Charles Cowling

Here’s an interesting and not unconfusing series of pics from today’s Guardian. Entitled ‘Behind the Last Closed Door’, the photos are by Laura Peters and are on show at the Lighthouse Gallery, Wolverhampton, from 3-18 September.

‘What,’ asks the Guardian, ‘happens behind the scenes at crematorium [sic]? A new exhibition of photographs solves the mystery.’

Mystery? What mystery? What could possibly be mysterious about a place where anyone can go? There’s no need to peek at someone else’s photos of it, as if through your fingers from behind the sofa. If you want to know what goes on up at t’crem, stride boldly in and ask if you can have a look. They’ll be pleased to show you.

That the business end of a crem should be capable of being reckoned a mystery serves to illustrate the euphemistic way we burn the bodies of our dead. At the moment of committal the curtains slowly close in front of the coffin. It’s a high-drama ritual which normally elicits sharp sobs, cries, even, from the congregation. If you’re the celebrant, trust me, you feel a bit like an executioner as you push the button on the lectern. People’s uninformed imaginations then conjure up all sorts of outlandish pictures of what happens next.

If only they knew the bathetic truth: that the coffin sits there patiently until everyone’s gone, and may not be cremated for several hours.

There’s no mystery for Sikhs about what happens behind the scenes: they customarily go and witness the coffin going into the cremator (or furnace, as the Guardian has it; a term somewhat discredited by the Nazi death camps). There is no mystery, either, for those too-few others who wish to see the process through; who need to see that everything is done properly. The last time I, as a celebrant, arranged this, for three brothers (who had previously stood behind the lectern and, together, pushed the button) the crematorium technician had kindly and thoughtfully allowed the cremator to cool sufficiently so that the coffin containing their mother did not spontaneously combust as it went in.

Ms Peters’ photos are not especially revealing, truth to tell. But pic number 3 is very alarming: it shows lots of empty coffins standing on their feet. So it’s true, is it? They do pull the dead people out of them before they burn them, and re-use them? That’s terrible!

Further research reveals that Ms Peters has actually also photo-ed another mystery no-go area: behind the scenes in a funeral home — the coffin store and the mortuary. Hmmn, it’s really a very clean mortuary. And look, the funeral director is wearing rubber gloves. Full marks, chaps. Things are not ever thus, not in every mortuary by any means.

The real mystery, it seems to me, is that the place where a dear, dead person is cared for and kept should be reckoned a mystery. It’s only a mystery because people dare not ask to see.

Is that really so surprising?

Yes, when they gaze instead on Ms Peters’ photos.

If you want a much more graphic and informative picture of what goes on behind the scenes at a crematorium, have a look at this clip from the Australian Museum Online. It could be anywhere in Britain.

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