Endangered species

Charles Cowling

Posted by Charles Cowling


There are many unsung heroes of the funeral industry – people who work very hard for the bereaved but whose efforts go mostly unrecognised and unthanked unless they screw up bigtime. So let’s hear it today for crematorium chapel attendants. 

All chapel attendants are not heroes. Some are surly, some indolent, some disillusioned by years of working for cost-cutting, ungrateful employers. It is doubtful whether the grieving public are ever aware of such, given what they have on their minds. The people most aware of chapel attendants are funeral directors and celebrants. Good chapel attendants make their lives smooth and cheerful; a bad one can really louse up your day. 

It takes egregious malpractice for a chapel attendant to get noticed in a bad way. In 2002 the Guardian reported this: 

Just as the first bars of Elgar’s Nimrod filled Yeovil crematorium at Gwyneth Samson’s funeral in August, the side door burst open and a member of staff walked in. “You’re out of time,” he said. “Everybody will have to leave the room.” The minister and the funeral director pleaded with the man, but he was adamant. “No, you’ve had your 20 minutes,” he shouted, pointing at the clock.

The man then marched across the room, threw open the exit doors and demanded once more that everyone should leave immediately. “The music was almost completely drowned out in the commotion,” says Colin Samson, the dead woman’s son. “Most people remained seated, too shocked to do anything. My father left, visibly upset, because he didn’t want anything more to do with the man. A few seconds later, we were again asked to leave the room. This time everybody did, except my wife and I who said we were going to wait till the music had finished. The man waited impatiently by my mother’s coffin as we stood to say our final goodbye.” 

It was 11.29am when Samson left the room, and the next service was not due to start until noon. “Nothing had been achieved other than to desecrate my mother’s funeral,” he says. “I went to complain to the crematorium’s administration manager. We were told once more that only 20 minutes is allowed for a service and that nothing like this had ever happened before.” 

Full story here

In January this year the Altrincham Messenger reported this: 

AN ALTRINCHAM crematorium technician has been jailed after admitting stealing grieving mourners’ donations. 

Robert Booth, 53, from Oxmead Close in Padgate, Warrington, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail after admitting five counts of theft at Trafford Magistrates’ Court on January 20.

Booth, who had worked as a technician at Dunham Massey crematorium for nine years, had been filmed stealing cash from the donation basket on October 27, November 5, 19 and 29, and December 2. 

Full story here

These are rare examples of chapel attendants at their worst. What of the best? What of the attendant who picks up every last petal from the funeral just finished, then hovers at the back ready with a glass of water for the person with a cough and a teddy for the child who runs out of patience as the committal gets under way? Well, the sad truth is that those chapel attendants who bring grace and humanity and a sense of occasion to their work, often against the odds, mostly go unnoticed. That’s the nature of unsung heroism, but it in no way devalues the role. 

The good chapel attendant is a selfless, dedicated specialist, so we are dismayed to receive reports that there may be a move afoot in Dignity crems to de-specialise their chapel attendants and recycle them as jacks of all trades doing all manner of jobs around the crem including selling headstones. There’s a clear ethical conflict here: a chapel attendant should not be sizing up the buying power of the folk on the front row, serving them one minute, upselling them the next. 

How very regrettable it would be to see a job which calls for a very special, decent and humane sort of person demeaned in this way. 

Last year I asked for nominations for the Best Chapel Attendant in Britain Award and got nothing back from any of you. Here. I do hope you’ll do better this time around. Blessings are there to be counted.

9 thoughts on “Endangered species

  1. Charles Cowling

    I nominate Mr Karl Hawkins, verger Perry Bar Crematorium for the GFG annual award for exceptional service and in respect of his contribution to funeral music.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Whatever happened to the ‘The best chapel attendant in Britain’ award?

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    By nagging, I have finally gained his permission to mention the wonderful Pete Smith at Gloucester Crematorium. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, he has quietly performed 1001 unseen kindnesses to the people who walk through his doors, from hunting down obscure pieces of music in his own time, to helping new or visiting ministers and celebrants settle in quickly. He has fantastic local history knowledge, with particular reference to good beer, tractors, chickens and occasional bits of cheeky gossip. Best of all, he knows what he’s about, and my shoulders visibly relax when I see he’s on duty – I know everything’s going to be ok. On one occasion, he managed to play the correct national anthem of each of the six nations between speakers at a rugby funeral, at exactly the right time – despite being so surrounded by enormous rugby players crowding around that he couldn’t see anything but their backs!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    There are some very good blokes at Golders Green which is helpful, given the hideous industrial and miserabilist look-and-feel of the site.

    I had a nice day at Plymouth, too, a long time ago.

    I reserve my bile for the crem near Stratford on Avon, where the operatives sigh and sulk at my request to remove the effing hymnbooks and other Xtian paraphernalia. (They argue that non-Xtianity is the minority, so they’ll just jolly well leave the stuff in place, failing to grasp a crem’s essential neutrality meaning that the Xtian stuff should be requested.) They were also responsible for a disatrous failure of attention, which resulted in a really inapropriate piece of music being played at an important ritual moment. Tossers. No amount of correspondence with the management brought forth anything beyond the bureaucrats’ smug ‘It’s over: Stuff You’.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    Sorry Charles, but last time you made the request I had yet to sample the delights of GFG. So thank you for raising the subject again…
    The crematoriums I work across have an incredibly diverse group of chapel attendants. From the warm, friendly and helpful, to the cold, unfriendly and unhelpful. Which is a great shame. And although the latter haven’t burst through the doors on me, as in your dreadful story, their negative ‘vibe’ is all-pervasive.
    And while there is certainly a need for some crematoriums to look again at their staff and what they are there for, I certainly don’t think they should be ‘upselling’ the folk on the front row. That’s a dreadful idea, although not surprising, coming from a big business.
    When I worked for a ‘corporate’ funeral directors, I could have had commission for every headstone and floral tribute I sold. Not good… It’s like putting one hand gently on the arm of your bereaved family, then slapping them with the other.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Two crems I mostly work at have excellent attendants. At one of them (no gap between funerals, dingy chapel, you know the score…)they are seriously overworked. Despite this, they are always friendly and admirably efficient. At the other,a much nicer place with a 15-minute pause in the production line conveyor belt, one is more outgoing and sensitive than the other, but that’s a matter of personality – both are entirely reliable and helpful. At both crems, the attendants work the CD players, and they are spot on. I respect this, because I guess typically, secular funerals require a bit more in that line. At another I work at occasionally….things are not thus.

    Very good to have the chance to say “let’s hear it for chapel attendants, and a very big thankyou for their essential work.”
    Nice one Charles.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Stewart is indeed a stalwart. Would that his colleagues take a leaf out of his book. He is good at not being noticed, however, due to Plymouth Council’s policy of not actually having the chapel attendant in the chapel during the service.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Stewart, at Efford crematorium in Plymouth, has been doing his humble, demanding and skilled job for over twenty years. He’s the one who welcomes us regulars with a smile, lets us know if there’s a funeral to follow ours (the crem stopped posting them up to prevent ‘misuse’ of the last twenty minutes of a person’s physical presence on earth by lingering over it), and remains a reassuring and cheerful presence without being noticed.

    I like this initiative, Charles, thank you for posting it, and I apologize for not responding to last year’s BCABA! award!

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Charles, I must have missed your requests for nominations for chapel attendant of the year, we value them hugely, indeed we mention specific CA’s on our website, particularly Colin and Richard from Glynn Valley crem at Bodmin, funnily enough a Dignity branch.

    We use others who are not such delights.

    They can make or break a funeral, particularly for when the family take a service. The idea of not having a specific person assigned to the role, and not just anyone at that is unthinkable.

    Charles Cowling

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