They think it’s all over…

Charles 6 Comments

It’s interesting to note that two of the most important drivers for change in modern funerals have come, not from pro-active consumers or wild-eyed visionaries,  but from urgent if mundane economic and environmental needs. They are, famously, natural burial and’ less famously, the held-over cremation.

Ken West, for all that he is a visionary, made the case for natural burial at Carlisle by adducing United Nations Agenda 21 and, most persuasively, showing his local authority how it could check ever-rising cemetery maintenance costs. There were those who said at the time that natural burial would never work—consumers would spurn it. They should have asked those consumers first. The rest is history. Natural burial has established itself, for those who are environmentally concerned, as the alternative to cremation, and they are unlikely, Ken plausibly argues, to be seduced by green alternatives like resomation, promession or cryomation. Why would they be?

Crematoria want to reduce emissions and operate more efficiently. Because there are lulls (summer’s less busy than winter; Mondays less busy than Fridays), it makes sense when things are quiet to hold bodies over until there are enough of them to make the firing up of the cremator economic. Chilterns crematorium now holds over bodies for up to 72 hours (in practice rarely for more than 48) and, combined with a restructuring of its workforce, is now saving 30% on its fuel cost. The ICCM is keen that all crematoria should follow suit:

It is current practice to pre-heat cremators at the start of each day and cool them down after the last cremation of the day and repeat this process throughout the week. Apart from the excessive use of fossil fuel for daily pre-heating, the risk of emissions of pollutants from the first cremations of each day is increased.

Holding cremations over for a limited period will allow continuity of use with resultant reductions in fuel consumption. Industry codes of practice have attempted to address this situation with the Federation of British Cremation Authorities code stating that the cremation should take place within 24 hours of the funeral service whilst the Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management’s Guiding Principles for the Charter for the Bereaved states 72 hours. Despite these codes of practice being in existence very few crematoria hold cremations over for any period. This lack of action by authorities is perpetuating the impact on the environment. Source.

It’s remarkable how commonsensical consumers can be. They need to be handled with care, for sure, but it’s always a mistake to make over-careful assumptions about them. Do they mind having metal hip joints recycled? Not a bit. Until they were asked, the assumption was that they would, and expensive metals were reverently, absurdly disposed of by burial. Do consumers mind if graves are re-used as they are on the Continent, and remaining remains reburied beneath the new burial (the lift-and-deepen method)? Increasingly they don’t.

The holding over of cremations is of high psychological significance. Probably most people at a funeral suppose that, when the curtains glide shut, the coffin straightway lurches into the blazing, fiery furnace—which can give them a funny feeling afterwards if they think about it when they’re eating their sausage roll. The fact that they are not bothered when they find out that, actually, their dead person is still waiting to go in is significant. Let’s take it one step further: If the bereaved do not mind their dead waiting up to 72 hours to be burnt, how much longer would they find tolerable? More research is needed. Even so, 72 hours is three days. It’s plenty.

The holding over of cremations has an even higher ceremonial significance. If incineration does not follow hard on the heels of the funeral ceremony there is no need for the incinerator to occupy the same building as the ceremony space or ‘chapel’. Hardly anyone goes to see their dead person loaded into to the incinerator, anyway. Would mourners mind if that incinerator was a few miles away? Again, more research needed. I’d confidently hazard a guess that they wouldn’t. If that is so, their opinion would render conventional crematoria redundant. Hurrah.

A funeral needs a going-going-gone moment (the committal or some form of farewell) because a funeral is a journey (continuum, if you prefer) ending in the obliteration of the body. At a cremation funeral the ‘gone’ moment is effectively and satisfyingly achieved by the closing of the curtains, for all that this is an illusion. This being so, it is not the act of disposal which people need to tell them that here is The End but the provision of what Tony Piper brilliantly terms a vanishing point.

That vanishing point can be achieved in other ways. Rupert Callender shows us how in this example: “We are doing a home funeral next Wednesday for a family who felt they didn’t know what to do having had two dreadful family services at crems, one of them ruined by the awful ubiquitous sound system, but wanted to honour their dead mum’s wish to be cremated. The answer seemed obvious. We are taking her coffin around to their house at midday, and collecting her at four. We go to the crem alone.” Presumably for these mourners the vanishing point was effectively and satisfyingly provided by the sight of Rupert’s venerable but immaculate Volvo disappearing round a bend in the road. Jonathan Taylor tells the story of a funeral for a local woman to which he appends: “Oh yes, and the cremation – it happened the next day, incidentally.” He doesn’t say what the vanishing point was, but I guess it was something similar.

The possibilities offered by held-over cremation are, well, revolutionary. Crems now need to follow the logic and take things a step further: they need to form clusters and outsource their cremating, preferably to a dedicated plant that cremates around the clock. As for the bereaved, if it’s not the act of disposal that matters but, instead, the provision of an emotionally satisfying vanishing point, what impediment is there to evening funerals and weekend funerals held at venues of all sorts?

It’s not the future we’re talking about here, it’s the present. Funeral consumers are being slow to catch on and funeral directors aren’t exactly falling over themselves to explore the options with their clients. It’s time they did.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

Very interesting post, Charles and what you propose could be seen as a “logical conclusion” to the existing problem. (I’m not missing something here, am I? This isn’t like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and I’m not getting it?) I think a lot of consumers would not have a problem with this, but we would have to be careful to reassure folks about separation of individual remains, and identification. At the crematoria I know, people are very, very careful, and I would feel pretty confident that the box I got back did contain what was left of Great Aunt Ethel. There… Read more »

Rupert Callender
11 years ago

I’m really not sure that the public would be happy with cremations being held over for several days, after all, the back room of a crematorium is not the same as a funeral directors premises, willing self deceptions about chapels or fridges aside. Personally, I want the vanishing point to be damn close to the real thing, and besides, these days it is not unusual for there to be a two week period or more between death and the funeral, a futher three days outside of a fridge seems to be pushing it a bit.

11 years ago

In answer to your wondering, I should have memntioned that the vanishing point was the hearse vanishing up the hill as the balloons vanishing into the sky, which did the trick no amount of curtains could have done. But when a family opt for cremation, the first thing I say is, “don’t assume you need to have the funeral at the crematorium, there are lots of nice places you can go instead.” The crem, in short, is the last resort, by no means the norm; and if this were to become a trend, crematoria would vanish and ‘oven sites’ would… Read more »

11 years ago

Wish more people would do this – I have been involved in many funerals over the years that took place somewhere other than the eventual area of disposal…..all it needs is inspired people to educate all and sundry. Choice still seems to be such a revolutionary concept! And yes – crematoria and cemeteries need to be nicer places to be…but above all, death needs to be much nearer – after all, it is the one thing that we all have in common.
Keep on with the task!

Ed Gazvoda
11 years ago

In a conversation with a funeral director, he speculated that a cremation ends the discussion about one’s mortality, more so than does a burial. I read that 17% of those choosing a cremation reported doing so out of convenience and as it is less emotional. This observation and market research fact support the vanishing point idea. I manufacture alkaline hydrolysis systems for the funeral industry, Alkaline hydrolysis transforms the body into pure-white calcium phosphate (the bones) and pathogen-free soft remains (the rest of the body). Families may receive 100% of the body. They may opt for a sterile burial… Read more »


[…] is a reference to the practice of holding over, discussed in this blog in September. The Mail wails […]