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The Musings of a Crematorium Worker

Life , death and everything in between

The Taboo Surrounding Death

I’m used to many reactions when I tell people what I do.

“I work at a crematorium”

“In the office or….?”  The pause. The question, the inquisitiveness, the intrigue.  “No, not in the office.”

I work in the crematorium taking care of the funerals and the cremation of the deceased.  I’m used to the questions laced with the intrigue and/or the fear.  I am the conversation starter or the one to end it, people slowly backing away at a party not prepared to hear anymore, not wanting to know, while I sip on my wine. But I must admit it was a surprise when my job shut down a conversation in the gym changing rooms recently.

I’d exercised and because of the shifts I work I sometimes am there for the mid-morning session.  There’s a lovely group of women, all very polite and friendly and because of the time of day I go most of the ladies are a lot older than I am, the age where they are reaching retirement or only their husbands work because they bought their houses for £40,000 decades ago, so their mortgages were small and a long time paid off. Some can afford to work part time. Free time on their hands.  Good on them they earned it.  But for that reason, my youth and the time of day I attend probably makes me an anomaly, a curiosity maybe, who knows.

“So, are you heading to university, college, after this or work?” was a question I was asked.

I was very happy I still look young enough to be considered a college attendee.

“Oh no, I’m off to work after this.”

I never really offer up what it is that I do unless people ask, and this lady did.

“I work at Croydon crematorium.”

I instantly felt the change in atmosphere.  It was like the sunshine being swallowed by the blackest of rainclouds.  Sensing this change, if anyone of them had have asked me what it was that I specifically did I probably would have said it was in the office because their change in demeanour became frightening.  I sensed they wouldn’t want to hear what it is that I do.  The funeral side and the burning of bodies would have been a step too far for this conversation already slipping off the edge of its cliff. But I wasn’t asked that question.  I wasn’t asked anymore questions.

“Oh, how lovely.” Sarcasm and venom both at the same time. Ouch.

And that was me ostracised from the conversation for the time I was combing my hair.

It was strange, these women who care not for getting completely starkers and having a chat in the middle of the ladies changing rooms (when there are individual cubicles supplied) but were insulted by the presence of someone who worked in the bereavement industry.  I present to you, nakedness and death, two of the human race’s biggest taboos. That moment I saw which of these taboos were considered the worst when I said what it was that I do for a living.

I am sure people think we do not exist.  They think death happens and all is taken care of by a faceless entity.  FD’s, officiants, crematorium/cemetery workers are paid to take care of all the family’s needs so they need not worry about all the things they can’t bear to do themselves.  For some it may only be a job.  But for those of us that care it is more than just a job.  That may sound cheesy but it’s true, and we are there for the families suffering bereavements.  At the same time, I work because people die.  For some that is hard to accept. I know my job offended these women.  I probably reminded them of their own mortality.  I was a reminder that death comes to us all. But please don’t make judgements about us and what we do before knowing what it is we do for those who have lost their lives and those suffering from that loss.

When our hearts stop beating and our lungs stop drawing breath we will all end up naked some day and that won’t be in the changing rooms of a gym (well, only if the stealer of life doesn’t choose to take us after a sweaty gym session, and to me that seems a little unjust).  We will be dressed, usually by a stranger, but there will be an industry whose cogs are all in place and the engine finely tuned ready to make our families lives more bearable in the worst of situations.  I hope my loved ones respect them for the job they will do for me.  Because once they have said their final goodbyes in the chapel, there will be another set of hands who carry me to the fire.

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The Scandal Surrounding Baby Ashes in the UK

In 2014 a scandal rocked the bereavement industry regarding the cremated remains of infants. Parents at a crematorium in Scotland were being told there were no ashes left at the end of a cremation for NVF’s (Nonviable Fetus), babies who have died prior to the 24 week gestation period. However, what was left at the end of the cremation was being scattered in the grounds of the crematorium without the parent’s knowledge. It was a disgraceful and tragic occurrence that has led to many parents who suffered a bereavement not knowing what happened to the ashes of their babies. A scandal like this can have ramifications for years to come with the parents not knowing and having to deal with that and the crematorium in question being fully investigated to make sure this never happens again to anyone else.
This scandal became a Pandora’s Box of all the bad being bought out into the open. It was found other crematoriums some in Scotland and some elsewhere in the UK were cremating infants alongside adults who were unknown to the babies. Strangers. The worst thing I read to be discovered was a three month old baby was cremated on top of an adult coffin. This sickened me. The technicians and management wrongly believed that a baby that size would not produce any ashes.
Firstly let me shed some light on the ashes situation. Their confusion came in the definition of ashes and what they were.  They deemed ashes as bone, whereas the correct and sensible definition of ashes were anything that was left in the cremator such as dust from the coffin AND bone. Because there were very little if any noticeable bone left they deemed that they were the ones to say there wasn’t a significant amount there to deem as ‘ashes.’
Now let me tell you a fact. In an NVF cremation I have seen bone. They are smaller than the white of the thinnest finger nail, they are close to the smallest of paper shaving, some even as small as a grain of sugar, occasionally seen amongst the debris of the cardboard that once was the coffin. If you look close enough their start in life, even if you go with the definition that ashes are just bone, had already begun. Those bones that they didn’t care to look for or didn’t believe existed were there. I don’t see them all the time but sometimes I do. And I don’t see how anyone has the right to differentiate between bone and other debris. And that was the belief of the report that followed.
As for the crematorium that cremated the three month baby I actually got a lump in my throat. We take great care at our crematorium to produce ashes back to the families from the smallest of coffins. A three month old baby has developed bone. The old rule of ashes are only bone doesn’t cover them here. A three month old baby has developed far beyond the NVF stage. Some bones are as big as adult fingers. A family has lost a baby who received no tangible cremated remains have lost part of their grieving process. They weren’t able to give them a resting place, that choice was taken from them. They were denied the choice the bereaved deserve.
The Bonomy report that investigated this scandal now states that ashes are everything that is left after the cremation has finished. This will stop this ever happening again and allowing crematorium workers making their own decisions on what are ashes and what aren’t. Crematoriums have put in place procedures so this never happens to another person who suffers the tragedy of losing an infant.
But there’s another side to this and that’s the wider bereavement industry other than the crematoriums themselves. The FD’s taking care of the funerals of the babies must have known that if they go to another crematorium that says they can produce ashes from infants. Why didn’t they ask the question why couldn’t that particular crematorium produce ashes also? This taboo, this don’t ask questions, this ‘oh no let’s not talk about death and all that happens after it’ attitude is bullshit. Any decent crematorium, with decent working practices should be honest and open with any professional body they work with and any member of the public they serve. I don’t understand why these questions weren’t asked by the professionals in the industry
On baby funeral services, I usually watch mum or dad carry their loss into chapel. I watch them say goodbye to this little person who was going to change their future for the better. And I watch them leave the chapel to go back to a life that has changed forever. I cannot fathom what they are going through because I have never experienced that loss but I can empathise. And I make sure they have left the chapel and won’t be returning before I pick up the coffin and take baby out to the crematory. I wouldn’t want mum or dad having their last memory being a stranger carrying their little one to an unknown place. Their last memory should be them carrying baby. This is the least they deserve. This is why I cannot fathom a crematorium, let alone numerous crematoriums, being so careless and unconcerned about those who have lost a child.
Those responsible did lose their jobs and procedures are now in place to stop this ever happening again. But for those parents who have suffered because of it, it really is too little too late. And I hope those who played any part in this scandal suffer a heavy conscience because of it.

The Bereavement Industry – Bank Holidays

Apologies to any FD’s reading this post, I appreciate your working days don’t stop when the country takes a break.

When you work in the bereavement industry Bank Holidays are a gift.  I extended mine with two days annual leave and as I walked into the middle of the town, a conversation I had a month before I started working at the crematorium came back to me.  With a friend, in her car, explaining what my new job was going to be. 

‘So, you’re going to be cremating people?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Basically, some poor fucker is walking around right now and in a month you’ll be cremating their body?’

‘Pretty much.’

 ‘Rather you than me.’

As I looked around at the people of this beautiful town today I realise that this is the case now.  I am not at work but when I return tomorrow, next week and if I am still working there in a year it will be people I have passed in the street, people who I have watched a film with under the same cinema roof, sat across from whilst eating a meal in a restaurant, a drink at a bar, eye contact, a little laugh and an apology on the street as we both dance the same direction to pass by each other.  School friends, relatives of friends, friends of friends, you always know someone who has lost someone.  We all do, but being part of the team that looks after them is a privilege, an honour and a burden.  You see the suffering of others.  And they ask you the questions they have but have never known where to ask them.  And I always answer as honestly as I can.

‘Do you burn the coffin?’

Yes.

‘Do you get the ashes of that person back?’

100% yes. 

‘Do you cremate one at a time?’

Rest assured, each person is cremated individually and the cremator only has room for one person at a time.

‘Do you cremate the flowers left with them?’

Yes, but they are dismantled from their oasis first because that produces a lot of smoke if cremated.

I get asked these questions time and time again but for those individuals it is maybe the first time they’ve got to ask them to someone who does the work and for that reason I’m happy to answer them time and time again. If you ask the FD you’ll get the answer but they are aware that it isn’t them behind the scenes after the funeral has ended.  Although, there was one funeral arranger who was telling people that you get a little bit back of everyone’s ashes from that day.  As soon as this was discovered we swiftly arranged for them to visit our crematorium so this very upsetting, incorrect information about what happens at a crematorium was not told to anyone else.  I don’t believe anybody whose job it is to arrange a funeral should do so without having visited a crematorium first.

I have lived in the town that my crematorium serves my whole life. I know many more familiar faces and strangers who I share the same postcode with will pass through these doors in my working world.  I guess I am asking how to separate this from my everyday life and I guess the answer is you can’t. I see too many of my friends and family hurting through the job I do but at the same time it is a small blessing that I can give them the comfort of knowing their loved one is being looked after on their final journey.

Yes, bank holidays are a gift.  They give you a bit longer to see a bit more of life before having to return to death. 

The Thing I Fear Most About Cremating …

I am going to address this as sensitively as I can whilst still conveying the facts of cremating a larger than average cadaver.  I have ummed and ahhed about uploading this post because of the sensitivity surrounding it but this is a fact about the job we do and I felt compelled to write about it after stumbling across an article from 2014 regarding a crematorium in America that caught fire whilst cremating a 52-stone man.

People often ask me if I’m scared doing the job that I do. Not of ghosts or ghouls, not of the dead although I tell you now, if I ever saw the lid of a coffin opening on its own I’d be the first one out of the door.  I fear the living, who could be hiding in the cemetery grounds as I’m leaving work in the dark winter months having completed the grave yard shift (pun intended). And I’m scared of opening that cremator door in its raging inferno and charging a coffin into the cremator and the charging bier failing as its pushing it in.

We have a procedure for bier failures, you push a bar and it becomes manually operated to allow the technician to push the coffin into the chamber.  Once a coffin is safely inside you drop the cremator door, you let out your sigh of relief.  It’s dangerous, I don’t do a dangerous job but that part is dangerous.  The risks are small but they increase with a larger body.  Try manually pushing a coffin into a cremator that weighs nearly 30 stone.  You’ve watched 6 men carry that coffin into chapel and you have two technicians who must push it in if the machine you use to charge it into the cremator fails.   I do not envy crematoriums without a mechanical charging bier, they must push larger coffins in by hand.  I know of one local crematorium who came unstuck when charging a larger body by hand.  It was a near miss where the coffin failed to go all the way into the chamber, the edge of the coffin jammed on the side wall of the cremator and became stuck. Firefighters were called to put out the fire and assist with getting the coffin into the chamber so the cremation could take place.

At our crematorium, our cremators are 33 inches wide, which means they cannot fit a coffin that is larger than this.  In all my time here there has only been one occasion I know of where we could not cremate the individual due to the cremators being too small.  The family were informed of this, they held the funeral service in the chapel while the FD, after the service, took the body to another crematorium to be cremated there because they had larger cremator chambers.

I have no way of knowing if there have been others that have used other crematoriums instead of ours because of their chamber sizes because we aren’t privy to that information but I don’t suspect there has been many. It is the FD’s that advise the families on what crematorium to use, and knowing each crematoriums cremator size is very important. If an FD arrives with a coffin too wide for our cremators, it would be their responsibility to take it elsewhere to be cremated and inform the family of this change.

There are dangers when it comes to cremating a larger cadaver.  I hope it doesn’t come across as insensitive when I say that but there is. A cremator operating at 600 degrees Celsius in the main chamber (there are two other secondary chambers that burn off gases produced from the cremating body) which is usually the temperature, or there abouts, on a Monday morning’s first cremation. This is a lot safer than a chamber running at 1090 degrees Celsius on a Friday evening after a week of cremating.  These chambers heat up over the week, they are designed to retain heat to make them more efficient and the more heat they retain the more efficient they are.  But this isn’t an advantage when you can’t cool it down and you need to cremate a large cadaver. So, you have a cremator at extreme operating temperatures and you have a coffin that is of greater weight and width than normal. We have coffins come into us on a Friday evening that are maximum size and you’re looking at it as the bearers struggle under the weight as they carry it in knowing that you have a very dangerous task ahead of you.  You must cool the chamber down to below 800 degrees Celsius to enable you to safely open the cremator door, but as soon as the coffin hits that chamber its alight and the temperature climbs back up to what it was before, rapidly.  It’s scary watching a chamber rise from 800 right the way up to 1000 degrees, at 1100 degrees an alarm goes off then it’s a task trying to get the temperature to cool down by reducing the oxygen feeding the fire in the cremator chamber and increasing the air in the secondary chambers to burn off the gases it is producing more quickly.

I have heard of one crematorium refusing to take coffins over a certain size after midday.  The cremator is heating up throughout the day.  There are increased dangers to their technicians, all technicians, the hotter the cremator becomes and cremators are at their hottest after a full days cremating. So, from a technician’s view point I can see why they have implemented that, but I can also see how incredulous this would come across to members of the public and the difficulties trying to explain that one to a grieving family.

When you receive a coffin that is maximum capacity you must make sure your line-up is spot on.  You’re looking along the line of the sides, practically winking at it to make sure you are certain that it will go in.  Because if you so much as have it going in at the wrong angle you’re screwed because if you’re lucky enough the charging bier doesn’t fail when it hits the side wall, that bier will keep pushing and will take out the side wall.  You have millimetres either side, there isn’t much room for error.  It is scary looking at it and thinking ‘Will this fit?’ to ‘This won’t fit!’ to ‘You’ve done the damned measurements, you know it fits!’  When the door opens, you push the button to start the charging bier, the coffin starts its journey into the cremator and you pray.  Even if you aren’t religious, you pray. The millimetres you have each side are reduced to nothing as the flames start to engulf it.  Front of the coffin hits the chamber, it’s already on fire, you’re watching the charging bier struggle under the weight it is being made to push, the wider part of the coffin starts to scrape the sides of the chamber walls, and this is where your heart is going ten to the dozen because you know that a failure now is the worst case scenario, bier still struggling with the remaining inches, the end drops over the chamber lip, the charging bier retracts, close the door, metaphorically shit yourself. If a bier failed in this situation you would have less than a minute to deal with it before the cremators heat, door jammed open by the coffin, became dangerous to the operators. After this time the safety advice would be like all fires, get the hell out and hit a fire alarm along the way.

If an FD is taking a maximum sized coffin to a crematorium, it is polite to tell the crematorium before their arrival so the staff operating the cremators can plan their workload around it. Forewarned really is forearmed with this. I remember dealing with the first maximum sized coffin.  It was the first Saturday I had worked as lead technician alone and the funeral director bought in a 33inch coffin and had failed to inform us of the size. I wouldn’t let him send his bearers away. I knew the danger myself and my solitary colleague on the day would be in when it came to charge. The family wanted to witness the charging of the coffin into the cremator.  My heart was racing. I didn’t want to let them down, nor did I want to put anyone in danger. A bier failure with a crowd of onlookers would be extremely upsetting for them.  It took me nearly 10 minutes to check I was happy with the line-up, I lined his six bearers around the outside ready to give us a hand with pushing if we suffered a charging bier failure and went for it.  Fortunately, it all went to plan.  I apologised for the delay in getting them into the crematory but explained our cremators are small and the line-up had to be perfect, honesty really is the best policy in this business.  Don’t bullshit people. And the cremators are small.  They were built in a time that people weren’t as big as they are now.  Times, they are changing and the industry may have to address this in the future.

When people ask me if I am scared doing the job I do, the answer is no, not really. Unless the charging bier ever fails and myself and my colleagues fail to get the coffin into the cremator. That thought is truly terrifying.

Does a Priest Fart in an Empty Chapel? – Humour at Funerals

Does a Priest fart in an empty chapel?  The funeral industries slightly different take on; does a bear shit in the woods?  The answer to both questions is yes.  We know this to be true as the mics in chapel are linked up to a small control room that allows the attendant to listen into the service, making sure everything is ok.  These mics aren’t switched off between services, so when the Priest saunters into chapel, prepping for the upcoming funeral and lets one rip it can be heard.  Farts are always funny at inappropriate times but it’s hilarious when the culprit thinks they haven’t been caught.

Some people think it is wrong to laugh at funerals.  It isn’t.  The celebration of life should reflect life.  Not that they are gone, but that they lived.  And loving someone means they meant a lot to you. Not everyone is the class clown but people make us laugh, make us smile and this should be remembered at funerals too.

But there are things that shouldn’t happen that are humorous, that families see the funny side of.  The fire alarm going off mid service, I’ve raced into chapel, told everyone to remain calm, went to check what has caused it, false alarm, alarm silenced, their service continues.  I’m horrified thinking their service has had a major disruption that could potentially ruin their funeral, only to find out, it’s ok, she was always setting the fire alarm off at home when she cooked, and to them this was quite fitting for their loved one.  And it’s just one of those things, coincidence or something deeper?

Then there is the family that had to laugh off the mistake at the registrar’s office when the death certificate for their loved one was handed to them in a ‘congratulations on the birth of your child’ envelope.  She always believed in reincarnation.

Some things aren’t funny at the time but on reflection they become funny stories you tell your friends and family.  One of the lady funeral directors was conducting wearing high heels and as she was walking behind the coffin, the bearers carrying in front, one of her heels broke.  I watched her do the most dignified limp you’ll ever see, bow to the coffin, and then another dignified limp out of the chapel without even breaking stride.

The best one for me was the family bearers who carried the coffin drunk.  This isn’t uncommon at funerals, nor am I judging but it is essential to tell the story.  When family are to carry a coffin who have never carried a coffin before they are told what to do.  The coffin is rolled out from the hearse, take it into hands gentleman/ladies, don’t use the handles (for show only), lift onto shoulders, turn towards the chapel, left foot forward first on my (The FD’s) say so, and let’s go.  These chaps never made it past the turning towards the chapel part to start with.  One guy, in his inebriated state, turned the wrong direction and faced towards the car park instead.  The FD turned him 180 degrees and they were off. Minister leading the procession, the FD close behind and then the bearers with the coffin.  With their inebriation came haste.  They wanted to get that coffin down that runway as quickly as they possibly could. It may have been heavy, they may have not trusted their legs, whatever the reason it became a race between the FD and the coffin.  The bearers got faster and faster.  Problem was, the FD couldn’t speed up because he was being delayed by the Minister leading the procession, completely unaware of the speed the coffin was approaching from behind.  The poor FD was practically being hit on the back of the head by this coffin by 4 bearers who couldn’t wait to do their jobs and be seated.  Coffin safely placed, bow, exit chapel, sigh of relief and laughter from the F.D’s camp.

“That coffin nearly overtook me.”

Only yesterday we had a husband and wife at a funeral who had become separated before the coffin entered the chapel.  The wife asked if I had seen her husband.  ‘Would you like me to check the waiting room?’  as I came back in, I could see they had been reunited and the husband said to me ‘did she think she’d lost me?’  I said, ‘yes sir, she did.’  ‘No such luck,’ he replied.  It eases the soul.  Emotion is so raw on the day it seems the only way to deal with it for some people is to laugh, crack a joke.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  My dad’s the same.  You see groups of big burly men who have lost maybe a drinking partner or someone from their local club or bar and they refuse to go into chapel.  They’ll stay outside near the flower area and laugh and recite funny anecdotes about the time the deceased did this or the deceased did that.  And on the surface, it looks strange, maybe even interpreted as rude by some people but that is their way of dealing with it.  The emotion they will go through inside the chapel is too raw for them to handle maybe and they’d rather stay outside and remember the good times instead of facing up to the fact that their mate has gone.

I had another elderly chap exit a service recently and say to the minister about the deceased ‘Well, I shan’t forget him.  He was my wife’s boyfriend.’  They were all in their 80’s.  Completely deadpan, which does make me wonder if that was even a joke.

Their laughs are laced with their loss.  It is their coping mechanism.  One lady said to me “it seems to be less parties and more funerals these days.”  Although she laughed, that pulled at my heart strings.  She intended it as a joke but that was when I realised death’s coming for us all and if we live to old age we get to see those closest to us pass away until it is our turn.  For that reason, we should all find some comfort in loss in any way we can.  Usually it is by the way those gone have influenced us or shaped us.  Sometimes that comfort comes from laughing.

 

This post is dedicated to Darin De Souza, one of my old football coaches, father to a good friend of mine, who was full of humour who recently passed away. The man personally responsible for making us underdogs heard against Chelsea Ladies fc the night we became champions in 2011 by bringing foghorns and distributing them among our own fans who were completely outnumbered on the night.  We were heard that day because of you.

What Happens to the Metals After Cremation?

Something I am often asked about my work is what happens to the metal left over after cremation. And the answer is, we recycle them.  All the magnetic and non-magnetic and all the precious metals are then recycled by a family run company called Orthometals based in the Netherlands.  All your magnetic metals are your coffin tacks, screws and some costume jewellery that melts into unrecognisable forms after cremation.  Your non-magnetic is all your titanium such as surgical implants.  These are your hip joints, knee joints, dental tooth implants, jaw plates, skull plates, pins, you get the picture.  The precious metals are your golds, platinum, the stuff that melts into unrecognisable forms too but these won’t be picked up by the magnet.

After cremation, you do a visual inspection for the larger titanium joints and remove these by hand.  For the remainder these metals are removed by running a magnet through the cremated remains. The magnet picks out most of these remaining smaller metal pieces and then the cremated remains are cremulated.  If you’ve failed to spot any of the larger joints inside the remains you really have put a spanner in the works because that’s what it sounds like as the remains are spun in the metal blades.  Not only does it sound awful, metal on metal, it doesn’t best please your boss either because it reduces the life span of the cremulator machine.  After this has taken place, the smaller metals you may have missed with the magnet, or were not able to pick up with the magnet is then deposited into two sections of the cremulator, into magnetic and non-magnetic sections, while the cremulated cremated remains filter through a drum with very small holes and becomes the final form of what people know as the ashes. 

At the end of each day, that cremulator is serviced and all the metals we have missed (no matter how hard you try, you’ll always miss some) gets taken out of the machine.  For each different metal type, we have a different wheelie bin to sort them in to, supplied by the company who take care of the recycling of these metals.

Families have the right to have the metals from their loved one’s cremation returned to them.  If this is the case they can let us, the crematorium, know directly or let their funeral director know of this wish and we will do exactly that.  If there are any titanium implants, all the coffin tacks and screws and any other metals will be returned. One lady on a tour of the crem stated that this was a very upsetting question from their funeral director but there is a very good reason they asked it. For those who do not wish for the metal to be returned it goes on a very different journey.  Once upon a time this metal was known as waste and would be disposed of.  Now it does something much worthier for the bereavement industry.

Most of the metal remains on crematorium sites for a few months.  Once we have a substantial amount Orthometals, a company based In the Netherlands comes and collects the metals we have.  They are weighed on site at the crematorium and signed over to them.  They take care of the retrieval process.  Which I for one am very grateful for.  I remember the first time I saw this happen.  Now I can barely pull the bin filled with implants.  This chap, who I was introduced to as Jan- Willem Gabriels, came in, wheeled it out, lifted it onto his van on his own and returned us another bin.  Who needs the gym when you can lift 18kg no problem?

This metal gets taken away, sorted and then sent to their partner foundries to be smelted down. Those titanium implants may now be being used on golf courses as golf clubs, driving around in fancy alloy wheels or part of your drill you are using to hang pictures in your home. Gold, platinum palladium is returned to its former glory as something equally as precious for somebody new and the less precious tacks and screws are probably turned into the same thing, who knows?

What is special about all this though, is crematoriums involved in the scheme, which may I add costs nothing at all, zilch, nada to be involved in get the surplus funds left over.  These funds are for bereavement charities selected by the crematoriums.  A successful cycle for the good of the bereavement industry.  And then it all begins again.

The first time I saw an implant was interesting.  These things survive the 600 – 1000-degree heat, glow orange, make a clang once they are raked from the cremator into the cooling hopper and then retain their shape, charred but unchanged in shape.  To think someone was carrying these things around as part of their skeletal make up.  And some of them are heavy!  If I ever need one of these inserted at least I’ll always have an excuse for excess weight. Some are gruesome and these I know were originals, prototypes, before the making of these implants progressed onto the care for the patient.  Instead of just serving a purpose, where they were large, heavy and I can only assume a hindrance to the poor girl or guy’s walk, they have slowly progressed into smaller, lighter designs.  When you sometimes pull one of the older ones out of a set of cremated remains you do sometimes wonder how that person managed with such a thing inside them.  And you are reminded that everything progresses and in your wheelie bin you have a sign of evolution side by side, the old and the new and you see that everything progresses over the years, even the metals used to aide human function. 

Working in the Bereavement Industry – Who Supports the Supporters?

When a death occurs the dealings people have with the bereavement industry is the very beginning of the healing process, a stepping stone in their own private grief. Working at a crematorium the bereavement world feels like it revolves around you. Not in terms of importance but in terms of the people you get to know and make professional contacts and friends with. They all come through your doors and even though you aren’t strictly colleagues it does feel that you are because you work so closely together.
The recent Grenfell Tower fire tragedy has me concerned for the guys and girls in the industry who will be dealing with this incident and others similar. The sights many of those firefighters saw and heroically dealt with was unseen by many firefighters with long careers in the service said the news. I can only hazard a guess at the condition the bodies would have been found in from the job I do and that is a heart-breaking thought. The painstaking task they are undergoing trying to get the victims out of the building will take a long time. After the firefighters have done their amazing but harrowing duties the funeral directors who work on behalf of the coroner then start to do their bit. The bodies of the deceased are removed from the scene by the undertakers.
It was the same after the London Bridge terror attack. On that night, I returned home and saw the coin sized skyline of London in the distance from where I live and knew terror was raining down at that specific moment and the lives lost would pass through the doors of people I work with and know. They would have to deal with the losses London suffered like all other Londoners but their grief for this event would have another angle and that would be the sights they would see. The devastating side of the attack that would never make it into the newspapers. Both incidents, Grenfell Tower and the London terror attacks, both tragic in their own way, at the end of the loss of life is a group of people who are going to feel the same way as the rest of London at these sad times but this is where it begins for the bereavement industry.
Their jobs are to care for the deceased in every way they can. They will treat them with the care and respect they deserve. And then they will help the families. They will hear the story and history of every individual’s life who has been lost. The mental strength this will take is phenomenal. Yes, there are some who can shut down what they are about to go through, it’s never just a job but for some the harrowing sights and the stories of those gone can be switched off. For some this doesn’t happen. For some they go on these journeys with the families and that can’t be avoided. They’ll be planning their funeral, a celebration of a life gone too soon, you see their loved ones suffer and all they can do is their job, to the best of their ability and offer support to those families. They will allow those suffering to grieve in their presence while offering all the help they can. Some funeral directors offer aftercare for their clients that stretches beyond the day of the funeral. But I wonder who is looking after them and their wellbeing when they are dealing with death daily? Just because it is their job it doesn’t mean that it gets easier the more they do it. That is a myth.
It is a male dominated industry and the macho sometimes takes over. But I know it is impossible not to take their work home with them sometimes. I often find myself sometimes taking hard days home with me. But as I mentioned with the Manchester terror attack, we will always feel the tragedy is bigger than we are. This includes everyone in the bereavement industry, from arranging the funeral, to the interment of the body or ashes. We see our cities suffer, and then we see the families suffering. After the city has begun to dress the wounds, the bereavement industry will try and help the families left behind in every way we can and this can take its toll.
I am a strong believer in counselling being made available to the bereavement industry. Whether that be from the employers, the government or charities. The charity Mind offers their blue light programme and I see this as paramount to those individuals in the emergency services having this help available should they need it. Firefighters were offered counselling after the Grenfell Tower tragedy and I believe funeral directors and their workers should be offered this should they feel they need it. It’s not an easy job to do and I think those in bereavement sometimes concentrate so hard on bearing the burden for the families that their own state of mind when dealing with large scale incidents is forgotten about.
In every tragedy where there is a loss of life there are always the helpers and heroes offering hope. There are the emergency services who offer life-saving help or treatment. There are the people who offer help and rally round bringing the communities together. And then there are the guys and girls who have the sometimes frightening job of removing those bodies from the scene and then preparing their funerals. This industry supports those suffering bereavement, but I do believe there should be somewhere to go should the workers need supporting. Nobody works in this industry for praise but I for one praise you guys because you do an incredible job that isn’t always seen after a large-scale tragedy has occurred.
If anyone does feel they need to talk to someone after dealing with these events or any similar there is no stigma attached in reaching out.
Samaritans are there for a chat, not just if you’re feeling suicidal (their words, not mine) on 02077342800 (London based).
Mind is a charity and their info line is 03001233393.
One incident that caused me great distress when the Grenfell Tower tragedy happened was the man who opened a body bag and photographed the face of the deceased and posted it on Facebook hoping to identify the body. I don’t know if he genuinely thought he was helping or if he saw a way of making himself relevant during this tragic time, or for some other unknown, unfathomable reason. But I thought about the family of the victim who may have to see that and finding out their loved one has died from some guy thinking he has a right to inform the world of the death without a care or an offer of condolence. And then I thought of all the unsuspecting people flicking through Facebook, knowing this tragedy has occurred and their feed filled with ‘rip’s’ and the heartbreak of the tragedy and then are focused on this. A devastating loss of life they did not ask for or wish to see. It was sickening and I was glad justice was served when the police arrested him for it and he was sentenced to three months. Not enough though is it…? I hope there aren’t too many more like him who would do the same at such a time.

The Art of Dying

On the weekend, I was at the NFE, for those of you who don’t know what that is, it is the National funeral exhibition.  A chance for funeral directors and others who are in the industry to network and see what everyone can do for each other and the options families can have when choosing what to have on the day of the funeral for their loved ones.    This was my second time attending.  I find it remarkable the things people can do to tailor the funeral to their loved one.  You can imagine the families saying, ‘That was so him,’ from the unusual types of coffins you can have, the type of hearses available, the floral tributes right down to the urns and memorials for afterwards, even digital memorials. 

One casket available for burials I found to be a work of art.  It was the Devotion casket being sold by The London Casket Company working in partnership with Colourful Coffins who helped them design the wrap that they put on the coffin.  It was white with black music notes of the top ten funeral songs from this year with the lyric quote along the side from American Pie by Don Mclean ‘The Day the Music Died.’  It was a thing of beauty.  Also on the same stand was a classic memorial in keeping with the musical theme with musical notes and piano keys on the base by Vaughan Memorials.

There were so many hearses you’d be spoilt for choice.  There were plenty of the traditional hearses available for purchase and hire.  But the ones that stood out were the ones that go against the tradition.  A beautiful Binz-E, Chelsea blue hearse with wooden interior.  It was something that if you owned it you probably would want to take it out just to show it off.  You can also have your final send off in an only fools and horses hearse with the three-wheeled van leading the procession and attached is a matching yellow trailer towed by the famous van available with tailored funerals by onlyfoolsandhearses.co.uk. This company also do hearses kitted out in any sport montage, any team and they are magnets. These magnets can be taken off and given to the family of the deceased as a lasting reminder of their loved one they can use in their own homes if they so wish.  And there is a hummer hearse to add to the occasion if that would be something the deceased would prefer instead.  Working at the crematorium I had seen this once before.  I also know there are other fitting hearses that I have seen over the years.  A converted fire truck, converted double decker bus, motorcycle and side car, the list really is endless it is just about sourcing them because they are rare and dotted about across the UK and must be hired for the day of the funeral.

What I like is the traditional and the progressively modern existing side by side. There was a company, Fondest Memories, who produce plaques for memorial companies who design digital memorial pages in tribute to the deceased.  This plaque is placed onto the memorial, there is a QR code that can be scanned using a smart phone and it automatically uploads the memorial page onto your phone.  It is the old meeting the new, dying in the age of digital evolution.  Another way for loved ones to stay more connected to the ones who have gone before them.

There was a company, afuneralnotice.co.uk, preparing digital invitations to funerals for a small fee.  This takes the strain off the mourner having to prepare and message out all the details.  This message is prepared for them, sent out to three people who can then forward it to their friends and family regarding time, date, location of the funeral.  It can also contain other information such as no flowers, just a donation to a charity or please wear bright colours and the place for the wake.  Distributing information at such a stressful time can be hard and this company take the strain of this.

Something we have available to source at our crematorium is Ashes into items of jewellery.  A small amount of the ashes are sent away to them and they are rolled into small pieces of glass and are then encased in jewellery of choice.  Rings, cufflinks, earrings, necklaces, even paperweights if preferred.

Something most certainly not available at the crematorium but is available in the industry is tattooing your loved one’s ashes into your skin.  I’m not sure this is something I would consider having done if that time arose when wondering how best to use or inter the ashes of a loved one but I can see the market for it for those who are into it.

It is wonderful to see the funeral world marching so boldly into the digital era.  People who die naturally in the coming years were all born and bred into an analogue age.  They bore the changes into the digital era, some, like my dad, refuse to embrace this change.  They can’t comprehend the smart phones, the social media, even mobile phones are a struggle, but their grandkids will.  For their grandchildren that is all they know.  And then there is the generation in between who was born analogue but they were caught young enough for the transition to digital to be a smooth ascent, like Hamilton off pole at the weekend.  It was easy.  A funeral is as much for the people left behind to celebrate the life of their loved one.  And it’s nice to see the choice of things available to honour their loved one is growing year in year out. 

Gone are the days where funerals must be men dressed in black, driving black hearses, followed by black limousines.  There has become a lot of art (and colour) in dying, and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

The Manchester Terror Attack – Always Remember The Heroes

Now I have had time to reflect on the events that happened in Manchester on the 22nd of May 2017 I feel I can now talk about it without the anger and political slant I would have if I had written this before today. 

First and foremost, my condolences and sympathy lie with those who have lost loved ones in the attack and those who are still injured and traumatised by the events on that night. My thoughts are with the ambulance crews, the police officers, the doctors, nurses, surgeons, the people who helped and held the hands of those injured and dying.  The heroes after disaster, those are the hope amongst the devastation.  A whole city mourns, but these people will feel it most.

But I want to say I also reserve my thoughts and sympathies for those in Manchester in the Bereavement industry.  Their mortuaries would have been put on emergency alert as soon as the disaster happened.  There would have been mortuary workers knowing the growing number of fatalities before the press had hold of the information.  It is a terrible position to be in.  You wait, knowing the number will grow, praying it will stop.  You know there will be people you know, or people who your friends know likely to be amongst the fatalities or those injured.  The devastation slowly reveals itself but they cannot let that prevent them from doing their job.

To follow will be the funerals of those who lost their lives.  There will be funeral directors arranging and making sure every detail of the funerals is correct for the bereft families.  Those men and women will be struggling to comprehend what has gone on in their own city whilst preparing the funerals of those gone too soon.  And they will do it with the professionalism they use every day.  I know this will reach out to them on a far deeper level.  I have been involved in one major incident within my own town and that was the local tram crash.  A loss of life hard to comprehend because it could have been avoided.  But the senselessness of this attack will rock them every time they deal with a funeral resulting from this act of terror.

The crematorium and cemetery workers will have a heightened sense of loss whenever a funeral resulting from the bombing takes place.  They will take care of all the arrangements and every detail with great care.  They are already thinking about it.  Will those lost come through our gates?  They are mentally preparing themselves and won’t leave anything to chance and will agonise over every detail.  It will play on their minds from the moment a funeral is booked at their cemetery and it will stay with them for a long time afterwards too.

The officiants who will be asked to conduct these services will be honoured but find it one of the most difficult services they will ever officiate.  They will write and re-write their services.  They will plan every part repeatedly making sure everything is correct.

These people will do everything they always do but they will do it with a much heavier heart.  They’ll take pride in giving those who lost their lives a good send off for the families left behind. They will go home from work and hug their wife/husband/partner, their children and their friends, possibly discuss the services without talking about how it has affected them because the tragedy is bigger than they are.

They do a tough job but what they are all about to go through plays on my mind and I genuinely feel for them.  They will play their part in the healing process of a wound that won’t ever heal for the families who have lost loved ones.  While a city mourns the losses, the bereavement industry will offer support, help a city say goodbye and tie some of the knots of unity desperately needed.

At these times always remember the victims, their families and the heroes.  Those who run towards the tragedy to help the injured. These are the people who go home at night with wounds that aren’t visible.   

 

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