It's your funeral

Rehana Rose on death, remembrance and Dead Good

by Jennie Kermode

Hands-on care
Hands-on care Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

In the midst of life we are in death, so why do we talk about it so little? Rehana Rose’s Dead Good, her first feature-length documentary, delves into the world of alternative funeral planning to reveal that the very formal, by-the-book way we’re used to death being handled is far from the only option. After her second screening at the Glasgow Film Festival she caught up with me on her way to a further discussion about the film to explain how she first came into contact with these different ways of doing things and why the film is important to her on a personal level.

“I am a filmmaker – I’ve made eight short films – but in 2012 my mother died,” she explains. “The following year, an ex-partner died, and then within that three year period a very good young friend died in Brighton, so I was surrounded by death I suppose, and very much organising what to do – certainly with my mother’s and then being around quite closely with the other deaths. It’s was because of my friend’s death and how my friend and her partner were looked after by a group of women in Brighton that made me so very curious about there being something that i didn’t know existed, which is a very different way of looking after the dead and how ceremonies and funerals are planned, and how the engagement is with families and people who want to do it differently.”

Is that how she met Cara, the funeral arranger at the centre of the film?

“Yes, that was the woman in Brighton who, to me, just seems to want to empower people to do what they think is right and just have those conversations.”

In 2013, I tell her, I saw a documentary called Tender about a group of Australian women doing something similar.

“Ah! That’s interesting. Somebody just mentioned a documentary but they didn’t know the name. I think what’s happening – and it’s limited research from my point of view, but when I was researching for the film, I came across lots of people doing things differently. Not just in the UK but in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand and parts of America as well. There’s definitely a change happening. I think it’s happening quite slowly and I don’t know if it’s a demographic shift that’s causing it where people of my age are dealing with the deaths of parents and of our peer group and perhaps have a very different outlook on how things can be done and how involved they can be and how much control someone can have in what they want to have done.”

There’s an interesting discussion in the film about how, traditionally, it was often women who looked after the dead and that ceased to be the case for some decades but now it’s coming back.

“Interesting, isn’t it? It’s fantastic that it’s coming back. And I think that when the funeral director, Cara, talks about how women are much closer to that sort of emotional and physical experience with regard to birth and periods and... yeah. I don’t think it’s excluding men, I think it’s just about how women aren’t in that world as much. it’s really interesting because a lot of newer companies I’ve discovered are being run by women.”

There is at least one prominent male character is the film: Peter, who provides religious and spiritual services for grieving families.

“He’s just someone who gets it. He gets that there needs to be change and he references some of that in the film – how it used to be versus how it could be.”

How did Rehana approach the ethical challenges inherent in making a film on such a sensitive subject. Was she worried about ensuring that she gave them the proper respect?

“Yes. I did something that most filmmakers are told not to do: I didn’t get a release form signed. I didn’t think it was the right thing to ask while they were vulnerable and grieving and all over the place, in the circumstances. So what i did was i spoke to them very briefly about what I was making – or trying to make, I don’t think we knew at the time where it was going to take me – and I think I was just very lucky that they had trust in me. I said I’d come back in a year’s time and let them see the footage and decide if they still felt okay about it. Of course that’s a huge risk.”

So did anybody actually drop out?

“All those three stories that you saw, nothing came out of,” she says.

How did she choose which people to include?

“The woman whose brother and then sister died, she’s a professor at Sussex or Brighton University. She teaches theology. We met at a festival around mental health, actually. She is somebody who wants to share information with everyone in terms of what we can do as a society to do things differently and better, perhaps. S we got talking about all sorts of things – this was quite a few years ago – and became friends, actually. And so when her brother died i heard about it. She eventually rang me and we spent quite a long time on the phone. About an hour and a half into the call I thought if I can’t ask her then I’m not going to be able to do this. So I asked and she said ‘Yes.’

“’I had some coaching actually, just around asking, and my coach said ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ But yes, her agreeing was the start of that journey.”

We pause whilst she gets her bearings, figuring out where she’s supposed to be next, and she decides to stop for a while on a corner near Central Station so she can focus fully on our conversation. I ask if she thinks that the strong response she’s had to the film stems from people feeling that they don’t normally get the chance to talk about death.

“I think you’re absolutely right. I think we’ve hit on something. It’s almost like the film gives people permission to start talking... We had our première in Brighton at Brighton Film Festival. There was a Q&A after the film and only a couple of people left before the Q&A, which was quite interesting. So we had a really attentive audience and then after the Q&A people stayed and kept talking about their experiences. Something very similar has just happened at Glasgow. That made me a bit late but I just felt like I should stop and talk to people. they want to talk about how the film has made them feel. It’s amazing... It’s doing something for people to start that conversation or make the conversation louder. I think it’s happening, I’m not making out that this film is the start of it, but it’s adding to it.”

Is this one of those things that it’s better to start thinking about before having to deal with it directly?

“I know from personal experience that had I had the information I have now when my mother died, I would have done things very differently, and I think my whole grieving process would have been better,” she says. “But everyone’s different and it’s completely personal. So lots of people won’t want thins but the point is that it’s letting people know there are choices. If people don’t know then how can they choose?

“One more thing I’d like to say, if I may, is that when death is discussed or portrayed in documentary or drama it’s very similar. It’s the same kind of imagery. And so all I wanted to do was show how different it can be.”

Has she enjoyed other aspects of the festival and her visit to Glasgow ?

“I walked through Glasgow this morning during rush hour and it reminded me of New York. it’s fantastic, it’s beautiful, the people are wonderful. I’m just saying what are probably typical things but it’s true. But people have told me that the weather is not like this normally!”

It’s not, I assure her. We are having an unseasonably warm spell.

“The festival has been brilliant,” she adds. “The people who run the festival, all the volunteers, lots of people seeing the films have been amazing. Which is lovely for a filmmaker – particularly for a film that I think some people are finding difficult. It hasn’t done lots of festivals. I guess it’s not a festival film but it’s resonating with the public and that, for me, is good.”

So what’s her next project? Is she planning to take on another feature length documentary?

“I am,” she says happily. “I’m going from Dead Good to Bloody Brilliant and I want to make an unapologetic, heartbreaking, night-sweating, hot-flushing, brain-fogging, heartwarming set of stories in respect of the menopause.”

Dead Good is getting a UK cinema release on 10 May.

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