Gloom is no mood for a chapel of rest

Undertakers put a great deal of effort into making people who have died look good for when family members come to see them. There is, they feel, great therapeutic value in the experience of visiting someone who’s died, especially if they’re looking serene. They employ a range of cosmetic treatments to achieve a good ‘memory picture’. If the family is pleased with what they see, this reflects well on the undertaker’s duty of care. They are (relatively) happy customers.

But the fruits of the cosmetic work carried out in the mortuary are so often let down by the decor and especially the lighting of the chapel of rest. Most undertakers, when asked to demonstrate their lighting, adjust a dimmer switch — in other words they achieve the desired mood-effect not with light but with gloom. That gloom, taken together with the physical coldness of most chapels of rest, can make for a sub-optimal experience for the visitors.

Old fashioned tungsten bulbs, with their low colour temperature, shed a warm light at any intensity. But they’ve been outlawed, and undertaker must nowadays fit halogen and LED lamps with a much higher colour temperature — ie, a much colder white light. Result: it now takes even more gloom to mitigate their coldness in the chapel of rest.

I’ve only seen one chapel of rest which uses additive colour  to light the chapel and, above all, the person who’s died. By mixing red, green and blue light it is possible to achieve a variety of effects (see pic below). If, for example, there is still evidence of jaundice in the face of the dead person, it is possible to counter that by careful colour-mixing. It works better than dimmed white light but leaves something to be desired if the quality of the equipment is not up to the job. It’s important to have the right kit.

Better still is to do what theatre lighting designers do and use colour filters. An actor of a certain age will always ask for pinky-lavender filters in the front-of-house lanterns because pinky-lavender flatters older skin.

Theatre lighting experts know all this. They know how to light human faces of all ages and, just as important, they know how to create mood onstage with subtle use of colour. Even to them, though, lighting a dead human face is likely to pose a challenge because the light does not encounter warm blood beneath the skin. They would have to experiment with their colour filters according to the age and condition of the dead person. They’d bring in ambient light from other lanterns in the chapel of rest. They’d crack it, for sure.

Shortly, the GFG will be working with a theatre lighting expert to transform the lighting in a chapel of rest. When we’ve done it, we’ll tell you what we did and show you before and after photos. If you’re an undertaker and you’re interested in a makeover in your own chapel of rest, do get in touch.

The beauty of the vigil

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

When Charles Darwin died in 1882, he was brought to Westminster Abbey the evening before his huge funeral. His coffin was borne through the cloisters, his five sons following, into a small, bare vaulted side chapel (St Faith), which had until recently been used as a storeroom.

Architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, involved in the restoration of the Abbey, described this overnight resting place as a picturesque and beautiful room. Seen by the dim light from lanterns, it seemed tomb-like in contrast with the lofty interior of the Abbey. It was an intimate, contemplative place, different in mood to the public ceremony the next day, when the building was peopled with the living, when Darwin’s friends served as pallbearers in the procession to the Abbey’s communion rails.

A friend’s husband died suddenly a couple of years ago. The night before the requiem mass, he was removed to the Lady Chapel of Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic one just down Victoria Street from the Abbey. This Lady Chapel had been the scene of the couple’s wedding several years before. My friend recalls how special (painful and soothing) it was for her to sit there with him through the evening in silent, solitary vigil before funeral the next day.

I’m told the removal to the church the night before is becoming less common, even in Ireland. How common are such removals and vigils in hospital chapels or at home?