the bereaved). I talked to many people in the funeral world including funeral directors, celebrants, associations and crematorium staff. As a filmmaker I felt there was a need to explore and share what I was learning.
The opening text reveals that only 2 of the 10 funeral directors you spoke to agreed to be in the film. Why do you think that was?
I’m sure there were various reasons. I interviewed ten funeral directors – a real mix, from traditional to alternative, from conventional to progressive. They all spoke very highly of the jobs they did and were very proud of their work, but as soon as I explained that I didn’t just want a ’talking heads’ film and that I would want to mix their narratives with filming from behind the scenes – this was before asking about families’ involvement – the interest fell away. I think it could be a mixture of reasons; trust, lack of time and maybe not wishing to reveal the backroom appearance perhaps? One funeral director loved doing the interview and then proudly showed us around but asked us not to film the premises as ‘it was a bit untidy that day’. Another thing I came up against a couple of times was when individuals who were keen to be a part of the filming had to get clearance from the big national funeral directing companies they worked for. Suddenly no responses came back.
Was it hard finding and convincing family and friends to appear in the film?
It was obviously a sensitive and difficult time so asking people was kept to a minimum to begin with; I asked if I could film the procession, the vehicles, the leading into the ceremony. The majority of people asked said yes. On one occasion some in the family said yes and one family member said no, so we didn’t – I didn’t want to offend anyone, obviously. Then, as I learnt more and more, it became clearer to me that it was the ‘in-between stage’ ie from the point of death to the ceremony that was the unknown, and that’s what i wanted to focus on. The people who I asked all understood why I wanted to film. I also said I would not ask for them to sign a release form until 6-12 months after – I would show them the edit and they could decide to say no. It was a huge risk as filmmaker, but I felt it was the right thing to do. All three groups eventually saw the edits and all agreed on the use. Nothing was cut. There was one story I filmed with a young woman whose father had died. She was amazing, and we followed her from having initial meetings with the funeral director to filming her dad being prepared for his coffin, but at the last moment just before the ceremony she was overwhelmed with it all and asked if we would mind not filming the ceremony. She was so polite about it all. I completely understood. So in the edit, we felt we couldn’t show just part of the story, but in hindsight I wish we had.
The film is refreshingly open about death and that which surrounds it. There still exists a taboo around the subject, why do you think that is?
I met an anthropologist the other day and we were talking about the documentary and about British society not talking about death, and she said that actually she didn’t think this was true and that we spend more time talking about the fact that we don’t talk about death! I thought that was very telling.
How fast and in what ways is the Progressive death movement growing?
In the three years I spent immersed in that world, I would say it is growing, but slowly – there have been people like Cara (one of the funeral directors in Dead Good) doing what she’s been doing for twenty years. There’s a company in the South West doing things differently for that period of time too and there’s The Natural Death Centre – a charity supporting thousands of people and companies for over twenty years. And in the last ten or so years a lot more smaller independent funeral directors have set up and offered to do things differently. Many of these are women, after all it was women who traditionally looked after their dead, with families and communities supporting, over a hundred years ago. Also, the world of celebrants and death doulas has become more ubiquitous. And this is not just happening in the UK. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and parts of the USA have also been leading this change and shift in attitudes.
The film mentions that funerals have become something of a ‘conveyor belt of death’. Why do you think that has happened?
It was a term I heard several people mention and I read it a couple of times too when I was researching; many people had shared stories with me of how fast everything had happened when they had experienced organising the funeral. From the time given with the funeral directors, to the set time in the crematorium – literally as people were leaving through one door, the next grieving group were being ushered in through another door. I guess for many of the bigger companies it’s about profit.
The final silhouetted sequence is remarkable. How did that come about?
Once the edit was underway (a process that took just under four months), I started to think about the ending. I felt there needed to be a time to reflect. There was no doubt in my mind that people watching the film would inevitably think about their own experiences, which of course would create some powerful emotions. I just felt there needed to be some ‘breathing space’. I had filmed at that location for a previous short film and started to form an image in my head that I wanted to capture. Of course what you have in your mind’s eye versus the reality of documenting something don’t always come together. I attempted the shot eight times on different days. The shot took 1.5 hours each time and involved me lying on the floor. I think it was worth it though.
What sort of release are you hoping to get?
With so many films being released in the UK each week it’s a competitive field. I always knew it would be difficult to get a release, but didn’t realise HOW difficult! We have managed to get 15 cinemas in the UK so far, but we have had so much interest with hundreds of people getting in touch on our website asking where they can see it in the UK. And we’ve had many people asking about it from the US, Australia, Canada, Mexico and several European countries. Let’s hope we can get it to Netflix!
Emma Thompson has become a patron of the film. How did she become involved?
Emma Thompson saw one of my short films many years ago. It was a short documentary about two homeless alcoholics who I met on Brighton beach. She said some lovely things about it. So, eleven years on, when I finished this feature I sent it to her asking if she would watch it and maybe give me a quote for it. I knew it was a much bigger ask, in terms of sitting through a feature rather than short, (and knowing how busy she is), but her response was better than I could have imagined…
What are you working on next?
I’m going from Dead Good to Bloody Brilliant – an unapologetic look at the menopause. In an unexpected style.
Find Rehana Rose on Twitter here.
Follow Dead Good for all updates here.