Dust to Dust

Standing by the cremator, Kevin presses the top button and the three-inch thick steel door slides silently open, releasing a blast of 800-degree heat. Although I’m wearing a Perspex face shield and heat-resistant elbow-length chamois leather gloves, I feel nervous and vulnerable as I prepare to commit the body of an eighty-year old man to the flames. I’ve made a point of not knowing his real identity, but ‘Mr Mackenzie’ seems as good a name as any for my debut as a trainee crematorium attendant.

This is God speaking
The sun must come down
This is God saying
You must turn around
Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie

Like fireflies, glowing embers dance over the hearth as the cool air from the corridor is sucked into the cremator which glows with an orange light. As instructed, I press the ‘charge’ switch on the hand-held controller, and the hydraulic ram pushes the coffin noiselessly forward. I’ve watched Kevin do this half a dozen times now, and on every occasion the casket has moved smoothly and swiftly along the free-running rollers of the bier to hit ‘the sweet spot’ at the centre of the hearth, so when Mr Mackenzie just falls off the end of the bier and stops, I’m a bit taken aback: that’s not what’s supposed to happen. 

‘Press the switch again’ says Kevin, calmly but firmly. I do as I’m told and the ram moves forward again: Mr Mackenzie completes his journey, the safety door slides shut and I breathe out. ‘Not too bad for a first shot,’ says Kevin diplomatically but dishonestly. I can see why it takes a year and a half to learn how to do his job.

More than three quarters of us in the UK will be cremated when we die, so it’s not surprising that the business of reducing a human body to four pounds of ash has become an industrial one. It has to be, to cope with the demand. 

Crematoriums are a conveyor belt. Six days a week, on the hour and on the half hour, a hearse will discharge a coffin, and after each ceremony, another will take its place. You can be late for your wedding, but funerals have to start on time, which is why ‘free-running rollers’ are so important.  They keep everything moving. They’re built into the platform in the back of the hearse that brings the coffin to the crematorium, they’re sunk into the top of the catafalque where the casket will sit during the service, they’re on the trolley that removes it from the lift and – crucially – they’re on the charger that delivers them to the doors of the cremator. 

Thanks to the obesity epidemic, the dead are heavier now. In 1954, the average British man weighed 11 stone and 6 ounces. Today, the average corpse weighs around 14 stone, so moving coffins is fraught with risk. In the old days, coffins would have been manhandled throughout their journey, so back injuries and muscular pain were a constant hazard in the funeral business. Today, power-assisted, height-adjustable trolleys with foot brakes and steering controls allow their operators to discharge even super-size payloads silently, smoothly and safely a dozen or more times a day.

It’s one of the celebrant’s duties to ensure that the ceremony finishes in its allotted time, but that doesn’t always happen. Families arrive late, speakers overrun, mourners collapse and faint, so behind the apparent calm there is always a barely concealed atmosphere of nervous tension, but overrunning is the least of the grieving family’s concerns. What is uppermost in their minds is the fear that their loved one’s remains might end up mixed in with those of other people. It’s the most frequently asked question at every crematorium’s open day, and Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium is acutely aware of its importance. 

In 2012 it was revealed that for decades, the ashes of babies cremated there had not been returned to their parents but buried without ceremony in their rose garden. The ensuing scandal prompted a government enquiry which revealed that the practice was not unique to Mortonhall, but the damage was done. An ‘Infant Cremation Commission’ was established, compensation was paid, and a national code of practice recommended. In 2015, a memorial garden was unveiled at Mortonhall, but a second statue had to be erected in Princes Street Gardens a few years later because so few of the families affected felt able to return to the place where their grief had been intensified rather than assuaged. 

In April 2019, the Scottish Government introduced the Cremation (Scotland) Regulations 2019, a new law that requires crematoria to keep people’s remains for at least four weeks. The Association of Independent Funeral Directors went a step further, and put in place a further procedure to ensure that in the event that ashes are not collected from the funeral director, they will be returned to the crematorium where they will be logged for one final time before being disposed of within the garden of remembrance. 

One of the positive outcomes of this sad story is that we can now be certain that in future, the 12 x 6-inch cardboard box with our name on the label really will contain our ashes and only our ashes, but the tragic story of ‘The Mortonhall Babies’ perfectly illustrates how desperate we are to cling onto even the smallest trace of the presence of those we love.

When I trained sixteen years ago, I and my fellow would-be celebrants were taken around a crematorium on a Sunday morning, the one day it wasn’t open to the public. Other than the attendant who led our visit, there was nobody else there: the cremators were cold and the chapel echoingly empty. Below stairs, the place had an acrid smell, like an electric heater that hadn’t been used for a very long time. It took me a while to realise it was the smell of burnt bone; a bitter whiff of my own mortality.

We saw the catafalque, the marble frame on which the coffins rest during the ceremony, and we saw the hoist that takes the coffin down to the basement when it’s over. We saw the cremators (don’t call them ovens – it’s not a word funeral professionals like to hear), and we saw the ‘the cremulator’ a box the size of a washing machine filled with steel balls that over the course of half an hour would crush the fragments of bone left after the flames had done their work, into a powder fine enough to be easily scattered from the urns that were neatly arranged on a shelf next to the office. It was all very orderly, but it wasn’t a place anyone would wish to linger. 

The process of cremation remains essentially the same today, even if nowadays the cremulator is smaller, quieter and exponentially faster. The smell has gone too. The ceiling of the basement area in Mortonhall where the cremators do their work is crisscrossed by a vast network of rectangular steel boxes that diffuse and cool the exhaust gases. One of them leads to a large blue box called a reagent station where the noxious fumes, including the mercury from the fillings in our teeth, the hydrogens, chloride and fluoride, along with the nitrogen oxide and the sulphur dioxide are captured, cooled, logged, bagged and every week or so, taken away for secure disposal. Mortonhall sends monthly emissions figures to the Environmental Protection Agency which is charged with preventing the release of material toxic to humans and damaging to the environment. What nobody has yet worked out is how to capture the carbon dioxide that globally release millions of tons of greenhouse gas that drive climate change, but that is beyond the competence of any individual crematorium. Each cremation releases about 400 kilogrammes of CO2 to the atmosphere, roughly equivalent to that released by a single economy class flight from London to New York. 

Designed in the early 1960’s by Sir Basil Spence, a follower of Le Corbusier, Mortonhall is a brutalist, secular cathedral set in woodland on what at the time was the edge of the city. Built in white concrete, it has the austere simplicity of a Cistercian Abbey and in the middle of a Scottish winter, the simple panels of coloured glass by the doors of the main chapel refract the hard, low light into shards of colour that project a full sixty yards to its minimalist apse.  For the mourners, it is undeniably beautiful: for celebrants staring into the golden glare it is dazzling, making it hard to see the words of the script, let alone the mourners beyond. 

Spence took advantage of the hill on which the crematorium is built, so the working side of the building lies at the back of and below the chapels. In its T-shaped operational centre, a long table supports a bank of monitors: two for the cremators and three for live video feeds from both the chapels and the building’s chimney where, rather as during a papal election, the operators keep an eye out for the wrong colour of smoke. It’s a nondescript functional space, painted in institutional colours and lit by fluorescent light. Notice boards display health and safety information, bulletins from the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities and instructions on what to do in the event of a fire alert or an evacuation, but if it weren’t for the three cremators that give the building its core purpose, it could well be the boiler room of a school or any other large institution.

Mortonhall is just one of some three hundred crematoria in the UK. Between them, they conduct almost half a million cremations a year and according to Urns for Ashes, a website run by Darren and Stacey Williams, the busiest is in Amersham, the cheapest in Belfast and the average fee (in 2017) was £778.13. They are far from cheap to run. 

Tony Brookes, the Group Sales Manager of Facultatieve Technologies who installed two of Mortonhall’s three cremators told me that their equipment cost Edinburgh City Council £750,000 and, that with the proper maintenance, they have a working life of twenty years. Each ninety-minute cremation uses as much energy as a single person does in an entire month, but whereas in Scandinavia, the surplus heat is redistributed to homes, schools and swimming pools, here in the UK the economic and ethical arguments for heat capture have yet to gain ground. Like the vast majority of the country’s crematoria, Mortonhall’s two chapels are heated by an entirely separate central heating system: when it was built it was considered indecorous to use the heat generated by the dead to warm the living.

For their investment, the council got some state-of-the-art technology. The FTIII cremators are computer controlled and their workings are shown graphically on monitors that make the process look like a Pop Art inspired computer game. Diagrams in primary colours show complex array of boilers, furnaces and flues, and onscreen information panels display the temperature and analyse the chemical content of the emissions which can be monitored remotely from anywhere at any time. 

The cremators are programmed to come on at 8 o’clock every working morning. Their interiors covered in refractory bricks, with vents below, above and along the side, they work in essentially the same way as a domestic oven, by convection, and as in a domestic oven, there is no flame: the heat is invisible but it feels almost tangible. Cooling overnight to five or six hundred degrees Celsius, the cremators take just an hour to reach their operational temperature of eight-hundred degrees, and once there, they become the heart of a process that deals with twelve ceremonies every day. Including the ceremony, an average cremation from the arrival of the hearse to the packaging of the ashes takes a bit over three hours, of which the incineration of the deceased person takes half. The larger the body, the longer it takes and not only do we now weigh more, we are also getting taller and wider. When Mortonhall closed for refurbishment a few years ago they took the opportunity to install new, larger catafalques, but even they have their limits. If your coffin is more than 39 inches wide or if you weigh more than 30 stone, burial is your only option.

Once Mr Mackenzie’s coffin has been loaded into the cremator, Kevin types his name, his identity number and the name of his funeral director into the programme on the computer. His mouse then clicks a button that says, ‘light’, the first of a number of options that include ‘standard’, ‘heavy’ and ‘special’, prompting an onscreen panel to predict the length of time that the cremation should take. Kevin’s aim is to optimise ‘The Three T’s’ – time, temperature and turbulence – and he know from experience that different bodies take different lengths of time.  The ‘first of the day’ will be slower while an infant’s body will take very little time at all. People who’ve been on medication take longer, especially those who have died from cancer, but in most cases, all that is left of us after ninety minutes is bone.

‘It all depends what we’re made of’ said Kevin, settling back in his chair and patting his stomach. ‘Folk like me burn better. We’re carrying more fuel. Athletic people take longer: the leaner you are, the more time you need. I’ll be making sure I have a nice chippy before I pass away!’ 

I’ve worked with Kevin throughout my career as a celebrant. When I first met him, he was a funeral director with WT Dunbar and Sons, an old Edinburgh firm first established in late 19th century. A well set, silver-haired figure, Kevin has the reassuring air of calm competence that suggests a background in the armed services, but in fact, his first career was in cabinet making. On leaving school, he joined RJ Scott who made bedroom furniture on Stevenson Road, but when they went out of business and he was made redundant, he answered an advert in his local Job Centre and joined the Leith based firm of McKenzie & Miller as a trainee. That was 24 years ago. Like W.T. Dunbar, W&H Harkess and other ostensibly local firms, McKenzie & Miller is now part of Co-Operative Funeralcare: like most of the small independent companies around the UK, it was bought over during the 1980’s when the industry ‘consolidated’. The Co-Op now owns about half of the industry while Dignity, originally an American company, owns the other.

Kevin was a practising Catholic when he entered the industry, so dead bodies didn’t scare him. The practice in Catholic families, especially those of Irish descent, was to have the body in the house for several days before the funeral so that people could pay their respects. Visitors wore their Sunday best, and the coffin would be in the big room, where people would sit by it in silence praying or saying their rosary. People often refer to the funeral reception as ‘the wake’, but this was the real thing: keeping the night watch, sitting in vigil with the dead.

24 years ago, 99% of funerals were burials. Today, the ratio has completely reversed, and only 5% of us now choose to be buried. Kevin spent almost a year as a trainee funeral director, learning on the job about the paperwork and the forms but the real training was spending time with the bereaved. Not all companies work the same way, but at WT Dunbar, where he served most of his time, Kevin was both a funeral director and an arranger. The advantage of that was that he was in control of the whole process, and the family had only one person to deal with: himself. 

‘Your job is to sit with the family so that you know them and they know you. They get to see the whole process through you, and that connection is what you want. Every family is your family, so you form a real bond. Over time, you get to know your community, and you earn their respect. You can hardly go out without someone saying ‘hello’ because they knew you: you’ve done a ceremony for someone in their family.

The first time you meet them is usually at ‘the removal’, when you come to collect the body of the deceased. The next time is when they come into the office to make arrangements. You might spend an hour or two with them then, and they tell you the story of their loved one, and that is where the bond is made. You learn about the person and you relate to them through lots of things: through the music they loved, through what their dads did for a living and of course through the funny stories: everything they tell a celebrant, they’ve usually told us already. And part of your job is to talk them through what will happen on the day: when you’re going to come to their house, what route you’re proposing to take to the cemetery or the crematorium, and of course you talk them through what will happen on the day. Most people are just happy to know that the coffin is being laid upon the catafalque, but Hindus will usually want to come downstairs after the ceremony to watch the charging of the coffin: the head of the family will want to lay his hands on it as it’s charged into the cremator.’

Kevin was a funeral director for 22 years before he decided the time had come for a change. “The job takes a lot of your time. Not just weekends and evenings, but birthdays and Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. It’s hard to lead a normal life when you’re on call. You can be just waiting for your Chinese to be delivered but if the phone goes, it has to get cold because you’re on out the door and on your way!”

“As a crematorium attendant I’m still in the caring industry. I still have the connection with my families even now and they treat me like a friend and I treat my job here the same way. I take it seriously because I want everything to be perfect, but the difference is that now I get to go home at a reasonable hour every night. My weekends are mostly my own, and I can leave my work behind in a way I never quite could as a funeral director. But the job steals the emotional connection: you can see others grieving but you don’t feel it the same way. It’s not that it doesn’t hurt you when someone close dies, but because you know everything about how it works, you’re an insider so it’s different.”

The job of a crematorium attendant is a repetitive one, but Kevin takes it seriously and he treats his charges with great respect. The tracking of the body is his first priority, which is why its every movement is recorded. Every coffin has a card with a number which he checks against the nameplate on the coffin before it is brought into the chapel at the start of the ceremony. When the ceremony is over and the coffin is lowered to the basement, the name is checked again and like the coffin, the card is taken to the cremator where it’s placed in a holder next to the observational panel.

The cremator chamber is typically at 800C when the coffin is ‘charged’ into it and the coffin burns long before the flesh and the organs. Perhaps surprisingly, eco-friendly materials like cardboard and wicker don’t cremate well. They require more heat and burn too fast, whereas standard wood-veneered MDF coffins burn more evenly: you may want to bear this in mind. There are no flames when the coffin first enters the chamber but it doesn’t take long for the intense heat to take hold. 

In an essay called, ‘The Pornography of Death’, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer was the first to suggest that death had become to us what sex had been to the Victorians, but while I feel a voyeuristic embarrassment as I peer through the spyhole there’s nothing macabre, let along erotic about what I see. At first, other than the billowing conflagration, I can’t see much at all. 80% of our bodies is water, which quickly evaporates: the blackened flesh is next to go, leaving only the bones. 

Once the flames have diminished, only the body’s skeletal outline is visible. The skull, the scapular and the ribcage are most easily identifiable, all now blackened but still glowing here and there with small, local outbreaks of flame. The ancients who first practised cremation, and the Hindus who still do, regarded fire as a purifying element. As the sparks flew upwards from the funeral pyre, it must have seemed as though the soul of the deceased was ascending to heaven, and although in this sealed chamber the fluttering embers have nowhere to go, there is still an uncanny beauty in their skittish and unpredictable flight.

The skull survives longest but even it eventually opens and the sagittal crest cracks like a sea shell before falling apart. In Bali, where cremations happen in public and are regarded as a time of celebration, huge crowds gather to wait for this very moment: the popping of the sagittal crest is believed to be the spirit leaving the body to take up its place in nirvana. If Mr Mackenzie does have a spirit, it’s a shame that I am the only one to observe its passing.

After about an hour and a half when the flames have consumed the last of the flesh, Kevin takes a twelve-foot rake and meticulously clears every fragment of still glowing bone from the chamber, raking it into a stainless-steel bin. What was once a living breathing person has now been reduced to ‘cremains’. It’s an ugly word, but it’s technically correct; the ‘ashes’ we usually refer to don’t survive the extreme temperatures of the incineration process.

Kevin moves Mr Mackenzie’s card to its next placeholder beside the lower chamber of the cremator before leaving the cremains to cool. Five minutes later, he’s back, taking card and bin to a small side room where he puts on a face protector before picking up a steel rod. 

‘What do you think this is?’ he asks, as he moves it like a pestle among the uniformly grey fragments. ‘Is it a magnet?’ I reply, and in answer he holds it up, now surrounded by screws, nails, staples and other bits of metal. Not all them come from the coffin. There are strange, perforated strips of metal that look like the kind of hinges that keep the doors on my kitchen cupboards. So that’s what an artificial hip looks like… once the bin is full, all these fragments will be taken to the recyclers too. 

Despite being subjected to such intense heat, what remains in the bucket is still recognisably human. The last stage in the process happens when ‘the cremains’ are put into the cremulator, which is not just the name of a death metal band from Fort Worth, Texas, but a high-speed blender the size of a wardrobe that grinds its contents to a uniformly fine dust: hence the face mask. While older models took half an hour or more, Mortonhall’s tinkles gently for just three minutes before Kevin opens the door, pours the fine grey dust into a white paper bag, rolls down its top, and places it inside a white cardboard box that itself goes into a grey cardboard sleeve. He labels the sleeve and takes the box, along with its faithful record card, through the control room to a vestibule, where he places it in the position reserved for it alongside a dozen or more identical containers. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: Mr Mackenzie’s last journey is at an end, for now.

  1. […] to Ashes’ tells the almost unbelievable story of how cremation became legal in the UK, ‘Dust to Dust’ is about what actually happens when a body is cremated, and ‘Soil to Soil’ is about […]

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