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The Musings of a Crematorium Worker

Life , death and everything in between

Half a Decade at the Crematorium – a Girl In a Man’s World

This week I celebrated half a decade working at the crematorium.  I was the youngest member of our team then and I am the youngest member still. When I first started I was often told I was rather young to be doing this job.  I was told it then and I still get told this now. 

The general stereotype of this industry is older males, not females, and definitely not young females.  When I first started it was very much a male dominated world.  In some ways it still is.  There are funeral directors who do not employ females as funeral directors or as their pall bearers.  This maybe because there are so few, but the way the industry has taken huge strides in equality in recent years this is very unlikely.   I’m not saying they are sexist, I’m just saying they have the ladies as office staff but not on their front line. 

Another local FD has recently employed their first female bearer and has three female funeral directors on their staff, when I first started it was only one.  And that lady was the first female funeral director they had ever had. 

There were very few female funeral directors when I first started.  I get on with the guys like a house on fire and never really paid attention to sometimes being the only female in chapel affiliated with the staffing of the funeral.  It’s only now when it is a female funeral director, a female officiant and myself when I notice how much the industry has changed because this never happened five years ago.

In my first year at the crematorium, I was standing waiting for the funeral director to page down with the hearse and the family limousines when I was approached by a lady who was to be part of the upcoming funerals congregation.  She asked me if I worked here and was I to be carrying the coffin.  When I said yes I did indeed work here but no I would not be carrying the coffin, relief flooded her face. “Thank God,” she said, “the females carry us into the world, the men must carry us out.”

Being very new I didn’t know if this ideology was something a lot of people had, but I’ve never forgotten it.  And just for the record, I don’t agree with her opinion.  She clearly felt very strongly about this, even though she wasn’t a close family member.  And lucky for her, an all male funeral crew arrived.

I’ve seen the likes of Poppy’s, run by Poppy Mardall and based in tooting, begin their journey in the funeral industry.  I remember the first time I met Poppy and saw the creative control she was allowing families when making choices to piece together the perfect funeral for their loved one.  It was refreshing to see because she was so different from all the others I had come to know.  I had a lot of respect and admiration for the vision she saw for her future in the funeral industry.

I’ve seen so much change in tradition from funerals being sombre, staff dressed all in black, entry song, reflection song and exit piece of music occasions to really being reflective of people’s lives.  Coffin’s don’t have to be traditional, funeral director’s don’t have to wear black suits, officiants don’t have to be downbeat talking of a funeral being solely a sad occasion, music doesn’t have to be beginning, during and end and the staff don’t all have to be older males.  This change is all positive in giving families choice when choosing the best way to honour their loved one.  It has been an honour to be a part of it.  Here’s to making the half a decade a full one.

 

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In The Light and The Dark of The Crematorium

Across the UK some crematoriums employ different people to do the different daily jobs, one person does the cremating one person does the chapel attending.  That isn’t how it is at our crematorium, we do both.  We have a dual role.  We do (roughly) two weeks chapel attending and two weeks cremating.  I like it, and I don’t favour one role over another.

Chapel attending, wearing a clean three-piece suit, ensuring the chapel is perfect.  It’s ready and solemn.  The hymn books are all in place on each pew, the very real looking artificial flowers are swivelled round to their correct positions, no tissues have been poked between the hymn books (or pews) from a previous mourner, nothing is on the floor (not even a petal of a flower), no evidence of any previous funeral services exists and we’re ready to meet the next family and their funeral director.  In one chapel we have 133 seats with a set of windows that align the length of the rows.  In the other, it seats about 75 and has many stained-glass windows and there’s a time of day when the officiant would be struck with the beams of the sun, looking rather holier than thou but blinded by the light.  Both chapels are filled with light and I wish the sun came out a little more in this country, it would set a better light for each solemn occasion.  People are ushered away from the foyer near the chapels to provide quiet and tranquillity inside.  The only noise inside a chapel should be the officiant, the people providing eulogy’s, music and silence.

The rotation from chapel attending to cremating is very different.  There aren’t any windows for starters.  It is a dark dingy space where we cremate the deceased and turn cremated calcified remains into ashes.  The dust created from what we do is substantial, it is impossible to keep clean, no matter how many times our boss runs a finger over a surface and tells us it’s dirty.  We mop, and we dust, and we clean surfaces, but the dust just resettles.  A war between us and the dust, and we are always on the losing side.  We wear different clothes and are provided with overcoats.  The noise from the fans can be overpowering if you’ve never heard them before.  When we start up the unabated cremator, rarely used, its like a jet starting up. 

Yet none of the noise or the dirt touches the chapels, even though they share the same building.  They are two ends of a spectrum sharing bricks and mortar.  Then there comes the day when you are short staffed and are in chapel and you’re having to cremate as well. The cremator pre heat time over ran and you were late getting out of chapel to rake out a completed cremation. That day, of all days, you’re running to a schedule because a later funeral has asked to witness the cremation.  Everything must be ready for that funeral, the service must end, and that cremator must be ready and waiting so things must get done.  You’re in your chapel clothes, you take off your suit jacket and put on your heatproof gloves and face visor.  Your waistcoat and white shirt sleeves are exposed.  I know I should really have put on my overcoat, but that would have been precious seconds wasted in an already tight schedule.

I charge the next coffin, satisfied I’ve done all I can to keep things running to time, I take off the gloves and visor and put on my jacket and re-enter chapel to greet the next funeral. As I reach out to take the orders of service from the funeral director the cuffs on my sleeves fall beneath my suit jacket and I see it.  My heatproof gloves have left a stain on my crisp white shirt sleeves.  This happens often, and I still don’t learn my lesson and I am constantly standing in chapel with that little bit of dark from the crematorium in the light of the chapels, trying to hide it with my suit sleeves.

How Do You Do What You Do? – Working in the Bereavement Industry

How do you do what you do? That is a question I am asked a lot when people find out what I do for a living. I just shrug it off and say it’s just a job, but that’s not really it at all.
First let me address the ‘how.’ I have a great group of colleagues who I know I can trust. When the going gets tough the crem techs get going. Whether that be with a cremator fault in a busy period such as a thermocouple burning out and needing replacing, or when you have an issue in chapel, a piece of music hasn’t been ordered by the FD and the service is due to start in 15 minutes, they’ll get it ordered from behind the scenes. This is a well-oiled machine that keeps the funerals and cremations moving in this town. A funeral is running so late the hearse is queued behind the hearse that is meant to be in after them? Don’t worry, logistical nightmare, but we’ll sort something out.
People often think we must be a miserable group of people because we are surrounded by death all day every day. But that’s not true. We have a lot of laughs, and it goes without saying, behind the scenes and respectfully out of sight and hearing of any mourners. But we do. Whether that be behind the scenes of the crematorium or when we meet with FD’s. There’s a lot of banter in this job. One of my colleagues has taken to communicating with us in the form of a rude hand gesture. The bigger the element of surprise with it, the bigger laugh it receives. It passes the day and brings us smiles. The minister who is leading in the congregation with his back to them as you are facing them and indicates your flies are undone, when they’re not, giggling to himself because he knows you can’t laugh or do a thing about it until you have exited chapel. The FD that’s always telling jokes. We can’t laugh on funerals when funny things happen, so your colleagues store them up to tell you. Such as a popular FD splitting his trousers whilst lifting a coffin off the back of the hearse. When an FD bends to pick up a handkerchief someone has dropped, and he bends to pick it up, but it has attached itself to someone else’s foot and it keeps moving every time they take a step and the FD is chasing it. When a female FD’s heel breaks while leading in and she continues with dignity and aplomb. When drunk family bearers are asked to turn towards the chapel to carry in the coffin and they turn the wrong way and face the car park. Some of these instances I have mentioned before. But we take these laughs and these funny stories, and we can’t wait to share them with our colleagues.
Laughter is the release valve to the tragedy we are seeing every day. It isn’t disrespectful to say we must keep enough distance between us and what we do. We are cogs in a very tragic machine. We are the end of the line of a life lived. The atmosphere is often charged with memories of their loved one, you can’t avoid breathing it all in, you have to do something to make your day more bearable. Laughing throughout the day helps.
I’m not saying that there aren’t miserable people working in the industry, I’m just saying if it’s the work making them that way they should consider a change of profession.
When people ask me ‘how do you do what you do?’ I’m often wondering if they’re asking me why I do what I do. It’s not a glamorous profession and it sure doesn’t pay well. If you’re an FD and the owner of a successful company then maybe it does. But take my job role for instance, I don’t even need to know the average salary for a Greater London pay cheque to know that I come in below it. I have seen our jobs advertised across the country for less than £14,000. £14,000! For someone to take care of another persons final journey to their resting place, the last person to handle them with dignity and care are being expected to deliver that care for less than £14,000 a year. I was disgusted.
Maybe I take my job too seriously. My manager was on a job forum the other day where other managers discuss issues within the industry. Essex boy_xxxx made it very clear he thought minion technicians should not be planning the days cremation ‘that’s a manager’s job.’ That is not the case at this crematorium, we are trusted to plan our day, and run our plants in the most efficient way possible. I don’t feel like this job is given enough credit sometimes. When people see what we do they are amazed, but until this taboo of death is broken people won’t see what it is we do. But we’ll keep delivering the care and dignity people of this town deserve, and the way we do it will be to keep laughing, not just through our day but through life because unfortunately we see first-hand how fragile it is, even if our salary is below the Greater London average.

Is It Illegal to Burn Money? The Coins Lost In The Flames of Cremation

How much money do you think gets cremated over the course of a year? I can’t say a definitive amount, nor can anybody else who works in this industry either. However, what I can say is the total must be a lot. When cremulating cremated remains we often find different coins. It’s always fun trying to decipher what they once were. The 1ps and 2ps are the easiest to distinguish because of their colour and they are made up of copper – plated steel so tend to retain their shape. By shape, size and colour you usually can distinguish which coin was which. Every now and again you’ll get a curve ball, foreign currency will be in there and you haven’t got a clue what it was or where it came from.

Talking of curve balls. With the old £1 coin the fire would have distorted them and chipped away at parts but you could always see what it had been. Then last month we got the strangest of things out of the cremator, it was perfectly round like a coin but with the inside missing. A full minute of our lives was spent looking at it from different angles.
“there’s some writing on it.”
“what does it say?”
“hold on…O.N.E.P.O.U.N it’s a pound coin!”
Indeed it was a £1 coin. The new one. The first one we had raked out of our cremator. The middle part of the new one pound coin had melted into some other unrecognisable ball of metal, never to be seen again, but the outer ring had remained. When they told us these one pound coins would be harder to clone they weren’t wrong. I suppose if a cremator can’t change its shape, I guess it must stand up against the people who want to replicate it illegally. That said, a few have since come out of the cremator without its robust round shape so that’s not always the case either.  Different heats at different times of the day will have different effects on metal.  And truthfully that’s all coins are, metal.  For this reason, they are put into the recycling scheme and sent away to be recycled into something new.  I guess money really does make the world go around.
So how much do we see on a daily basis removed from the cremator, burnt and charred? I hazard a good guess at about £2 a day , 253 working days in a year, that’s £506 approximately in a year in coins at just our crematorium alone. I can’t guess at the amount people put in the cremators in notes because not even the new polymer £5 notes can withstand that sort of heat.
I would love to conclude with how the Royal Mint/Bank of England account for these coins lost when they have been cremated with the deceased. But they didn’t respond to my tweet, I won’t hold it against them, I’m sure they have more important things to be getting on with so I can’t provide you with that information. If they do respond I will be sure to put this on here. Update:  The Bank of England said they don’t account for every bank note lost or destroyed but they print based on demand for new bank notes.
Interesting fact to end on, did you know that it isn’t illegal to burn money? However, it is illegal to deface money. So providing no one has drawn a moustache on the Queen prior to sending a new crisp note in with their loved one then they haven’t done anything wrong (according to the Currency and Bank Notes act 1928). Phew, because I thought I was about to get a whole heap of people into trouble with this post.

Take a look at the cremated pound coins mentioned in this post

  1. The outside ring of the new £1 coin
  2. A very burnt new £1 coin
  3. The old £1 coin alongside the new £1 (can you make out the Queens head?)

 

Christmas at the Crematorium

We have finished at the crematorium now. Four well-earned days off. A time of year when most people come together.
The first day of December a Christmas tree is put up (generously paid for by one of the local funeral directors) near our book of remembrance. People are invited to add a star to the tree with messages in tribute to their loved ones who have passed away. The footfall in the grounds of the cemetery is increased. Day one there is an empty Christmas tree. By the time we left yesterday it was full of 100’s of stars, more to be added over the next couple of festive days when the cemetery opens its doors.
I spare a thought for my colleagues who will have to be in work on Christmas day.
These guys will be dealing with the fact everyone will be wanting vases for their flowers, with limited numbers available. Trying their best to put older flowers into buckets, to allow others to arrange their flowers. They’ll be huffs of annoyance at the lack of vases.

Each year we return and there’s a story to tell of the person who got the hump because they were closing the gates at 5pm, ‘I’ll only be a minute,’ they’ll say, ‘please let me just lay some flowers.’ And they’ll reluctantly say, ‘go on then,’ and wait at the gate, waiting to lock up and go home themselves. What people don’t realise, is them visiting a grave as the gates are closing is preventing the cemetery worker from spending time with their own family on Christmas day.
But for now the cremators are off. Cooling down for the next few days. Falling to a few hundred degrees waiting for our return to work. There have been a lot of funerals the last two weeks, people laying their loved ones to rest before Christmas comes around. One well attended funeral shut down the entire cemetery on our last day of cremating. People had double parked, no one could get through, all the following funerals were delayed, which prevented us from completing our day on time.
It’s ok, it’s Christmas. Finally, off to spend some time with the people who put a smile on my face all year round. I work all year for this break. I spend all year watching people say goodbye, so I can appreciate these breaks with my own family. This is me signing off potentially until 2018, and wishing you all a very happy Christmas.
I spare a thought to anyone who loses a loved one this Christmas. And I spare a thought for those who will receive that call, coming through as they’re sat at their Christmas dinner table with their family who will have to leave and deal with a family’s loss while they lose time with their own. Their duty will call, and their Christmas will be postponed for a few hours.
Appreciate every moment out of work and have a wonderful Christmas. If you’re on call I hope the phone remains silent, so you get your Christmas day, and nobody is suffering the loss of a loved one on Christmas day.

Eco Coffins – The Cremator Operator’s Opinion

I have heard on the bereavement grapevine potentially regulations coming into effect regarding what coffins can be cremated.  They will need to meet certain criteria and pass certain tests before being eligible to be a cremation coffin.  Whereas, currently, coffins just need to be a material strong enough to carry the body and do not contain metal other than the screws and tacks that hold it all together. 

I’m a huge fan of this although I appreciate it’s going to be a massive inconvenience for some FD’s and coffin manufacturers if it does go ahead.  But I implore anyone inconvenienced to come to the crematorium on a Friday evening, usually when the cremator is at its hottest point of the week, and stand by the open door when you charge a wool, wicker, cardboard or bamboo coffin.  Have you ever sparked a lighter and the flame has exploded into life, higher than it should have, you’ve moved away as fast as you can, a little shocked, a little shaken wondering whether your eyebrows got singed? Well, times that by a thousand.  That’s what these coffins do.  They ignite, and you fear for your eyebrows.  These are some of the most flammable of materials and us as human beings said, ‘do you know what would be a good idea… making coffins out of these.’  Coffins that go into fires.  Yes, that’s a promising idea … not.

As a burial coffin they are perfect.  They come from sustainable sources and they look good making them great for the environment.  If people moved away from wooden coffins and used these instead for burials they would preserve the trees of this green and pleasant land.  However, when they are used for cremation they are still giving the eco benefits to the environment but none of the benefits to your cremator technician, unless they’re into taking their eyebrows off occasionally.  The flashback of flames on these things are incredible.  It wouldn’t be out of place on bomb fire night.

I don’t want you to think I’m discrediting these types of coffins here, I love the idea of them and how they look.  Particularly the wool coffin.  The urns made of wool are nice too.  However, the wool coffin has another drawback.  The smell. It leaves behind such a strong, assault on the nose smell long after it has been charged.  It fills the crematory with a stench not even the oust can tackle.  When people walk in you see their nose rise trying to work out what the odour hanging in the air is. 

“Wool coffin,” I explain, and they nod knowingly.  It causes us a few problems when people come around into the crematory to witness their loved ones’ coffin being charged into the cremator.  You either leave the smell in the air or you overpower them with air freshener.  We avoid charging a wool coffin prior to witness charges where we can but it’s not always possible.

I really wanted to add some videos to this post to show you how bad they can be, but it really does require all hands to the deck when charging them.  Sometimes you just can’t cool the cremator to a point where they won’t ignite before they are completely inside the chamber and you have a burning coffin igniting like a dynamite stick, flames licking outside of the cremator, bum squeaking and praying your charging bier won’t fail.  If it fails, you won’t have any time at all to get the coffin into the cremator.  You would be fighting against an instant fire ball. 

There are guidelines, but I honestly don’t believe our safety has been considered when it comes to charging these coffins.  Like I said, the benefits to the environment are huge, but they are a huge fire risk and I’m quite fond of my eyebrows too if I’m honest. 

I will try and attach some videos to this post of these coffin types when I can to highlight their dangers.

If these whispers on the grapevine are true it is going to be interesting to see how it will be policed or enforced and whose job that will be.  And it’s nice to see our safety is now being looked out for and that they’ll be less chance of a crematorium in the UK catching fire.  I’ll keep you posted.

If anyone else has any experiences like this, I’d love to chat.

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.

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. 

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