Category Archives: cremation

Stonehenge and sky burial

Friday, 21 February 2014



 Posted by Ken West

The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.

The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.

Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC. 

The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.

The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?

Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.

The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.

The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood. 

So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out? 

What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.

If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.

The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon. 

It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.

See the full article as a download on my website


Sky Burial from Matthew Hirt on Vimeo.

Caitlin Moran offers posthumous advice to her daughter

Wednesday, 1 January 2014



Here’s one we missed earlier: journalist Caitlin Moran’s draft last letter to her daughter published in The Times in July of last year (remember 2013?). You can find the entire article (£) here

My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to get out – I’ve thought about writing her one of those “Now I’m Dead, Here’s My Letter Of Advice For You To Consult As You Continue Your Now Motherless Life” letters. Here’s the first draft. Might tweak it a bit later. When I’ve had another fag.

“Dear Lizzie. Hello, it’s Mummy. I’m dead. Sorry about that. I hope the funeral was good – did Daddy play Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen when my coffin went into the cremator? I hope everyone sang along and did air guitar, as I stipulated. And wore the stick-on Freddie Mercury moustaches, as I ordered in the ‘My Funeral Plan’ document that’s been pinned on the fridge since 2008, when I had that extremely self-pitying cold.

“Look – here are a couple of things I’ve learnt on the way that you might find useful in the coming years. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start… The main thing is just to try to be nice … Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm lamp in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux, and this will save you the anxiety of other, ultimately less satisfying things like ‘being cool’, ‘being more successful than everyone else’ and ‘being very thin’.

“Second, always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. You’d be amazed how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two. Get a big biscuit tin.

“Three – always pick up worms off the pavement and put them on the grass. They’re having a bad day, and they’re good for… the earth or something (ask Daddy more about this; am a bit sketchy).

“Four: choose your friends because you feel most like yourself around them, because the jokes are easy and you feel like you’re in your best outfit when you’re with them, even though you’re just in a T-shirt. Never love someone whom you think you need to mend – or who makes you feel like you should be mended. There are boys out there who look for shining girls; they will stand next to you and say quiet things in your ear that only you can hear and that will slowly drain the joy out of your heart. The books about vampires are true, baby. Drive a stake through their hearts and run away.

“This segues into the next tip: life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES. However awful, you can get through any experience if you imagine yourself, in the future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’ Even when Jesus was on the cross, I bet He was thinking, ‘When I rise in three days, the disciples aren’t going to believe this when I tell them about it.’

“Babyiest, see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes, talk to Daddy and Nancy about me every day and never, ever start smoking. It’s like buying a fun baby dragon that will grow and eventually burn down your f***ing house.

“Love, Mummy.”

Be smart – follow the money

Wednesday, 16 October 2013


Photo showing the viewing gallery at the Going Home Cremation Service, Maryland


In all so-called advanced cultures, funeral practices are becoming less elaborate. All this talk of baby boomers reinventing funerals as bespoke, themed, accessorised, more or less lavish performance events can seem to make good sense — but baby boomers, who by now have buried and cremated many thousands of parents, ain’t, experience now tells us, buying in to all that. Recession or no recession, the dying express the wish to keep it cheap and simple; and those left behind seem content to fall in with that. When people fall into conversations about funerals, the proudest boasts are made by those who spent least. 

Where a funeral dwindles to its essentials — the body of a dead person and the body of people who cared about him/her —  there’s not much margin for an undertaker. But where the expanding market is the one for cheap funerals, that’s where an undertaker needs to hang out. You need to do more funerals for less to make your business pay, of course – if you can get em in the first place. 

So the earnings ceiling for an undertaker is getting lower and lower. This is especially evident in the US, where once comfortably-off morticians have been banjaxed by the rush to cremation. Growing impoverishment ought to act as a disincentive to new entrants. But the market in Britain remains saturated with undertakers because they are motivated by vocation rather than acquisitiveness. Altruistic people thrive on adversity; it strengthens their humanitarian resolve and enhances their sense sainthood.

Which is why the smart money is now increasingly going into crematoria and natural burial grounds of 20 acres+. Here profits remain fattening. Dignity and the Co-op are moving in bigtime. Bibby, the corp behind GreenAcres, is showing no interest in buying out undertakers. 

There’s a race on to buy out council-owned crematoria and build new ones – they’re going up everywhere. Here’s a bubble that’s going to end in rubble. Where low cost scores highest with consumers, and at a time when funeral poverty is stalking the land, it won’t be long before people wise up to the fact that the cheapest cremation provider is the one who cremates most economically by blazing round the clock 365 days a year (not 250 as at present) in a standalone plant with a viewing gallery set in a very few nicely appointed acres. There’s nothing to stop anyone from building one of these now. In the US they’re called crematories. That’s what we need: crematories, not more crematoria. 

By how much would efficient cremation bring down funeral costs? The US gives us some idea. You can arrange a direct cremation in New York for £860 including all undertaker’s fees. The cremation part of that comes to just £265. In Florida you can buy the complete direct cremation package for £525. In Maryland, using a particularly nice-looking crematory, you can buy the complete package for £618. And in San Diego you can do the whole thing for just £416 all in. 

Go figure, Bibby. You read it here first. Send us a bung when it all comes good. 



Vanishing point – what’s the best method?

Thursday, 1 August 2013



Guest post by Steve
Every funeral at a crematorium will have a point at which the coffin is removed from the sight of the mourners, usually during the committal. 
To start off with, is there an optimal speed of removing the coffin from view? Some curtains close in just 10 seconds, which may be too fast for some. Yet a slow 90 second curtain closure may allow time to contemplate for some, or too long to suffer for others. 
Curtains – this is the most common form of the coffin “vanishing point”, especially in newer crematoria. The fact that the coffin does not move may make this method more acceptable, but it could also be seen as a rather boring or sterile method saying goodbye. Some European crematoria have moving screens instead of curtains, in some cases with colour changing lighting!
Conveyer/doors – this method is common in older UK crematoria (such as Golders Green and Woking), but rare in new builds. The coffin moves along a conveyer or rollers through a wooden or metallic door into a curtain lined receiving room. Since the infamous James Bond crematorium scene, many mourners probably think that coffin is moving straight into the cremator! Opinions may vary as to whether this method is more dignified that curtains. Certainly the “conveyer belt” method of 30 minute funeral slots at crematoria would not be in keeping with conveyers for the “vanishing point”. Some European crematoria use a combination of a moving catafalque on a floor track and curtains or screen. 
Lowering catafalque – this was also common in older crematoria, especially if the crematory was below the chapel. The catafalque lowers at the committal, in keeping with a burial. This may be seen as traditional or tacky. In some cases the coffin can be moved half-way down for flowers to be placed on the coffin, before it is lowered further to a receiving room (or even conveyer belt) below. In a few cases, it is just for show, and the coffin is raised back up again after the mourners have left the chapel. 
Do nothing – this is common in European crematoria. The coffin is not removed from sight, but mourners must remove themselves from the coffin at the end of the chapel service. Turning your back on a loved one may be harder than having them removed from you. 
Straight into the cremator – in Japan where the cremation rate is 99%, and many other cultures, it is traditional to view the coffin going into the cremator. This may be a bit traumatic for UK audiences, but it may be a more “final” way of saying goodbye. In Singapore, mourners view from a balcony as what can only be described as a robotic forklift moves slowly along a floor track, and places the coffin into the cremator. A You Tube video of this is shown below.  

Given that all mourners will likely have a different idea of what is an acceptable method of removing the coffin from view, is there a perfect method of the “vanishing point” to suit everyone?


Thinking the unsinkable

Monday, 3 June 2013



In October 2008, in a piece about direct cremation, I wrote this: In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change? In July 2009 I wrote: I never thought [direct cremation] would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations*, it’s called.

I seem not to have been wholly persuaded, however, for in March 2010 I wrote: It seems unthinkable that the practice of direct cremation … could land on our shores. In May 2010, in response to a very valuable analysis by Nick Gandon, Jonathan, a sagacious and valued commenter on this blog, wrote: Funeral directors aren’t set up to cater for direct cremation because the demand is almost nil. 

Seems like ancient history now.

The growth of direct cremation marks a cultural shift that, so far as I know, has gone unremarked by the British media. So far as the media is concerned, direct cremation doesn’t mark a cultural shift at all, it’s simply a branch of the cheaper funerals market, and we all want cheaper funerals, don’t we? The Dismal Trade seems mostly to share this analysis. Direct cremation is for poor people who can’t afford a full fig funeral, for a few well-off middle class people who want a ‘fuss-free’ funeral, and for the I’m-not-worth-it brigade who don’t reckon they’re worth funeralling anyway. It’s a niche market. 

So far as we can tell from their responses, funeral directors experience the impact of direct cremation as a commercial, not a cultural phenomenon, and certainly not as an existential threat. Most people still want a trad funeral, but direct cremation has affected the trad funerals market by making stripped-down respectable.  It has empowered funeral shoppers to say no to stuff they don’t actually really want. The days of one limo or two have been succeeded by one limo or none — oh, and no flowers, either, thanks. We are witnessing a watering down of the Big Black Funeral. How much more dilution can it take? 

Culturally, until the last five years or so, we supposed there to be a crucial, indispensable emotional and spiritual value in holding a funeral in the presence of a dead body.  Now, we’re not so sure. A combination of all manner of factors may be responsible, longevity in particular — when death is merely the postscript to a long and beastly illness, there doesn’t seem to be much more grief work to do. On the other hand, the deaths of young people remain not just as momentous as ever, but more so. 

There is, arguably, a perfectly good rationale for direct cremation. Reducing a body to ‘ash’ and rendering it, thereby, portable, durable and divisible, is a very effective way of preparing it for a funeral. There is remarkably little understanding of this among funeral directors; most of them simply do not get it, probably because they scent no commercial opportunity. 

So here are the big questions:

Is it preferable, in the interest of emotional and spiritual health, to hold a funeral in the presence of a dead body? Or do ashes actually serve perfectly well?

Biggest question of all: 

  • Is it perilous to your emotional health not to hold a funeral at all? After all, we get to carry on without the benefit of a formal ceremony or other ritual observance after near-bereavement experiences like the breakdown of a relationship, or redundancy, or a child leaving home. We resolve those privately. 

It seems extraordinary that the funeral industry has mounted no concerted defence of the funeral. Nor, so far as I know, have any academics responded to what’s going on and debated the question: Is your funeral really necessary? 

Because if pragmatic Brits cotton on to the idea that a funeral serves no purpose, does them absolutely no good at at all, is all just a lot of hollow show and hot air, they’ll be only too pleased to say goodbye to a tradition they never had much time for anyway. 

And that’ll be curtains for an industry thought to be unsinkable. 

*Simplicity Cremations is now Simplicita Cremations. I’ll leave it to Nick to explain why.



‘Eager yet kindly’ flames

Tuesday, 23 April 2013



Posted by Richard Rawlinson

After her funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral last week, Margaret Thatcher was driven to Mortlake Crematorium in west London before the committal of her ashes alongside her beloved Denis at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Mortlake is a pleasant 1930s building surrounded by peaceful, landscaped gardens. HG Wells, who cremated his wife here, wrote this of its ‘rear of house’ facilities:

I should have made no attempt to follow the coffin had not Bernard Shaw, who was standing next to me, said: ‘Take the boys and go behind. It’s beautiful’. When I seemed to hesitate he whispered: ‘I saw my mother burnt there. You’ll be glad if you go’. That was wise counsel and I am very grateful for it. I beckoned to my two sons and we went together to the furnace room. The little coffin lay on a carriage outside the furnace doors. These opened. Inside one saw an oblong chamber whose fire-brick walls glowed with a dull red heat. The coffin was pushed slowly into the chamber and then in a moment or so a fringe of tongues of flame began to dance along its further edges and spread very rapidly. Then in another second the whole coffin was pouring out white fire. The doors of the furnace closed slowly upon that incandescence. It was indeed very beautiful. I wished she could have known of those quivering bright first flames, so clear they were and so like eager yet kindly living things.

For a virtual tour, click here

EXCLUSIVE: It’s going to be one wacky sendoff for Downton’s Matthew

Monday, 1 April 2013


The GFG can exclusively reveal that Downton star Matthew Crawley will be cremated in a way-out guerilla funeral on the ancestral estate in a ritual created by the grief-stricken family.

Devotees of toff-soap Downton Abbey were left dazed and heartbroken at the end of the 2012 Christmas special when heir Matthew Crawley was violently killed after his motor car flipped as it swerved to avoid an oncoming lorry.

Dan Stevens

According to plot notes for upcoming series 4, jotted by writer Julian Fellowes and seen exclusively by the GFG, a distraught Lady Mary will banish local undertaker Grassby’s men when they come to take Matthew’s body into their care.

In  heartrending scenes that follow, viewers will see Lady Mary supervise sobbing servants as they wash Matthew’s body, dress it in his favourite suit and lay it out in the state drawing room flanked by bowed footmen and surrounded by candles and essential oils. Here, it is reverently watched over by members of the family.

Meanwhile, it’s all hands to the pump downstairs as the servants are enlisted to build Matthew’s coffin and refurbish a derelict cremator (pictured) which was last used to cremate Lady Mary’s convention-busting great-grandfather Lord Bertram Crawley in 1882.

In a final agonising development, the funeral procession, led by butler Carson, is surrounded by police tipped off by villainous valet Thomas Barrow. After a tense standoff the proceedings are allowed to go ahead in a ceremony led by real-life funeral celebrant and GFG commenter Gloria Mundi.


The storyline is believed to be inspired by Fellowes’ near neighbour and cremation pioneer Captain Thomas Hanham, who lived just 20 miles away in Blandford Forum. Hanham illegally cremated his wife and his mother in the grounds of his estate. The authorities did not prosecute him and a few years later the first Cremation Act was passed.

The GFG believes that Fellowes intends to raise awareness of family-arranged or home funerals, sometimes termed DIY funerals. He was overheard at a funeral he recently attended to exclaim, “Why on earth do we hand over the whole bally shooting match to strangers? We really should jolly well do more of this ourselves.”

Fellowes’ plot notes reveal that he even considered cremating Matthew on an open-air pyre. A scribble in the margin betrays second thoughts: “No. A twist too far. Maybe for Maggie [Smith].” Dame Maggie Smith plays the part of the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

NOTE: Journalists and bloggers are asked as a matter of courtesy to acknowledge the GFG as their source when reporting this story.

Baby ashes scandal hits Edinburgh

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mortonhall crematorium


From 1967 until last year, when a new manager was appointed and instituted a cleanup, Mortonhall crematorium, Edinburgh, has been telling parents that children who die antenatally or neonatally do not yield ashes when they are cremated. For an untold period the crematorium has been burying their ashes secretly in cardboard boxes in an unmarked, mass grave in a field behind the crematorium. 

You can read the story in the Scotsman here.  

Helen Henderson, 43, from Sighthill, said: “My son Nathan died when he was just one day old in August 2004. We were told by the undertaker that we would receive his ashes, but when we went to collect them a lady at the crematorium told us we had been misinformed and that there was nothing for us to collect, that ‘you don’t get any ashes from a baby’.

One grieving mother said that when she questioned the policy she was told it had been a result of “laziness and a bad attitude”.

It looks like a very bad business. Crematoria generally are well aware of the emotional needs of bereaved parents and do all in their power to retrieve some ash, however tiny the amount. The scandal at Mortonhall may well cast into doubt practices at other crematoria. Nothing could be more unfair. This is a sector which is characterised by, on the whole, high standards. 

It is likely that, back in 1967, when cremators were hotter and, in operation, more turbulent, there were no ashes after the cremation of a baby. Mortonhall’s culpability in lying to bereaved parents would seem to date from the installation of newer equipment whenever that might have been. 

Even today, cremation of a foetus younger than 24 weeks does not yield any remains. 

When a foetus miscarries or there is a neonatal death in a hospital, the hospital normally takes responsibility for funeral arrangements and will ordinarily have a contract with a funeral director to carry out these arrangements. If there was an contracted funeral director in this case, his or her failure to hold the crematorium to account is unaccountable. 

 A widespread practice is to cremate babies first thing in the morning, before the cremator has reached its full operating temperature. The cooler the burn, the easier it will be to retrieve some ash. 

 South-West Middlesex crematorium has its own baby cremator, which does not burn as hot as an adult cremator. At the Garden of England crematorium babies are cremated on a special tray. 


The Mortonhall scandal will be no less shocking and saddening to seasoned members of the funeral industry, for whom the funerals of babies and children never lose their poignancy.


 Your thoughts would be very welcome. 

New deal for crem users

Friday, 9 November 2012


The newly made-over chapel at Parndon Wood, Harlow by the Westerleigh Group. Report

Below, a crematorium chapel in Sweden, where numbers of people wishing to witness cremation are rising. Jan Olov Andersson, CEO of the Swedish Federation of Cemeteries and Crematoria, said “I think we haven’t been that good at informing the public. And in areas where we have informed bereaved relatives of the option we have noted a significant increase in requests.”


Crems on wheels

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


The handsome chariot pictured above is a mobile crematorium. It is reckoned to have been developed for FEMA in case of disaster.

Would it not serve just as well for scattered rural populations in Wales and Scotland? 

Full mobile crem patent here



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