Posted by Lyra Mollington
I arrived at my local crematorium armed with an airtight box and lots of questions. The box was full of cupcakes and the questions were from family and friends – the random assortment one might expect from people who don’t usually think about death or funerals, let alone talk about the process of cremation. However, I also made sure to do a bit of research on the internet first. I may be an amateur but I didn’t want to ask anything that is already adequately covered by the FAQ section of the crematorium’s website.
The manager greeted me with a warm smile and, after a brief chat, passed me on to his assistant. Quite right too – the manager is a busy person. He briefly explained that he is ‘up to his neck’ in contractors. Apparently, they are installing new abatement systems and making other improvements. According to the manager, ‘It’s all a bit of a logistical bloody nightmare.’
I noticed he took two cupcakes. With his stress levels and ample waistline, I concluded that he may soon be trying out one of his improved cremators in person. Or perhaps he favoured burial. I didn’t ask.
As a veteran of many crematorium funeral services, I am only too familiar with everything front-of-house (including the waiting room with the fish tank and drinks machine; the chapel and the flower terrace) so the assistant wasted no time in taking me behind the scenes. But not before I had a quick go at closing the curtains – I’d always wanted to do that.
Suffice it to say there would be no surprises for regular readers of the GFG, most of whom will be familiar with all aspects of cremation. From a layman’s point of view, I was very reassured that when the time comes I will be in safe hands. Even the person in charge of the cremators was courteous and smartly dressed. And everything was extremely clean and tidy – and not nearly as hot as I thought it might be.
At the end of my tour, the assistant manager kindly answered all my questions (a small selection of these with her answers are below). A look of slight alarm and a nervous smile occasionally flitted across her face. This didn’t surprise me as some of the questions came from my inquisitive grandson who is ‘into Death Metal – the really heavy stuff’.
Q: What is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the past few years?’
A: Without a doubt the variety of coffins, which is interesting. After all, half an hour on the catafalque and then they’re burned.
Q: Do some coffins burn better than others? Sorry, my grandson wanted to know.
A: Oh yes.
(She proceeded to give me quite a lot of technical information but I couldn’t take it all in. My grandson will be disappointed.)
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: Helping families to scatter the ashes and, umm, showing people round. Dead people are all very well but they’re not renowned for their conversation!
(At this point, she laughed nervously. I tried to put her at her ease by saying, ‘Not to say impossible with the lid screwed down.’ Unfortunately, the nervous laugh was replaced with a furrowed brow.)
Q: What are you allowed to have in the coffin? As well as a dead body I mean.
A: I used to be a funeral arranger – people ask for all sorts to go in but we’ve got to be careful, especially if there’s a chance that something might explode.
Q: For example?
A: Anything with batteries, bottles of alcohol, guns, that kind of thing.
Q: What are the most popular items that are allowed?
A: Photographs, letters and small cuddly toys probably. I did have a lady who wanted all her pet dogs to go in with her.
A: They were dead – and cremated. Their ashes were in wooden boxes.
(At this point I thought of my own dear departed dogs – I never thought to keep their ashes. Perhaps it was worth considering for Colin, my current dog, or Mr Chunky as I sometimes call him when he’s in a playful mood.)
Q: What is your opinion about open air pyres?
A: Hmm…well…I’ve nothing against them. For religious reasons are you thinking?
Q: Yes, I suppose. Or middle-class hippies.
A: Hmm… some people might want them. But have they really thought it through? Would their family and friends want to watch? And I can imagine a lot of objections from the general public. People can be a bit funny when it comes to dead bodies.
Q: Quite. What do people say when you tell them where you work?
A: I don’t tell them!