Thursday, 4 February 2010

crematorium moratorium

If only . . . we could have a moratorium on crematorium funerals, whilst we re-design from scratch these very important places. As a mourner, you're only in one for half an hour - but I bet you can remember at least something about the place and the event long, long afterwards.

Well, with all due respect for the hard-working staff at crems, they are too often absolutely dire.

I'm afraid the ugly fact is that some (many? most?) crematorium "chapels" have as much atmosphere and aesthetic reward as a dentist's waiting room (also a place where people wait quietly and nervously for something they wish wasn't going to happen.) They are too often unsuited to a multi-faith and no faith population, on account of the large cross often fixed to the wall, or included in a window or doors.So tough, if you're Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist! (Not an anti-Christian statement, just a fact.)

I work at one place that the council concerned should be ashamed of, at which everybody has to work hard to hide the fact that it's a relentless conveyor belt of ceremonies on each other's heels. It's tatty, too small, and guess what? It's located next to a rubbish recycling plant. Nice work, you planners. In fact, to save public money, why not amalgamate the two facilities, hey?

I'm lucky enough to work quite often at one that is a much pleasanter environment, with a 15-minute minimum gap between the half-hour time slots and a more spacious hall - or chapel, if you prefer the usual default term - which it shouldn't be.

Say after me "audience, mourners, hall, ceremony," not "congregation, chapel, service." There, it's not so difficult, is it? Non-religious people are expected to show respect for religious beliefs (even when they may strike some of us as barking mad), it's only fair for religious believers to show some sensitivity towards a non-religious view of life, especially at an important rite of passage like a funeral ceremony. At the better of the two crems mentioned above, they always take the cross off the wall for me without being asked, and pop it back for the next Christian ceremony, all very unobtrusive. At the other one, the cross would take ten minutes to take down. It's up on the wall in a niche, and you'd need a ladder. Ten minutes? You must be joking!

Luckily, the people who work at both of my regular crematoria are outstanding at their jobs, take them seriously, and do all they can to ensure the funeral is a dignified, smooth-running event.

Here's a few simple and I would like to think undeniable facts:

1. Cremations are getting more and more popular.

As new regs come into play, they will become more environmentally friendly than they are now. We tend to assume that a burial is more ecofriendly than a cremation. I'm told that it's not as simple as it seems: burial ecogood, cremation ecodbad, isn't accurate.Perhaps this isn't the place to go into this too much, but over time a grave generates methane, I'm afraid, folks, which, apparently, does eventually get into the atmosphere. And of course graves take up a lot of space. Cremations use a lot of fuel and generate much CO2 - just the once. I think people should have what they want, I'm not selling cremation to you, but I do about 9:1 cremations:burials. Crematoria are important places.

2. Too many crems have end to end half-hour slots.

Whilst half an hour is longer than it sounds,and for most of the mourners at most funerals, it's enough, it is a bare minumum. Crems that run them end to end really need to think again - which is worse, asking a family to wait an extra day, or shoving the family into the middle of a day-long queue of hearses, coffins and unhappy people? Very often the day overuns; one over-verbose officiant, one unexpectedly large audience or late family member, and the subsequent officiants and families have an added burden. Also the poor guy running things for the crem misses his lunch break. Why do they stack up a day's funerals so tightly? Can't be the money - can it?

3. What you can actually do in a crem ceremony is limited.

See 2 above. No you can't have a slide show, or too many candles, or live musicians in any number, because there isn't time. Unless you pay double and have an hour time allocation.

4. Officiants, priests etc need a little waiting room.

("vestry" it is called, on the Christian ecclesiastical model, of course...) very welcome too. Some are OK. Some - well, it's like waiting in a broom cupboard or a stationery store, it's obviously seen as overflow space. Not a good place in which to generate afeeling of ceremony and ritual.

5. Mourners need somewhere nice to wait, out of the weather.

It really doesn't need to be like an old-fashioned dentist's waiting room.

6. How about light, well-designed modern?

Default mode for fixtures and fittings around the place - formal, gloomy, oppressive, nervously neo-Gothic. How about calming, with some ordinary flowers? OK, so cash is short for councils - but how about a lick of paint and spotlessly clean? How about pleasant toilets, not basic with a bust hand-dryer? How about not too many adverts for all the extras the crem can supply - at extra cost? How about no anonymous leaflets on any subject at all?

7. "We find it works best if..."

"that's how we do it here, you see," from staff on occasion (not at my two main crems, happily.) The only answer is "well that's not how I do it, so please watch for my signal..." because it's not your ceremony, it's theirs, and mine acting on their behalf. So - watch me. Please.

Summary: Many crems need to modernise, lighten, see the people who use them as paying customers (which they are, my word they are...) and get customer-friendly.Some crems are much better than I've suggested, of course. But crems need to provide a multi/no faith theatre for ceremony and ritual, not a lifeless derivative from an outdated idea of ecclesiastical architecture and decoration. People choose the environment for their wedding nowadays. Unless they are enterprising and want to spend time and money on it, they will find themselves stuck with the nearest crem. And sometimes that means they are very stuck.


  1. All too true in every respect. Most other cultures spend several days on funerals. Compare the way Brits do it: Confucians 3 days, Us 20 mins, done and dusted. But to be a tad despairing, is there not a great deal about 20 mins that suits many if not most bereaved people? 20 mins is easily long enough, and just long enough to do it respectably. And if you’re only there for 20 mins, does it matter if the place is awful? You hardly take it in. Eyes closed’d be best. And if you’re rushed through, there’s comfort in that because a funeral is an invidious and forgettable social convention (we already said goodbye: why do we have to do it all over?), and look, everybody else is rushing through, too, so it’s okay to do that; let’s just hope the celebrant makes nice noises and the flowers look nice. Least said, soonest mended.
    We do it badly because we don’t know why we have to do it, and the best we can say about it when it’s over is that it was nice. Or lovely.
    And, yes, I am overstating. Never knowingly anodyne. To be fairer, people want to do it well but don’t know how to because they don’t engage with the purpose of a funeral and therefore see it as an ordeal, which it is, of course, it’s about grief, but does a funeral actually make things any better, they wonder. And they conclude that it doesn’t. Well of course it doesn’t. You can’t do anything in 20 minutes. Which is why other cultures have ritualised mourning. We are the unhappy inheritors of the Protestant death ethic
    So I guess the point I am pointing at not unerringly is that people get the funerals they deserve. And if they wanted real funerals they would look at 20 mins in some brick cheap-build churchalike and say, “Pull the other one.”

  2. I agree with nearly all you say, and at The Natural Death Centre we are on to it and doing our best to make these points to the people who build, maintain and profit from our crems. It's not just about changing the technology. I don't agree with what you say about reframing people as an audience instead of congregation. An audience is passive and does not participate, and as a culture we have sat through these funerals for the past forty years. The definition of congregation by wikipedia is an assembly of people for a purpose. What's wrong with that?

  3. Thanks for your comments, Charles and Rupert. I think I'll develop Charles' point some more in a post.
    To Rupert: well, nothing is wrong with the meaning of congregation that you give - but Oxford Concise, which goes on to the more general, Wikipedia definition, has as its first meaning "a group of people assembled for religious worship." In the context of what Charles calls "a churchalike," I reckon that's the definition most people would associate the term with. Nothing wrong with that definition either, in a church.

    I maintain that the default mode of terminology, appearance and expectation at crems is religious, or religiose - more specifically, Christian - that isn't good for non-religious people, and nor, I guess for other faiths.

    I think we do, and urgently, need to re-frame crematoria, in terminology as well as the other elements, for a multi-faith/no faith country, and I would argue, at the risk of hair-splitting, that "congregation," in this context, is misleading, in tone and expectation. But the cross, the poverty of imagination in design, the production-line heartlessness - these are more important priorities.

    Audiences, incidentally, are far from passive at many events these days - but maybe you would argue that we should call a music festival audience a congregation? Sounds about right, in some ways - unity of belief, fervency, etc!

    By the way, big cheers, congratulations and thanks for all that the NDC does.

  4. Interesting. Whichever, audience or congregation, the inference is that it is 'them' to our 'us' - that there are two parties present, the conductors and the, er, conductees. I think a term which declares purpose shared equally would do best.

    A big bugbear with me is the way that celebrants have acquiesced in the religious processional and format. There is a great deal about a secular ceremony which you could describe as 'religious sans'. Religious sans prayers, sans hymns, sans shared worship -- all elements which bring people together. Their replacement with bits of readings and nice poems do not repair the lost sharedness.

    Why is the committal commonly at the end? Has it never been tried earlier? If the purpose of a secular ceremony is to consider all that lives on - memory, values, example, DNA, then there would seem to be value in dealing with the body early on and carrying on in the spirit in which the lives of those will be lived from now on.

    There's so much more to it than this. We need to throw out the old template with the crummy old buildings. But it will take real intelligence and thought to find worthy replacements for the dear, departed bleak-and-meaningless. the celebrancy movement is not moving things on radically as it ought.

    Gosh, I do bang on, don't I? It's so nice to romp freely in other people's blogs! No one'll see my name, will they??!!?

  5. Excellent point Charles about dealing with the body early on and carrying on in the spirit of the onward lives. I'll draw that into my next post, also and more generally, "religion sans" will be addressed. As for banging on - fire away, you're very welcome, good thought-provoking stuff.

  6. A crematorium 'chapel' is an add-on for commercial (and practical) convenience - there's no reason on earth why the funeral should take place at the crematorium, as of course it often doesn't with a church funeral.

    Practically, we aren't going to knock down all crapatoria and rebuild them with something better in our lifetimes, so we need an interim solution to the problem of finding the right atmosphere for a funeral. The simple solution is: Elsewhere.

    'People get the funerals they deserve.' True, Charles; the drowning drunk gets the death he deserves, but you'd still jump in to rescue him even against your better judgement. They get the funerals they do because they put their unreserved trust in the Funeral Director, the Expert and Guide who knows what's what, and they're grateful what's more. That's the nub of it - with the notable exceptions of the Good Funeral Guide's 'Recommended Funeral Directors' (thanks for our sticker, Charles), FDs prescribe standard funerals like GPs prescribe anti-depressants. And of course, Doctor Knows Best.

    What we celebrants have to do is appeal to the public instead of to the FDs, and explain what's what - you're not stuck with your own preconceptions of funerals, nor with your FDs preferences. We have to bypass the System, a bit like the 'altenative medicine' movement I suppose, and offer something that appeals from a place we are empowered to implement it.

    What we need to begin with is someone to write a Good Funeral Guide........................oh, jolly good!