I start this blog with my usual caveat : these are my personal reflections and sharing of my experience and despite my continuing endeavour to approach a topic holistically, this will always be informed by my perspective.
On this occasion I also feel the need to offer a second caveat : that what follows includes some graphic description of death and treatment of the deceased.
I therefore completely understand for those who do not wish to read further , but I feel I have a responsibility to advise the reader at the beginning of this post……
As we glided through the busy streets of Ipswich, in the swish comfort of the black Mercedes limousine on a cold January afternoon, I became aware that passers by were glancing at us with a particular look of quizzical solemnity, reserved for those in this most particular of circumstances.
However, the chatter and tone within the vehicle would have perhaps revealed that we were not in-fact mourners, but rather about to enter the physical and emotional journey of those who are.
If you have followed other entries in my blog, you may recall that I have recently undertaken a course on Cultural Diversity and Spirituality in Pastoral Care. Amongst participants on that course at Suffolk’s new interfaith centre (www.eefa.net), were those in the funeral services profession, and they kindly offered us the opportunity to gain an insight into that critical service of care .
I must admit I hesitated before taking up this offer, not least because of my own recent health experiences, which for the first time had brought me rudely in touch with my own mortality. However, I prayerfully considered that if I was to be serious in my continuing desire and call to serve and care for others , I owed it to those that I was ministering to, to gain a deeper understanding of the private, and indeed professional responses to grief.
So with a few of my colleagues, I spent a day in the care of the East of England Co-Op Funeral Services’ Area Manager, Michael Davies. Our first stop on this journey was a recently fitted out Suffolk branch of East of England Co-op where we were shown into a very comfortable and neutral meeting room, it’s furnishings not being out of place in a contemporary hotel lounge.
There we were given the scenario of being a bereaved family and we experienced the reality of bewildering decisions that one is guided through at the death of a loved one. I was reminded once again of the complexity of life; that it is so easy to hold onto a fixed view of what is right – in this case, should mum be buried with the ring, or should it be given to one or other of the daughters both of which had apparently been promised it – and yet each of those fixed views can have profoundly damaging and emotional consequences. It also struck me that what was once a uniformed and universal scenario of a funeral, has become individual and personalised with the choices ranging from motorbike with bespoke sidecar for the coffin, to rings that can be made encapsulating the ashes or a firework display for family and friends including the ashes. Whilst I found the opportunity of the bespoke funeral touching, I wondered what it speaks of in our relationship to both the communal and to death.
Next we travelled to the premises of a substantial funeral home. From the exterior you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a call centre for insurance. If it wasn’t for the sign ,a casual observer would have no idea that it contains chapels of rest, rooms of preparation and a substantial mortuary. All nestled alongside buildings of the mundane and ordinary commercial life.
However, the inside of the building was very welcoming and it was heartening to hear that the spaces had been designed with East of England Children’s Hospice and Suffolk Interfaith community to ensure that it was not only as familiar and comfortable an experience as it could be for the bereaved, but could meet the needs of people of all faiths and none. For example, the woodland mural in reception and the chapels of rest being comfortable carpeted rooms, with bean bags for children – all far removed from the gothic drapery and candles that many have traditionally associated with those final moments of respect and farewell.
Another innovation is that pets were welcome and our guide shared with us how helpful and good this can be for both pets and family to say goodbye together.
In one of the chapels of rest was a coffin awaiting the bereaved family which added a somewhat surreal element to an otherwise almost hotel like room lay out.
We then approached the end of the corridor with trepidation and through a series of doors left the cozy carpeted environment behind.
It had been explained to us that we would have the opportunity to visit the mortuary, but of course we wouldn’t have to go in there if we weren’t comfortable to. Perhaps not surprisingly this was the part of the journey I was most apprehensive about, but again I felt that it would be helpful both personally and professionally to witness that place.
A number of thoughts struck me as we entered the mortuary, it was very different from what we see so often in the plethora of crime dramas on television. Firstly there were no cabinets, just open racks of trays containing the deceased, and secondly how cold it was, but it was that ability to manage the temperature of the entire room that removes the need now for individual cabinets. Of course the modern technology means that the individual is more obviously confronted with death as soon as one enters the room, as there are rows and rows and columns and columns of the deceased.
I was also struck by how small the individuals looked – even the tall adults in life, seemed frail and shrunken in the, tightly shrouded in sheets. With bags of possessions at their feet, one such collection in a humble and humdrum supermarket bag, which were there to be buried or cremated with their owners.
We were then privileged to meet with the head embalmer who shared a variety of stories of going to considerable care and dedication to enable loved ones to have a vital opportunity of farewell to the deceased who had died in extreme violent or dramatic circumstances.
I was touched by this young ladies obvious sense of calling to such difficult work to give back dignity and respectful farewell where both had been so violently ripped away from a family.
As I stood there, to the left of me, banks of the dead and to the right of me, coffins at various stages of preparation for funerals, I became overwhelmed with my own experience of heart surgery. Now on this side of the surgery, given what was found in theatre, it is now certain that without such timely intervention, I would not have reached many more birthdays before finding myself in such a place.
Our final stage of this extraordinary journey was to visit a crematorium. As we arrived to the beautiful wooded surroundings there were a number of services taking place and because of that we didn’t experience the chapels themselves. However, we met with the former manager of the crematorium who took us through the office and to the crematoria itself. As soon as we walked through the doors, we were immediately confronted with the reality of the place’s purpose , as a coffin was coming through from the chapel next door.
Perhaps I am not alone in originally thinking that coffins immediately go from the chapel direct into the furnace, where in actual fact the curtain has a purely a symbolic function, as the coffin is then taken from that chapel to the crematoria.
I was interested to learn that apparently at the vast majority of funerals, families no longer request for the curtain to be closed. Once again I found myself wondering what that says about our understanding and acceptance of death, as a modern society.
We were then shown the furnaces, their computerised management and very careful monitoring of temperature and emissions. Indeed, the modern crematoria has zero air emissions and is externally monitored by the Environmental Agency.
All the time our guide was talking us through extensively the management of the furnaces and the cremation process, he was overseeing the work of the furnaces and we watched as an ornately carved oak coffin was maneuvered into its final place. We were privileged to be able to watch how quickly the ferocious heat ignited the coffin and within minutes the substantial cabinet was no more and the contents were consumed in fire.
We then witnessed in another furnace at the end of the cremation process, the remains being prepared ready to be given back the family of the deceased.
What I felt in both the mortuary and crematoria that day, was that whatever essence and character those individuals had manifested in life were no longer there. Whilst strengthening my own belief and understanding of soul and resurrection, I came also to a deeper understanding of what is ministered to in the funeral services, is the respect and dignity of the individual that is now represented by the body, but that the body of itself is not the individual.
My worry and prayer is that we have lost sight of this and a healthier understanding and conversation about death, would give us a healthier understanding and conversation on life in its fullness.