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The musings of a crematorium worker

Life , death and everything in between

Introduction

I am the forgotten person at funerals, the ghost who wanders amongst the congregation making sure they have everything they need before the service starts.  I appear to do nothing.  I’ve placed a few orders of service on seats, I’m asking you all to come forward because, if you’re not family, you all want to sit as close to the back of the chapel as possible. On that, I sometimes wish we could put you all on a carousel so you all get the same amount of time closer to the front as possible. After the funeral what I do is mechanical. Industrial.  I dispose of bodies inside a coffin.  I cremate, grind up and pre-package your loved one in a cardboard box.  All with care and compassion but it is broken down into this very basic model death- funeral directors – funeral – refrigeration (depending how busy it is) – cremation – cremulate – ashes.  How can I expect anyone to make sense of this?  How can a wealth of memories just be dust that we can hold in one hand?  I found it difficult when picking up the ashes of my cat.  At a funeral at the crematorium people attempt to say goodbye to a lifetime of memories inside a 45-minute slot, other crematoriums its 30 minute slots.  We are a little bit more generous to stop the feel of a conveyor belt.  7.5 minutes to get you all in, 30-minute service, and 7.5 minutes to get you all back out again.  The ministers, officiants, sometimes family members do an incredible job at summing up a life in that time but is it really possible?  I don’t think so.  But it is the public slot of grieving.  Where everyone who knew that person spends time together to grieve for their loss.  But grief is private.  Grief is personal. And people think if they aren’t family they aren’t allowed to grieve as much, and that is the reason they all want to sit nearer the back of the chapel.

                In my time at the crematorium I have been involved with over 7000 funerals, some front of house in the funerals and some back of house cremating.  The people who walk through the doors all have one thing in common; loss.  And death brings out the best in people or it brings out the worst.  The bereaved tend to be the easiest of people to work for because they tend to be easy going and usually allow themselves to be led.  But sometimes, just sometimes people will amaze you.  We had a funeral for a local homeless man.  Now we have toilets on site but this particular gentleman chose the bushes next to the rose plaque memorials as the most adequate place to relive himself.  Maybe force of habit.  And at the other end of society we then had the funeral for a very famous, national hero, where a mourner seemed to believe she was more important than the family.  Picture this, nearly 150 people in this congregation, 133 seats available in chapel and the family yet to arrive.  I had asked for everyone to remain outside while we await the funeral cortege.  All I remember was the red hair and the pompousness of her voice as she said to me, standing in front of closed chapel doors ‘surely it would be best if we all sat down first?’ as if I didn’t know my own job. 

I bit my lip and very professionally responded ‘No madam, it would not be best as the main family are yet to arrive, if I seat you all first, then it is likely they would have to remain standing or an embarrassing situation would ensue as I ask those seated to stand and make way for the main family, wouldn’t it?’

She scoffed at me as if I was shit on her shoe.  You don’t get many of them, but there are one or two.  It’s the money that does it I think.

Whether they are from the very expensive postcodes or the places where the dole queue stretches out of the post office, they are all bereaved.  We do not treat anyone any differently here.  Lower class, upper class or somewhere in between you are still Sir and Madam to me.  You need words of kindness or a listening ear we are here.  I once met a mourner who came to lay flowers in the flower room for his late wife, every Wednesday.  I always used to run into him when I cleared out the dead flowers.  He reminded me of my dad because he would always have a joke to tell, usually dirty.  Then one morning I ran into him and he wasn’t his usual quirky self.  It would have been his anniversary and he sobbed his heart out.  I gave him a hug and he joked about touching another woman on his anniversary.

I have other duties other than making sure funerals run smoothly and cremating.  I scatter ashes, with or without family witnesses, whatever the family has chosen.  But that pretty much is the long and short of it.  It is an honour to do what I do.  You hear so many stories of local people, some who have moved away and their final resting place is their once local cemetery, some who never set foot out of the town and some who are being cremated here because their family are settled here.  No two funerals are the same let alone days.  I like the ying and yang of my job, the different people I speak to, the different types of people I deal with and how I must deal with each one differently. 

Crematorium Technician/Chapel attendant – It’s not something I ever thought I would end up doing, it was never my dream career.  My dream career was a writer, even that was a half-hearted desire.  I love football.  In all honesty, I wish I had made it to the very top in that, but I played to a very high level in my early twenties and won silverware so that I will have to do.  But I ambled through a BTEC National diploma in sport at college, passed with straight distinctions and decided, with help from my form tutor, I would go to University because I hadn’t chosen a career path.  The university brochure flopped open on professional and creative writing and I thought it would be awesome to combine sport and writing.  Six months later I found myself surrounded by a group of people, some who have gone on to be published authors.  I was a bottle cap floating on the tide.  I didn’t sink but I didn’t quite belong either.

Graduating University with a 2.1 BA honours in Professional and Creative writing was meant to spur me on to big things.  But the young and dumb me thought I’d make it without really attempting to write much other than what I had already done at uni.  I entered a few poetry and short story competitions, nothing came of it and I stopped altogether.  But my thirst for reading grew.  My tutor Peter Dewar was to thank for that.  He first encouraged me to read and then reinforced the importance of reading for a creative writer, that was what my dissertation was on.  My two chapters of a novel was dog shit but my thesis was good.  He said if I ever stopped writing I was to keep reading.  It enhances your chances of improving your skills without even using them.  Imagine that.  Improving on something you’re not even doing.  Like getting an easier six pack when you finally do get your fat ass down the gym.  He wasn’t wrong. I have kept a reading list since university and read tons of books, quite literally tons because I am good old fashioned books none of the kindle ones (I refuse to own one).  That has increased tenfold since I started working at the crematorium.  I’ll charge a coffin and get to read for an hour.  It does appear that this diary/book was always coming.  It was in my genes.  At university they always say write what you know best, concentrate on your own experiences and these are all mine.

I fell out of university into a couple of retail jobs and then into Royal mail. I loved that job for how fit it kept me.  In all my years of playing football I have never been as fit as when I was doing that job.  However, the powers that be declined to give me a full time contract and I was stuck on a six month, 30 hour rolling contract.  I had to find a new job, at the same time my brother was looking for employment so my parents were always circling job ads for him.  Inadvertently they circled a crematorium technicians job, ten minutes’ walk from home.  I read it, encouraging him to go for it.  Reading it, I said to him he’ll have some competition because I may even go for it because of how local it was.  Then I found out a friend worked and was a director at another cemetery, I told him my plans and he encouraged me to come down to his cemetery to see if I could do the job.  It’s not for everyone.  So that’s what I did. I applied with that experience from that day and got the job.

I remember seeing my first skeleton.  The white laying against a back glow of orange, like a white-skinned sunbather under the Mediterranean sun.  Only this isn’t a holiday.  This is death.  They are gone, and all that remains are the bits people never got to see.  All that is left are calcified remains (technical term).  The flesh and the internal organs burn away.  The majority of our body is just fluid, a substance the flames consume.  Even after all the years of doing this job I sometimes feel my bones beneath my flesh and ask myself how can that be.  I have seen more of that person than they ever got to see of themselves.  Their friends and family knew all that they were but I’ve seen that person’s bones.

We had a doctor signing off documents for paperwork on site once.  He had missed the funeral of a dear friend that morning.  Knowing he had missed the service he asked if he could see the coffin.  Unfortunately, we had already cremated the body (yes, the coffin is cremated also, I’ll bust a few myths in other posts). But the remains weren’t cremulated.  The hip bone was still visible, part of the skull was sat on top of the pile.

‘That’s ok,’ he said ‘I’d like to see what is left of him.’

So over he came from the crematorium offices to the crematorium itself and I placed his uncremulated remains on the side for him to spend some time with.  All official and respectful as I could.

‘He was always a bit disorganised,’ he said.  ‘he would have loved to have lost that much weight in life as he has in death.’

He howled with laughter at his own joke and I laughed as respectfully as I could.  But there’s something about other people in the profession.  Doctors, funeral directors, clergy.  We have to laugh in the face of death.  We have to create a gallows humour because the sights we have seen and the tragedy we are subjected to, although not our own, would drive us insane.  We can only do what we do by having a sense of humour, and that doesn’t mean being disrespectful either.  It is a coping mechanism.  Not many people can do our jobs and not many people are even aware of our jobs until a loved one passes on.

This blog is based on my experiences in my job.  Because it is a job that interests people or turns their stomachs.  It is a job that people should know more about.  Death is a part of life.  Lets talk about it.

 

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Coincidence or Something Deeper?

As much as you plan and prepare for a funeral, spoken with all the necessary people to get every minute detail correct on the day, some things do go wrong. 

I’ve had numerous fire drills in my time working at the crematorium.  However, only one of those has been mid funeral service.  My duty is to go in and alert the congregation to await further instructions and to see if it is a genuine fire by going to the fire panel close by.  The congregation are sitting while the incessant noise is ringing out around them, red light flashing, minister doing his best to continue, while I’m running to the fire panel to see what has set it off.  The chapel waiting room was the cause, a lady with a very large handbag.  Silence the alarm, alert the fire panel company of the false alarm so the fire brigade does not arrive.  The funeral continues.  Later on after the funeral in the corridor I see one of the family of the deceased whose funeral was interrupted and she says ‘it’s ok.  Quite ironic really.  She was always setting the fire alarm off at home.  She’d have loved it.’  You just couldn’t make it up.  I’m panicking because someone’s funeral has been disturbed in a major way and they loved it. 

There was one occasion we had a complete power cut.  We had a backup generator that failed to kick in (an issue that has since been resolved) and a family never got their exit music because we didn’t have the power to the stereo.  On making my apologies to the funeral director and the family after the service one of the family said ‘it’s ok, she hated that piece of music anyway.  It was probably her what did it.’

Once, the bearers were carrying in a coffin and they were overtaken by a Robin that flew into the chapel. I had never seen anything like it before, the bird slowed and it was as if it led the way for the deceased.  I knew if I left this bird inside the chapel with the doors closed it would start flying against the large windows trying to get out without any way of doing so.  But no sooner had the coffin been placed on the catafalque, the bird turned and flew out of the same doors it had flown through.  After the celebrant had concluded the service and the last mourner had left she asked me if I had seen the bird.  The deceased had loved her birds.  Every day she had gone out and fed them on her bird table in her garden.  A fitting final tribute.

People ask me if I believe in ghosts and the answer is no. But I do believe there are some things that are a little deeper and more complex than coincidence.  I don’t believe they make the scenario fit their loved one, it’s something that has found them, happened and has related to their loved one.  That can’t be coincidence, surely?

The Importance of a Good Funeral Officiant

Whether a funeral is religious or non-religious, the person officiating the service plays a key role on the day.  They are the ones who have liaised with the family.  There are grey areas between the funeral director’s role and the officiant.  They both take care of the congregation and although the funeral director has ensured all the logistical side of things has been taken care of and they know what the service is to include, and possibly helped in getting the family in touch with the right person to lead the service, they hand over the service to the officiant on the day when everyone is seated.  So it is always good news if before a service you see the chapel attendant, the funeral director and the officiant all in the chapel together discussing what is about to take place inside the funeral, checking the music is all present and correct, if there are any special requests that need to be met such as a family to place roses on the coffin during a particular song, making sure (if the officiant has never been to the crematorium before) they know the correct way to exit, if the curtains are to close around the coffin at the point of committal or whether the coffin is to lower if that is the other option.  There are hymns to consider and often members of the clergy will wander in and throw you a curve ball by saying they will be singing a hymn that you didn’t know was to be included so you must upload that to the music system and then find the correct page number in the hymn books the congregation will sing from. These are minute details but they are the difference between everything going right for the family and something going wrong on one of the most stressful things they will ever have to go through.

These guys and girls are professionals who lead the service.  They do wonderful jobs without you even knowing it.  The time their value really shines through is when a family conducts their own service, some are perfectly fine and they do an excellent job.  Some are lost and need a bit of guidance.  I’m not sure someone can know how their grief will materialise on the day unless they have some experience of public speaking and bereavement experience (whether that be working in it or having lost a close loved one before).

For the families who conduct their own funeral we are here to help on the day as much as possible.  I am liaising about how the funeral will go, what they want at what time, what music is to be played at what point, is there anything we need to know.  We need to pre-empt every detail so we can assist them.  If they categorically say they do not want the coffin to be lowered I’ll tell them what button not to press.  And just to be on the safe side, I’ll run around the back and isolate the power to stop the catafalque lowering because once it has started it can’t be stopped, it will continue to descend until it is completely out of view of the congregation.  To be fair, I do this with some ministers who say the family do not want the coffin to lower.  One member of the clergy has a terrible habit of touching things, especially buttons, out of habit, I’m told. Can’t you develop a different habit?  Because the touching of buttons at the point of a committal when the family have said they want the opposite can be distressing and it keeps me on edge throughout the entire service.

When a family is conducting their own service, it is important to know when it is over, what their last words will be.  Nothing could be more embarrassing than walking down the aisle, bowing to the coffin and opening the doors for the congregation to exit when all they were doing was pausing for breath.  You’re waiting for a sign or a nod.  Some family members take on the burden of officiating and some do a professional job.  Some just need a little bit more help.  For instance, I have had the congregation be shown in by the funeral director, take their seats, listen to the end of the entrance music and once silence descends they all look at each other waiting to see who will make the next move, who will be first up to speak, who is going to take the lead.

A good officiant will take the complete lead at a funeral as soon as it begins.  The funeral director shows the family to their seats and an imaginary page has been turned in the story, the narrator changes from the F.D to the officiant.  From that moment, a good officiant will make the family feel secure as well as settling the nerves of this chapel attendant too.  They are in complete control.  They have obsessed over the minute details of the day and all that work they have put in is now being bought to life in a service fit for the deceased.  They eulogise a life, they read fitting readings or poems and tributes all in the correct order, they are ensuring what has been asked of them is being delivered.   What they do isn’t easy, nor should it be because they have the honour of conducting a service in tribute to someone’s life. 

What I don’t like to see is when the family are being dictated to by the officiant.  That’s not the way it should be.  It is their goodbye to their loved one.  I have seen F.D’s walk into chapel and let the officiant know the family would like to follow the coffin into chapel.  ‘No, no.  That won’t be happening, they are all to be seated first.’  The F.D went outside and reiterated this to the family and they did not object, but even so, this should not happen.  Good officiants are to carry out the wishes of the family, it is not for the family to carry out the wishes of the officiant (obviously within reason).

You get good working relationships with these people.  You learn their quirks.  You learn their closing words, you get to know when they have finished their final saying/prayer and they aren’t just pausing for breath.  I like seeing the very different ways they do things, yet each one delivering a brilliant service. They are saviours too.  Little, tiny details that they pay attention to.  For instance, the way things normally happen at the end of the service are they announce the wake details and close the service with some closing words.  Occasionally a family will ask to be left in chapel so they can have some time alone with their loved one while the rest of the congregation exit the chapel.  An experienced officiant will announce that the family will be staying inside the chapel, if everyone could exit and save their meeting with the family after they have left the chapel.  If this isn’t done it takes an age to get the congregation to exit because they all stop at the front row to offer their condolences but unfortunately, we are on a time restriction so this must wait until they are outside.  Sometimes, mourners will catch you off guard.  Most will sit and listen to the exit music and wait to be led from the chapel, myself and the F.D will walk down to the coffin, where we will join the officiant, bow to the coffin, I’ll get the doors and the funeral director will speak to the family.  Occasionally, the bow goes out the window because as soon as the first bar has started of the exit music they are up and we must get down there because they will instinctively start to exit the way they have come in but the flowers are at the other exit.  These officiants will lead the family out the correct way before they start heading the wrong way towards myself and the funeral director standing at the rear of the chapel.  Having a congregation of 100 people heading in the wrong direction is a nightmare, because that is where the next congregation is waiting to come in.

I can be their saviour too.  A family had requested to place roses on top of the coffin before the committal and the curtains closing.  The officiant had come to the point of committal and not announced the roses being placed.  I knew she was about to close the curtains as she began the words of committal.  I quickly wrote the word in a marker on my paperwork ‘ROSES’ and held it up at the back of the chapel hoping she could see.  She did. Like a true professional she said, ‘I will now ask those who have roses to come up and place them before I conclude the committal.’ There wasn’t even a break in her sentence.  She made it seem like she had always meant to do it that way.  They react to things changing without a fluster.  They have nerves of concrete, they step in if a mourner cannot complete their speech, if it’s written down they step in and read, they offer comfort and support to help them to continue.  Mistakes happen but they make it right, if the music doesn’t play for whatever reason they have the words to fill the silence until it does play because those seconds of silence can feel like an eternity.  They know the family, they know what jokes they can and can’t get away with, their rapport is not to be underestimated.

I would have to dedicate a whole other post to the goings on of bad officiants but this post is all about the good ones and the brilliant job they do.  It’s all in the grey area between themselves and the F.D’s and my own chapel attendant role to some extent, they step in when we can’t, they soak up the pressure and they give the family the service worthy of their loved one, and when the tiniest of things go wrong, they cover it over without the family even realising something has happened. They stand up at the front with the pressure of ensuring they get it right, and they always do because of the work they have put in.  It’s all in their attention to detail.

 

Funeral music and how it has influenced me

 

Before I started working at the crematorium I didn’t have a wide range of musical taste.  I wasn’t prepared for the amount I would learn and how each different walk of life was about to influence my musical tastes. I come from a working-class background and I am in what is regarded as a working-class job.  I once had a family from the very affluent area of our town ask me if we had Nessun Dorma and when I said yes and I knew the piece they looked at me as if I had two heads. 

                There are many pieces I love that I have learned from what I do. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, Canon in D by Pachelbel, Time to say Goodbye by Bocelli.  The classical pieces are never something I thought I would listen to let alone own copies of.  But most names of songs I have learned from reading and this doesn’t always turn out well.  You look like a bit of a numpty when you say songs such as Pie Jesu and pronounce it Pie (as in piece of) Jez – ooo.  For those of you who don’t know it should be Pee-ay Yay-zoo. And Chopin’s name as Chopping instead of Show-Pan.

I have had a next of kin apologise to me for their song choice before.  A heavy metal song came on to exit and she came out smiling, embarrassed.  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘It was what he wanted.’  ‘Don’t be sorry,’ I said, ‘there’s no right or wrong way to say goodbye.’  Nobody should apologise for their choice of music at a funeral.  Just because it’s not to their tastes or the way they think a ‘normal’ funeral should be.  A funeral should never be normal.  My partner has mentioned in the past she would like to be danced into the chapel, upon the shoulders of dancing bearers as they bring her in to Kylie Minogue Your Disco Needs You, and her coffin would have to be spun around before being placed onto the catafalque.  This is the uniqueness of a funeral. I hope she wasn’t joking because I will make this happen if the worst ever happened and I was the one left behind on this earth.

I love the surprise exit music, the one not listed in the order of service so people don’t know what is coming, like 50 cent Window Shopper.  The whole congregation smiles.  It was so him.  Tina Turner Simply the Best cranked up to full volume at the deceased’s request and everyone dancing.  People have congaed out of the chapel at the deceased’s request.  Ding dong the old witch is dead and danced around the coffin, possibly not at the deceased’s request.  My personal favourite was Fire Starter by The Prodigy.

                Before I started working here I had never sang a hymn but I am well versed now.  I don’t usually sing hymns but today I gave it a go.  I was standing at the back of the chapel monitoring our new music system and I found myself singing Abide with me as the organ music rung out.  Why?  I have no idea.  The only logical conclusion I could come to was I was learning the verses, whereas the organist used to deal with all of this before the introduction of our automated music system.  Knowledge isn’t necessarily power as they like to say but knowledge is the difference between getting the correct amount of verses on the system for a hymn.  The difference between there not being enough verses and the congregation singing acapella to the verses left in their order of service long after the music has stopped, or the hymn playing on for verses that are available but the family hasn’t chosen to sing and the music ringing out with no accompaniment.  I’m not sure which is worse.  Abide with me is not one of the more frequently sang hymns in our crematorium chapels so it was rather nice and I felt like giving it a go. All things B and B is done to death. Regularly.  When the new music system was installed and there were no longer organists but a recorded organ in chapel we did not have a clue about verses.  That was always knowledge that fell into the organist’s realm.  But we had to learn quickly.  My colleague and I, my childhood friend of 26 years, were given the amount of verses requested by the funeral director which was accompanied by a choir, so it was imperative we got the correct verses to match the organ playing and the family’s order of service.  Otherwise the choir would be singing one thing in the background while the congregation would be murmuring another.  I say murmuring because it is very rare that a congregation sing.  My manager swears blind it’s because the hymns are forced on these poor people by members of the clergy who are fed up of people dipping in and out of religious ceremonies at funerals that if they decide on a religious service they will jolly well have religious content.  So, in goes the hymn that no one really wants to sing.  It’s all well and good when you’ve got a minister who can sing.  Oh, the joy of those rarities.  There are certain members of the clergy who I make sure the mic is turned right down when they are singing.  That way they are still leading the hymn but sparing their embarrassment to everyone outside and my and the congregations ears.  But we have one minister who takes services here and can sing.  Not only can he sing but he should be in another profession as a singer. Hymns were put in at short notice once and I didn’t have time to change the music on the system without delaying the funeral.  ‘it’s ok, I will lead them acapella.’  Legend.  I remember the first time I heard him.  It caught me by surprise.  I have been so used to average singers that this guy just blew me away.  It’s the same when a funeral director is standing in chapel, knowing full well that the congregation wont sing so they go in and give them a helping hand from the back of the chapel.  I try not to show it but I am impressed by a good voice, and it improves the quality of the hymn tenfold.  It is not for those officiating the service to be able to sing, at the end of the day that isn’t their profession, but it does help and lead the people of a congregation.

I only have one song that I would request at my own funeral and that is All The Little Lights by Passenger, other than that you can carry me in to what you like and leave me behind to a song more fitting to my family. It’s strange really because that would be the song I’d want everyone to reflect to and that would be my choice but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  I’m more of a lyricist though, I like his words, his meaning, his vision.  The growing up, the growing old, the elapsing of time by a series of life events.  The being bright and vibrant as a youngster and growing darker as you get older.  A funeral is the summing up of a life in a very short space of time, the reflection piece is a small piece of the allotted time meant to sum up the life of that person and I feel this song perfectly does this.

                Yesterday we had Hallelujah by Handel as an exit piece of music.  The music had begun and I was standing at the back with the funeral director who whispered to me asking me if I knew how long the piece was.

                ‘There’s about three and a half minutes left to go, but don’t worry, it’s on repeat if it gets to the end,’ I whispered back.

                ‘Better start walking, they picked it because none of them could stand it.’

                I didn’t even have a chance to crack a smile, he’d already begun walking down the aisle for us to complete our bow and exit the congregation through the exit doors.  But imagine picking a piece of music because ALL the family couldn’t stand it?  Ah I know what, we can’t all agree on a song that we like so let’s all pick one we don’t.  I love that.

                I don’t judge.  At the end of the day people should have what comforts them in their time of need and what suits the deceased and the family they have left behind.  The only advice that I will give is that piece of music will forever hold a place in your heart and your mind and can sometimes cause you pain when heard in the future.  But it can also stir up nostalgia and beautiful memories of the past.

                In my day to day working life I am still experiencing pieces of music that move me, pieces that I love and pieces that I hate and pieces that I now own that I would never have even known about if not for being in this profession.  In primary school, I remember a Shakespeare quote in big letters on the wall ‘If music be the food of life play on.’ And I am lucky enough to hear new music every day of my life, it’s just a shame it is while it evokes a very different emotion within the chapel’s congregation at the same time.

 

 

Funeral Directors – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

There are many people involved on the day of the funeral at a crematorium.  There are the Funeral directors and all their bearers. Members of the clergy, other ministers, celebrants, humanists all of which officiate the service having liaised with the family regarding their wishes prior to the day.  There are the mourners. There are organists.  There can be singers.  There can be horses and their riders.  Fire engines ambulances, even police.  Then there is us, the chapel attendants trying to keep some sort of control over them all. A controlled funeral can be a beautiful dance or can turn into a drunken jamboree.

Today I will concentrate on our lovely, beautiful funeral directors.  These are the middle guys between the family and the crematorium.  They are employed to take care of the family’s wishes and make sure things run smoothly on the day of the funeral.  A good funeral director is worth his weight in gold.  He/she is a gift of the greatest magnitude.  They are there to conduct the funeral.  Usually a good funeral director will make the chapel attendant redundant on the day. They communicate with the family. They think ahead, they check the music is in order before asking the family to take their seats, they ask the family if they would like to be seated first or if they would like to follow the coffin into the chapel, they make sure everyone who the family is expecting is present, they ask everyone to make sure their mobile phones are off or switched to silent and they conduct confidently. They show the mourners to their seats and this leads to efficient timing 2- 3 minutes with a small congregation, 7-8 on larger congregations so they don’t waste time. These very simple things make a huge difference on the day.  They will stay with the funeral until the end making sure there are no blips throughout such as the correct music is played, no mourners are taken ill, the officiant doesn’t fluff his lines.  It is like everything around them is an orchestra and they conduct the separate instruments into a fine symphony.

                At the end of service all they should do is walk down the aisle of the chapel at the right interval of the exit music with myself, bow to the deceased, I peel off and open the doors for them, they approach the family and say ‘when you’re ready, please exit the chapel’ or something very similar and then wait outside for the family to begin exiting the chapel and lead them to the flowers.  This is a good funeral director.  These are the ones I work best with because we are a team, a dynamic duo where they are Batman and I am sidekick Robin.

                A bad funeral director instead of creating a beautiful symphony plays the drums, loud and off beat.  They arrive, they have no idea where the music is, they purposely avoid all interaction with the family, especially the main mourner, they ask me to open the doors in the hope the family will show themselves in. They let the congregation seat themselves, which takes a lot longer than it should, delaying the funeral start time sometimes by 15 minutes and they wear the expression that they would rather be anywhere else doing anything but what they are currently being employed to do.  They disappear as soon as the funeral has started, usually drinking coffee from the machine in the waiting room, talking amongst their crew while other mourners are present. I must admit, these are usually, but not always, the guys who are based in the office but they have a lot of funerals on at the time so their main conductors are otherwise engaged elsewhere and their boss has needed someone to get the job done.  This isn’t always the case, some of the conductors I get on best with are the ones based in the offices, they don’t get out much and are happy to be on the road away from their desk.

                At the end of service a bad funeral director is one you want to kick in the shin.  They have caused the funeral to start late because they haven’t taken charge.  When I open the exit doors they usually follow out behind me without a word to the family and then stand there as the congregation amble out, hopefully in the direction of the flowers.  The bereaved need some instructions and these guys just aren’t up to the job.  This is where it falls on me to do it.  Allow me to lead you to the flowers and tributes.  Please keep moving ladies and gentleman and allow other people out of the chapel, no please don’t meet and greet here as it blocks the exit doors it will be much more comfortable in the flower area as there is more space, many thanks.  When a funeral is running late due to their incompetence or attitude of not wanting to be there and then they don’t want to help you getting the congregation out of the chapel because they are now delaying the funeral that is following them you want to kick them somewhere a little higher than their shin.  Sometimes funerals are late for many reasons but whatever they are a good funeral director will help you clear the chapel quickly and efficiently to ensure no family is kept waiting.

                There is one conductor who I see paging the hearse down and I grimace because I know I am chapel attendant and funeral director for that funeral.  If the congregation is going to get up any sort of momentum into chapel it’s going to have to come from me.  And this guy always appears when you’re having the day from hell, the last two funerals have run late, backs to the wall, there are two chapel attendants clearing up and this guy ambles down to the front of the crematorium entrance with a hearse and 4 (limousines) already 5 minutes late.  Fuck my life.

                Truthfully though, if you want to hear some funny stories sit down with a funeral director or bearer.  There’s always a story of a time someone has fallen into an empty grave. One minute they were  there the next they aren’t, like a magician into a hole in the ground, just a little bit more morbid.  There is always a punch up story, sometimes inside the funeral chapel, sometimes on the journey to or from the crematorium.

                I laughed at a team of bearers who I get along well with.  They beared the coffin into a chapel at another crematorium that they had never been to before and their funeral director pointed them out through a door to the side.  They walked through this door and it shut behind them.  They heard the funeral director attempt to open it and it wouldn’t budge.  We assume here the funeral director turned around and exited the way he came in while the crew of bearers discovered they had been led into a storage cupboard, beyond the door of which had commenced the funeral they had just carried the coffin for.  In furious whispers, they hurriedly discussed whether to open the door and walk out past the coffin they had just placed, bowed to and left, or to remain in the cupboard until the end of service.  And that’s what they did.  Sat there in silence for half hour to spare their blushes.

                I met a lovely funeral director today.  By the way all of this has been written on site at the crematorium. I am currently on my lunch break.  I have just consumed last night’s left over chilli con carne and a Lucozade.  You have to keep hydrated in a place like this.  There’s always dust reminding you of the history of the people now gone from the town.  Where was I? Oh yes, a lovely FD.  You get your local funeral directors and you tend to know the people who will be conducting these services.  But this was an out of town funeral director who had never attended the crematorium before.  He arrived half an hour early but the chapel was locked.  With all the expensive equipment lying around management insist on the chapels being locked when they aren’t in use.  I was expecting this to have upset him because I kept him waiting for at least 10 minutes.  Although funeral directors should be punctual and not half an hour early for the arrival of the funeral sometimes this happens and it’s not always nice for the family having to wait in their cars or the limos.

I went out to meet him, I apologised for the delay I had in getting out to him and I expected a frosty reception but this guy was the opposite.  He was charming.  He actually apologised for being early.  I was taken aback.  He did everything a good conductor should do, everyone was seated first and he had two of his guys handing out orders of service while I helped seat the attendees.  The one thing he hadn’t told me was the family would be carrying the coffin.  The attendance was large, I could see the orders of service dwindling from the hands of his men from a distance.  Have you ever tried to walk and run at the same time with a congregation of 150 people travelling towards you as you need to go through them in the opposite direction? That’s what I did to rescue the family orders of service to save myself and this very charming FD the embarrassment of having to ask mourners to share because we had forgotten the orders of service for the 6 bearers carrying the coffin.

                Technically the funeral arrangements and everything on the day is the funeral director’s responsibility we are just there to perform the duties required for the crematorium, making sure everything is as it should be and they have everything they need.  We help only if they need it.

                It is one of the rare jobs where everything revolves around you.  The funeral directors come and go and you get to know them all, the good, the bad and the ugly, even though they may not always know each other.  It’s strange because even though they aren’t colleagues, employed by the same employer as me it feels as though they are.  They are clients of the crematorium but they feel like colleagues and some of them have become close friends. I attend leaving dos, I’m sad when good funeral directors leave their jobs for something new because I see all they do.  They are pillars of our communities, often leaving their families in the middle of the night or on anniversaries, Christmas days and birthdays to go and remove a deceased from their death location to the mortuary.  Some bodies can be in an awful state and I think we all sometimes forget this.  The sights they see are the stuff of nightmares.  They take the burden from families and make the deceased look as they were in life as possible so their family can view them to say their final farewell.  They disguise death and they take care of our loved ones and they do it with dignity.   They do one of the toughest jobs imaginable and I for one am grateful knowing there will always be one to help if the worst was ever to happen.

 

The Funeral of a Man Who Changed The World

                I see tragedy every day and occasionally lose touch with the pain I am seeing.  You care, you sympathise but you’re there to do a professional job and help those that are grieving to have as smooth a day as possible.  When I first started I would often have services tugging at my heart strings.  Watching a family keening around the coffin of their six year old son was one of the toughest things I have ever dealt with.  Their grief hit me like a train.  I was standing at the rear of the chapel with the funeral director and I was welling up telling myself to compose myself.  That rarely happens now.  I hate how hardened I have become to the grief I can see on people’s faces.

                I have been involved in thousands of funerals and when there are no mourners at all I sit in on the funeral just to have someone who remembers their send off.  It’s not nice when there is a chapel full of chairs but no one to sit and grieve for them.  In large attended funerals, as a chapel attendant, you mainly get caught up in crowd control, directing people to seats and making sure those less able to stand throughout the service are seated and the main family are all seated before the rest of the congregation.  Those funerals you get so caught up trying to do a good job you don’t get absorbed in the occasion so much.

                Sometimes you can have a full chapel and not feel a thing and then there are the ones that are so small you are up close and personal with the congregation it is impossible not to feel their story.

He was a soul mourner, the only attendee at his friend’s funeral.  He said there was a cousin of the deceased who lived very far away and did not want to be present so he had arranged it all; the music, the flowers and the eulogy.  He was a young guy, confident and humble all at the same time. We started chatting before the service because he had never been to a funeral before.  He wasn’t from England, he was an asylum seeker and both his parents had passed away.  His English was very good and he ran his own business.  He wasn’t sure if he was allowed to take pictures at a funeral service and he was very apologetic for asking if he could.  I took the pictures for him.  I handed him his phone after the coffin had been walked into chapel and he had taken his seat, I took a pew at the back.  There are over one hundred seats and he was sat alone on the front row.  The minister was one of the best we get attending our crematorium.  She knew it was just us and this mourner in the chapel but she promised his friend a good send off. 

                And she did, no cutting corners because he was on his own, she did a full service.  He was sobbing and my heart reached for this guy.  He was grateful for the tissue given to him mid service.  His pain was evident but he got up and delivered one of the most heartfelt eulogy I have ever heard in my career.

                He had come to this country not being able to speak English and the deceased was a neighbour to the home he was placed in.  He treated him like a son.  He taught him English, he taught him how to get by in the new culture, he taught him how to become a man in a place he didn’t yet know the language for.  He helped him with kindness he had never been shown by anybody else.  The deceased was a good man without any close family and they found family in each other.  People told him to be careful of the old man forcing his way into his life but he was a good man.  “He asked nothing of me,” he said “He only showed me generosity and kindness and expected nothing in return.”

I cried with him and so did the minister who stood with a hand on his shoulder as he delivered his words.  Our hearts were breaking for this young man whose history could have turned out to be very different had he not met the man he had now lost.  And I was grateful the deceased had met him too, because it truly was a tale of companionship in a situation where both had nobody they could turn to.  He said it felt he had lost two fathers in his lifetime because this man provided him with a future when he came here hopeless, lost and without a single friend.  His business was successful because of the deceased, he was contributing to society because of this man and he had become a man because of the man who had now passed away.    

I still well up now.  I often think about that young man whose future could have been very different and I wonder if he is doing ok. I hope grief has not bought him to hate the world, but kept the love you could see flowed from him for the deceased.  You can measure a life by love.  It really didn’t matter that day there was one soul to mourn him.  What mattered was there was a man who showed up with love in his heart and a changed future because of the deceased.  If we make positive impacts in the world that is what matters most. It isn’t the amount of people we leave behind but what we have done for those we leave behind.

I witnessed this funeral humbled by what I heard and what I saw and what I felt.  The human reaction to love and loss is still inside of me, I just sometimes forget it is there.

 

The £6,500 Rolex

The coffin enters the cremator with temperatures between 700 – 1100 degrees Celsius.  We rake out the cremated remains left on the hearth, we allow them to cool down in another compartment of the machine and then move them to the ash room.  This is where the cremated remains are cremulated into what is traditionally known as the ashes.  To do this, we first remove all the metal that is in with the cremated remains that has come out of the cremator.  Things such as the screws in the coffin, any titanium that was concealed in the body such as hip joints, metal mouth plates, pins, skull covers etc. and when its cremated these are exposed with the bones. Titanium is a metal that has a higher melting point than most metals so remains in a recognisable form. We remove all of this, ferrous and non- ferrous (magnetic and nonmagnetic) metals and anything else that may have made it into the coffin with the deceased.

I have seen ceramic dolls heads roll towards me inside the orange glow of the cremator.  The hair had burned away and they were bald, all that remained were the indents of their features.  This was horror movie-esque as the rake pulled them closer their hollow eye sockets got bigger.

I have seen a cremated cast that the funeral director has forgotten to remove from the leg of the deceased.  That was horrific because although the cremation looked finished and there was nothing left burning inside the cremator, when the rake hit the cast it broke up and the leg inside was yet to burn away and it was black flesh still cremating inside.  The smell of an un-finished cremation is repulsive.  Not as bad as a decomposing body but it is enough to put you off your lunch.  People ask me what it smells like and it smells like gone off meat burning.  It happens occasionally when you think a cremation is finished and you open the door of the cremator, the oxygen from outside surges in and the flame reignites.  If this happens we close the cremator door, reapply the burner and finish the cremation off by manually manipulating the flame to where you need it to be on the remaining flesh.  But the leg still cremating in the cast was like a second cremation because the material surrounding the leg had insulated it and stopped the cremation from fully taking place. 

The cast isn’t the first time a funeral director has fucked up.  They know what can and can’t be placed inside coffins but some refuse to say no to families.  “Can we put this glass ornament in with nan, it was her favourite?”  Instead of saying no they just let it happen, “yes of course, you’re not supposed to but I’m sure no one will notice.”  All this speech is imagined you understand, but the glass gets in there somehow and it doesn’t go unnoticed.  Glass melting point is far lower than the temperatures a cremator will reach which means the inevitable happens; It melts.  When glass melts, it becomes the stickiest substance imaginable and it sticks to the cremator’s floor damaging the floor, lifting some of the brick with it and it leaves a bumpy crevice that future remains can get stuck in.  Worst of all, it fuses with the cremated remains.  We cannot cremulate glass so there is small fragments of bone we cannot turn into ash and return to the family.  It’s heart-breaking because, although we do as best we can, we know we can’t give a small part of that person back to their loved ones and we bag it and bury it within the grounds of the garden of remembrance.

The most unusual thing I had seen come out of a cremator was a set of golf clubs.   These are dangerous to your technician as we have to reach into a 1000-degree cremator with a set of steel tongs to remove the damn things. Then place it into a tray of its own, keeping it as far away from you as possible as they ping off heat and fragments of metal as it’s cooling under room temperature. 

Most things do burn away in a cremator.  For instance, the handles of the golf clubs went, watch straps burn away, metal pendants melt into unrecognisable forms, gold is just blobs but some things do remain, charred, but still present.  Like a £6,500 Rolex.  Did you know this will still come out recognisable as what it is?  It was identifiable as a Rolex,.  The glass face still intact (obviously not glass owing to the fact it did not melt).  The hands and face were still recognisable and this was what allowed us to see exactly what Rolex it was.  The wheel that turned the hands still wound, it was only the mechanism that connected them that no longer worked as it would have burned away inside the watch on impact with the heat.  I’ve heard of stories where money notes are placed inside a coffin to be cremated but I have never heard of, or seen something of such value come out the other end of a cremation in one piece.  It’s testament to Rolex and the materials they use in their watches.  You often get watches retrieved from a cremator but none you could decipher their make or model.  None that could tell you the time the deceased inside the coffin entered the cremator.  The time of the hands read 5.05.  This was the time I charged the coffin so I know it to be correct.  I’m glad I know that to be true or I would not have beleived it.

I come from a background where £6,500 is a significant amount of money, I could never envision having that much money to spend on one, let alone taking one to the grave.  In fact, the only time I have ever held a watch with that much value was when I had to remove it from the cremated remains of the deceased owner in its charred state.  At first I was dumbfounded someone could do that to such an expensive watch, but at the same time, if you have that kind of money why shouldn’t someone’s last journey be with their prized possession if it fits inside the coffin?  Credit to Rolex for a time piece that can survive the heat of a 1000-degree cremator and being able to display the time of a person’s final journey from one form to another…

Cremated Remains and the Scattering of Ashes

After all these years I still find it difficult to comprehend that we become nothing but dust, how neatly we fit inside a bag inside a cardboard urn you can hold with one hand.  That’s what we give out to the family, a small box containing their loved one.  It’s more economical than plastic because the cardboard can be recycled.  We need to be seen doing our bit for the environment.  We do not sell urns or caskets at the crematorium, local authority can’t be seen to be profiteering from the bereaved.  We leave that all to the funeral directors.  We have had family sold caskets for remains that are to be scattered in a number of days.  We ask them if they want the casket and they decline.  We have far too many caskets left on site, eventually thrown away when they fill the shelf.

The cremated remains of a person are the crushed bones and what was left on the hearth of the cremator after the cremation is complete.  This may include some of the coffin if it was cardboard or some other eco version.  If it was a wooden coffin it is most likely to have completely burned away in the cremation process.  But the eco coffins, usually a cardboard, banana leaf, wool or wicker, these tend to remain with the calcified remains on the hearth after the cremation is complete and when cremulated turns into a fine dust.  The only way I can describe cremulated cremated remains if you haven’t seen them before is cat litter.  That is exactly what they look like, small fragments of white bones.  They may have a grey look if metal was left inside the coffin but they should be a clean white.  Just for the record, cremated remains are better known as the ashes of the deceased.

People often ask if it is solely their loved one being returned to them.  Before I moved into the bereavement industry I never gave it any thought about ashes and what they are.  It is surprising how many people genuinely believe we throw all the bodies in together and we return them a bit of everyone else’s cremated remains.  Let me tell you categorically that is not what we do.  It would make my job a lot swifter for sure but no, that is not how it is done.  We cremate each body individually in a cremator 33 inches wide and 28 inches in height.  There is only room for one coffin at a time, and yes the coffin stays with the body.  A lot of people believe that is removed as well but it isn’t.  That coffin contains a nameplate which is the sole identification that the crematorium receive from the funeral director that we use to identify the coffin before its cremation.  Each morning, us chapel attendants receive signed confirmation cards for everyone we will be cremating that day from our office, signed with authority to cremate.  If these cards aren’t signed we do not cremate that body.  The cards with signatures indicate the doctor has signed the body over to us fully and the coroner will not be needing to look at it again.

At the end of the funeral service (preferably before the funeral director bears into the chapel but this isn’t always possible) this authority to cremate card is checked against the nameplate to make sure there is a match.  If there is any discrepancy in the name on the card and the name on the coffin, even a spelling mistake, it signals alarm bells for the chapel attendant.  We then have to chase up whether the mistake is a genuine one or whether ‘Mr John Smith’ spelt ‘Mr Jon Smith’ are two different people.  In all my time here any discrepancy has always been a genuine clerical error and has been the correct coffin containing the correct body.

The coffin is then removed from the chapel using a trolley and placed into the fridge to cremate later or onto a charging bier which is a piece of apparatus that will do all the manual work of pushing the coffin into the cremator safely.  Its rather handy, it makes the job less manual.  Once the coffin leaves the chapel, it all gets a little less dignified with the pushing and pulling of trolleys.  The authority to cremate card follows that coffin everywhere from that point onwards.  Literally, if the coffin needed to be placed on the roof that card would follow, because from that point onwards the coffin is our responsibility.  It follows the coffin everywhere, except into the cremator.  From that point onwards the card is placed on the outside of the cremator indicating who is inside and then when it is raked down into the cooling hopper the card moves to that section.   When they are removed from the cooling hopper the card stays on the tin that contains the remains until they are cremulated and then when they are cremulated it is placed on the machine that does the cremulating and then it moves onto the urn they are placed in as well as a sticker containing the same information.  If these cards were to fall off or sabotaged in anyway (never in our history has this happened but if it did) we would still know who was where by paperwork and the digital forms we fill out on the computer.  So as you can see its quite a diligent process.  The cremated remains you receive from our crematorium are solely those of your loved one.

We often carry out scatters in the garden of remembrance and if you have never scattered cremated remains before they emit an awful lot of dust.  Many years before my time here they used to scatter to the wind but the truth is, the remains would never have stayed at the location where they were cast.  The likelihood is dear old Fred is probably covering half the cemetery and in the lungs of any visitors at the time.

When I was still learning and we went out on a scatter the words of wisdom I received before we headed into the garden of remembrance were ‘for fuck sake don’t drop the urn.’  It’s like a new-born, don’t drop the baby. I twisted an ankle once in a hole in the grounds, probably dug up by foxes, but kept hold of the urn like my life depended on it, fully willing to snap an ankle to save the urn.

I remember the first scatter I did on my own with a family bearing witness.  It was a 104 year old lady, which was fortunate for me because there wasn’t a lot of her to scatter. We walked to the location (everything at our cemetery is gridded so we know the exact location of other family members).  I prepared a small hole to lay the remains in.  The son, an elderly gentleman wanted to scatter his mum, of course no problem Sir.  Keep the urn close to the ground and gently pour.  I was inexperienced at the time, still learning things on the job.  I didn’t realise at the time the bereaved sometimes need prompting a little more than usual because they are concentrating on the highly stressful task of saying goodbye and not always listening to you. He scattered from waist height and covered my very black trousers with a very generous amount of his mums’ dust.  We did the good old English thing and ignored what had taken place and continued as normal.  We concluded and I walked away with my trousers streaked with ashes.

I felt so guilty.  I waited a considerable amount of time till he had left and went back to the same location to shake off my clothing.  I’d rather she was as much there as possible.  The rest I had to hoover up.  I know that sounds terrible but it isn’t so bad, the hoover bag we use to clean the ash room (where we cremulate cremated remains) is emptied into an urn we call John Doe, owing to the fact it is a collection of dust particles of many individuals and does not have one identity, and is scattered by us technicians weekly.  When we scatter, the dust particles rise into the air, like a ghost leaving the deceased’s.  A cloud of white.  So many different fragments of people joined in their final resting place in our garden of remembrance.

Over the years I have no idea how many people I have inhaled.  A few thousand I’m sure.  Each one has a story, a personality and maybe each one has consumed a part of me.  Influenced my views on the world, my wants and aspirations constantly changing.  I blame it on them, inside of me, changing me.  To consume someone is a very personal thing, to be consumed by them when neither of you intend it is bordering on the perverse.  That isn’t really how I want to see it, but how else can I see it when every day I breath in the cremated remains of people I have never met before? I said no word to you in life and I don’t even know what you look like but you are inside of me, haunting me with your story.  It’s worse than dust, it suffocates more than dust.  It has certainly made my nose hairs multiply over the years, I’m sure.

The worms suffer more than I do.  Digging up earth for scatters leaves the worms exposed.  Often you won’t even know they are there until you lay the remains to rest, and you realise you have disturbed the biggest, fattest worm known to man and it starts moving, covered in the dust of a deceased human being you are scattering in front of a family.  There’s nothing that can be done at this stage, you are fully committed, you just speed the process up, hoping they do not see the remains of their loved one wriggling from side to side.

I moved a worm aside on a scattering of ashes not witnessed by the family.  Just as well.  The little guy was wriggling in the hole I had just created.  There was the hum of school children at play in the distance.  I moved him out of the hole, fully prepared to cover him again once I had completed my task.  I waited too long.  A Robin landed next to the hole I had prepared, ate the worm, paused, looked up at me, possibly thanking me for the gift, and then flew off.  In laying someone to rest I allowed the worm to be killed so another living creature could go on living.  Too many circles of life in that one act, too many circles of death.

I once was asked why we don’t post out cremated remains.  Imagine a pair of trainers going missing or turning up damaged. It’s frustrating, a long procedure getting your money back or claiming compensation for the loss.  You can’t do that with cremated remains.  They are irreplaceable and we would never trust a courier to deliver them on the very slim chance someone’s final resting place may well end up being a courier’s sorting office.

Last week I carried out a scatter for a family.  The deceased was a 94- year old man.  Just a standard scatter, I do these every day. This turned out to be one of a kind.  The ashes were the heaviest I had picked up.  They were as heavy as an infant and I had to carry them in one arm while the spade occupied the other.  I didn’t want the family to see my distress at carrying them because that would be insensitive.  You have a very short time to build a rapport with a family on a scatter, to gauge whether to joke with them or to remain steely faced.  This family were lovely and I felt comfortable sharing with them that their loved one was quite possibly the heaviest set of cremated remains I had ever handled.

“I’m glad you said that because we thought it was unusual. He was heavy when we picked him up from the other crematorium.  We had intended to take him shopping with us but he was far too heavy to take around the town so we returned him to the car.”

It was a shame because they had really wanted to take him shopping one last time.

I do get nervous on scatters. I find them so intrusive.  We are present to assist the family in where they can and can’t scatter in the gardens of remembrance because we have some locations we cannot scatter on.  It is the hardest thing in the world knowing that you are the last person they will see whilst they lay their loved one to rest for the last time and because I care about what I do I really don’t want to fuck that up. Some scatters are over quickly, an informal procedure where they can choose to scatter from the urn or I can do it for them and it’s all over.  Some take a little longer when the family are choosing the perfect location.  I don’t mind.  You have me for as long as you need me, I’ll never rush someone.

When I scatter, it is often said we don’t amount to much.  The truth is, physically we do not.  We are nothing more than our bones bashed about into a gravelly substance.  I was taken aback when someone first said this.  I searched for words of comfort and the only thing I could say was this … We don’t seem much in death, but it’s what we leave behind in life that truly matters most.

The Heartbreak Of Suicide

Some days my soul needs saving.  this week saw a twenty-nine year old suicide hanging victim with a promising career, and Monday bought the loss of a thirty-four year old male who jumped to his death.  The young seem to come in waves to these haunted walls.  The fire consumes us all the same but the young seem to group together.  You won’t see them for months and then three or four come in at once.  Something in the water, something in the air?  I think we all react to our surroundings and the events outside our control and sometimes these all conspire against people, usually young males.  I saw the brother of the deceased stand up in chapel, dealing with his own heartbreak and grief, and apologise for his brothers actions.  He apologised for his brother jumping to his death.  It broke my heart to watch someone going through the unimaginable trying to apologise for something he can not even make sense of.  Thirty-four years old.

The funeral service of a suicide changes the atmosphere inside the crematorium chapel and the younger they are the more intense the feeling.  From the outside looking in you can feel it at the very bottom of your heart, thudding for the unthinkable.  The unexpected. The waste.  The loss. The end of a story commissioned with sequels but did not complete the third chapter.  Everyone is different dealing with it but they all wear their loss.  It is written on their body, something about the lines on their skin and the way their chest rises and falls; always a little heavier on the fall.  The deceased will forever play a significant part in another story even though they have ended their own.

I have seen the body of a hanging victim in a mortuary.  The noose was still present around his neck, as were the pads where the defibrillator had been used and failed to revive him.  He was shirtless and tattooed.  To mark the body In art, just to discard it at a later date. He had been a handsome man with a story of woe with a father who found him and a family who must be mourning him, not knowing who was stood next to his corpse.   

On that same visit there was a homeless male, late forties, who had taken a drugs overdose.  His body was on ice because decomposition had started before he was found.  His eyes were just empty sockets. What had those eyes seen before decomposition? The eyes that recognised his family were gone and no one knew his next of kin.  We will never know if the overdose was intentional or just an attempt for another high that went wrong. 

Another, in refrigerated storage had been pulled from the Thames.  He had his own room and you only got to find out why when the door was opened.  The stench was unbearable.  It was as if the Thames had died.  The mix of decomposition, cheese and salt, and a green tinge to his skin.  We will never know if he jumped or was pushed.  Do some murders go unnoticed?

Many more bodies side by side rolled in and out of fridges. Tagged and bagged.  Awaiting their trip to the funeral.

It is the worst thing in the world when you know a suicide funeral is going to happen.  Do you know the hardest thing to accept;  They are usually very well attended and all those people are suffering, even though the suffering for the deceased is gone. 

I know for those who are left behind their peace doesn’t begin for a very long time after the funeral service.  They have to say goodbye far too early to their loved one.  We will never know the turmoil of those who choose to go and each soul that chooses that way out I hope they found their peace.

                 

 

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