Last week, I led a group of postgraduate students from our exciting and unique MA Archaeology of Death and Memory on a very special field visit to explore the contemporary material cultures and landscapes of burial and commemoration in today’s Britain. The course is thematic, and we consider the complex and dynamic relationships between death, mourning and commemoration across cultures from prehistory to the present. Through this field trip, we focused on the theme of cremation as a disposal method and how it facilitates the continued use of the traditional grave plot and cemetery spaces, but also new and diverse commemorative strategies with and without various different dimensions of burial plot and memorial. This is the subject of my own research and publications, but it is a wider theme of interest to historians and sociologists of death too.
With this aim in mind, we arranged for a special guided tour around Chester Crematorium, run by Cheshire West and Chester County Council. This is a newly built crematorium: only 2 years old. It is built on a greenfield site adjacent to the previous location of the old crematorium at the eastern edge of Blacon cemetery. The original crematorium was established in the 1960s. Since the 1960s, over 84,000 dead bodies have been cremated on this site, serving the city of Chester and its environs and each week day usually between 9 and 10 cremations take place on the premises.
Mr Wayne Atkinson, crematorium technician and assistant registrar, gave us a detailed tour behind the scenes into the operational procedures surrounding the cremation of the dead. Mr Atkinson answered all our questions and provided many fascinating insights into the workings of a modern crematorium. I have been to see a crematorium before – at Pentrebychan, Wrexham – but this time I had my understanding refreshed and I saw elements I don’t recall seeing before; namely the charging of bodies into the cremation ovens.
The cremation process can be crudely summarised thus. Once the chapel is clear of mourners, a light alerts the technicians that the coffin is ready for collection. A sound-proof hatch comprising of twin doors is opened and the coffin tested for its weight and then dragged towards the technician and rolled onto one of two trolleys. In the case of a backlog of bodies (for example, if one of the ovens is broken), there is a freezer to store bodies awaiting cremation. Bodies must be cremated within 24 hours of the funeral service in the chapel.
When the oven is ready and the previous body’s remains have been removed, the oven is ‘charged’ by rolling the coffin off the trolley and, in one single fluid motion, throwing it into the oven foot-end first. The technician is an expert at this and it is a subtle movement; not a dramatic tossing of the coffin. Most striking was the powerful roar of the oven as the door was open; a memorable moment for me and perhaps understandable that this experience tends not to be one shared by mourners.
The oven door is then closed, but there are portholes to allow the technicians to view in to check on progress at either end of the oven. Cremation is always feet first, to ensure charging is easy and consistent and also because the gas jets are positioned with this expectation. Cremation takes c. 1.5 hours (depending on a range of factors, including the size and composition of the body).
Having witnessed the transportation and charging of a coffin and then we moved around to the operation room (pictured) to see how the computers managed the twin ovens on the site. This was a cramped space, but it allowed us a sense of the complexity of the ovens as a mechanism of fiery transformation of bodies to ash.
Finally, at the back of the ovens, we got to see the process of raking out the remains into a cooling chamber. I was struck by the beauty of this moment, and the bright sparkling of still-hot embers as the raking took place. All that survives is bone and metal; everything else is dispersed. There are also complex filter systems to prevent pollutants (including mercury and plastic residues) from entering the atmosphere of Chester.
Once the ashes are cooler but not cool, they are tipped into a metal tray for transportation to the second stage of the cremation process: the cremulator. It is important to note that most ancient cremation processes would have ended with these cremated human remains: which are shrunken, broken and showing heat alteration to their colour and texture, but remain discernibly the bones of a human being. Witnessing cremated bone at this stage is akin to the cremated bone we find on archaeological sites. It is the cremulator that is employed in modern cremation to make the ground grains which we regard as ‘ashes’. These make cremated bone less emotionally striking and tangibly ‘human’, but the rationale given during our visit was to reduce further the size and weight to make them more readily transportable. From this practical perspective, the smaller-sized grains of crushed human bone make the cremains ready for collection by relatives in a box or for transportation to the garden of remembrance for scattering in an urn.
The cremultor machine that looks akin to an old-fashioned tumble-dryer. Metal items are removed (false limbs usually) before the bones are ground to a powder for scattering or returning to the family. We got to see a display of the artificial knee-caps and proximal femurs that have been retrieved from recent cremations; these are recycled and proceeds given to charities chosen by the mourners. Upon their removal from the cremulator, the technicians then place the cremated human remains s in a box ready for mourners to collect them, or else they can be transported in a bronze urn for ash-scattering on the grounds, either in the presence of mourners or simply with a representative of the cemetery staff in attendance.
Identity is key to cremation. Throughout the process, name tags move to the ovens and to the cremulator and the box/urn to ensure that only the remains of that one person are kept separate and identified at all times.
This process is a technical process taking place out of sight of mourners; and so there is considerable folklore and anxiety surrounding the ‘hidden’ nature of cremation. Death professionals are very keen to dispell much of this and so the staff are keen to be completely open about the process. While few opt to use it, there is a viewing gallery which can afford those that wish to the opportunity to watch the charging of the ovens.
What struck me about the staff was the balance between informality and ritualisation even behind the scenes. The staff work and talk and conduct themselves without hindrance from noise restrictions, but there remains a quiet respect for the bodies, even though this process is out of sight for relatives and friends of the deceased. Therefore, professionalism and subtle postures and movements create a sense of dignity and respect, rather than dress and demeanour.
I want to thank Mr Atkinson and all the staff of Chester Crematorium for their generosity in allowing my students to visit this striking facility.