The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Yes, we can

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Hangman’s Cottage in Dorchester. Once a place set apart and viewed with dread, now a decidedly des res

A few weeks back I lazily asked whether a private entrepreneur could open a crematorium in this country. I say lazily because I hoped someone would know the answer and spare me research time.

I supposed that only local authorities can get permission from the Secretary of State to build a crem. I was wrong, and I am very grateful to Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, for putting me right. There is, he tells me, nothing to stop a private operator from doing this – subject, he warns, to the usual planning procedures which would, of course, be influenced by the responses of people close to the proposed site.

We discussed the uneconomic model of our crems. In order to be more or less fuel efficient a crem must burn as many bodies as it can in a day. But because its incinerator is attached to a ceremony space (sometimes more than one), it must hurry the living through with indecent haste. It’s a thinly disguised production line. When winter comes it can’t keep up; when summer comes it hasn’t enough to do. You pay for the ceremony space whether you want to use it or not. Your fee is further inflated by a sum used to subsidise the maintenance of the cemetery. This is economically and environmentally a bad deal. It may also be bad value emotionally.

I have a feeling that any ceremony space (chapel if you like) devoted exclusively to farewelling the dead is always going to be bad value emotionally.  Churches, set in the midst of living communities, do a much more rounded job, incorporating as they do all rites of passage. Crems are set apart – in much the same way the public hangman used to be in English towns. In spite of the best and most careful efforts of those unsung people who work in them them, they have the wrong aura. We need to bring funerals back into the land of the living.

Our crems have, it turns out, addressed the environmental and economic issues. A few years back Wandsworth borough council proposed the model of a central crematorium serving several satellite ceremony spaces. The idea was that neighbouring local authorities could decommission their underused cremators and send their bodies over to a really efficient plant for incineration. The proposal foundered. Local authorities, it seems, take too much local pride in their crems to give them up. How would the idea have been greeted by users? Perceptions were never tested.

To get back to the main question. Could a private entrepreneur build a crematorium to serve the direct cremation market? It seems there would be no legal hurdle. Mr Morris reckons that securing the Secretary of State’s approval would be no problem. What would be harder, much harder, would be getting planning permission. In the US and Canada a great many crematories are built in industrial parks. That might not go down so well over here. In any case, there isn’t enough of a market for it yet.

But will people grow weary of schlepping joylessly to the crem for their funerals? Will a significant number begin to question the value of having the body at the funeral? Will they begin to opt, as so many do in North America, for a celebratory memorial service held at a more congenial venue with (optional) just the ashes present?

I see no reason why not. In the meantime, the model of a central crematorium serving several satellite ceremony spaces is an idea well worth revisiting. Public opinion should be tested.

Read past posts for more on this discussion and on the merits or otherwise of direct cremation.

One comment on “Yes, we can

  1. Jonathan

    Tuesday 4th May 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Crematoria should be in our recreational parks, not our industrial ones. You’re right, Charles, about the single-use model for the ceremony space – why aren’t we having parties and weddings and concerts and films in the ‘Recremational Areas’ in our shopping centres, where we can be drinking Starbucks while we wait for the rest of the family to turn up?

    I’m serious!

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