Writing Research aka Behind the Scenes at the Crematorium

My excuse was that it was research for my WIP but it took a bit of persuasion before my hubby agreed to accompany me to the Open Doors Day (DOD) event at Craigton Crematorium in Glasgow.

The crematorium was one of over 100 buildings and over 50 walks, talks and events all completely free which were organised to celebrate Glasgow’s buildings, parks, streets, architecture,  history and people. Glasgow’s Built Heritage Festival is in its 23rd year and allows the public access to many of the city’s most exciting venues.

Craigton Crematorium on the south side of Glasgow

I’d read a ‘Lifelines’ article in the Herald profiling the job of Harry Tosh, the Crematorium Manager at Craigton and it mentioned that the crematorium was going to be open for a behind the scenes tour during the DOD programme. As the main character in my WIP is a celebrant for the Humanist Society and frequents a crematorium as part of his work, I thought that it would be an interesting experience.  And in true Glasgow patter, it was indeed a pure dead brilliant tour (sorry, but I couldn’t resist the pun).

What would you choose as your funeral song?

We had Ian as our tour guide and the place was packed so I wasn’t the only person who wanted to find out more about what goes on before and after a cremation. We were taken to the service room to learn about the music system and that relatives can even log on to watch the service from abroad thanks to the installation of a web cam.  The most popular songs played at Craigton are My Way by Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner’s Simply the Best (popular with Rangers fans) and Angels by Robbie Williams but Ian told us that last week, he’d had a request for Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis. It seems that these days, anything goes with photos, videos and it is more about a celebration of life and has moved away from the traditional two-hymn service.

The service room at Craigton-complete with webcam!

I asked Ian what the worst part of his job was and he replied that he loves his work and it’s the best job he’s had but is always upset when it is the body of a child. Of course for most people on the tour, it was to find out what happens after the service that was the reason for their visit.  The first myth we dispelled was that the oven was directly behind the wooden doors where the coffin disappeared after the curtains swish shut.  In fact, the area behind the doors is a ‘holding bay’ to create a buffer between the service room and the cremating room as the equipment involved in the cremation process is very noisy and would disrupt the next funeral service.

Thankfully, a ‘live’ demo was not part of the tour!

I’m sure that I could feel that there was a nervous tension rippling through the group as we were taken to the cremating room. Ian explained that within 10 to fifteen minutes of the cremation process the coffin has burned away and all that’s left is the body.  The bit that gave me the heebie- jeebies the most was the technician’s task of using the ‘peephole’ in the oven to check how things are progressing as it depends on how big the body is before the cremation is complete.On average is takes an hour and a half and all that remains is the bones. These are then placed in what Ian referred to as a ‘tumble dryer’ with large stone balls to crush the bones and create ashes. A giant magnet is used to collect any metal in the remains and replacement joints are sent to Holland to be recycled! The ashes are then placed in a final machine which ‘hoovers ‘them to remove dust.  I’m not sure if I could’ve been so emotionally detached during a tour of the crematorium where my dad’s service was held but the tour of Craigton was utterly fascinating and dispelled common myths  such as the funeral directors buy back the coffins or that remains could ever get mixed up. Highway to heaven or stairway to hell, if you get a chance, I’d highly recommend that you go along next year to find out where the journey starts!

What’s the weirdest place you’ve visited as part of your research? I think I’ll struggle to beat a venue like the cremating room!

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8 thoughts on “Writing Research aka Behind the Scenes at the Crematorium

  1. Well done Helen. I could NOT do that. It sounded grim. I’m going for aa wodland funeral – you get wrapped in a woollen banket or aa cardboard coffin , choose ‘yer tree ( to be planted over your remains) and you are released slowly back into teh atmosphere – helps to get rid of CO2
    Much more eco friendly – and no one makes enormous profits – such a waste burning all that expensive wood. The money saved can go to a great wake/party for your family and friends. Since 2004 funeral costs have risen by 70% and that in a time of austerity.

    • I think I’d go for something similar Catherine- not that I’m hoping to need to plan my funeral any time soon! You’re right, it’s not exactly eco friendly to burn wood etc but they do recycle the plastic body parts! 🙂

  2. What a fascinating visit, Helen. It beats my researching round St Albans abbey church. As to funeral tunes – that’s a game my sisters and I play on drunken get togethers. They have vetoed me having Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’.

  3. Helen I LOVED this post! Believe it or not I have been on two tours of City of London Cemetery, one when I worked for the Corporation of London who run it and one a very surreal public Open Day complete with cream teas, rides in Kray Bros style horsedrawn hearses, I could go on… of these, the first private one was the best because we got told all the borderline bad taste stories that were omitted from the official version.

    You’re right, there are many myths surrounding death and its arrangements – mostly we avoid thinknig about it. At the first funeral I ever attended, age 18, I was standing around outside the crem with my family after the service and completely without thinking I said to my brother on seeing a huge cloud of black smoke, ‘What’s that?’
    ‘That’s Nan,’ was his reply.

    • OMG You’ll need to use the, ‘That’s Nan’ line one day in a story! Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve had very mixed reaction to my decision to go on the tour- for a lot of folk it’s a case of ignorance is bliss. But like yourself, I think that anything unusual is well worth exploring. Your tours sound far more surreal than mine though!

  4. Hi Helen, This is probably the type of tour I’d want to take one day, though I admit to feeling a bit sick at the description of the actual room, peephole, etc. I think in the U.S. you can get cremated without the coffin (service is sans coffin, etc.), which at least would cut down on the cost somewhat. Ever since I went to Italy after college and saw the head of St. Catherine in Siena I’ve had this idea to write a book about religious relics (one that hasn’t been written a dozen times before of course). We’ll see if it ever happens.

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