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.