"Are you squeamish?" I hesitate, before settling on a "no, not really." Then again I've never really been up close and personal with the remains of a human being before (unless you count that school trip to the British Museum, but even then the mummies are concealed behind massive perspex boxes.) The person inquiring as to whether I'm easily nauseated is James, a crematorium officer at a relatively new cemetery in north east London.
"What people seem to think is that as soon as the curtain closes, their loved one is in the cremator and up in flames." Not so, he explains as he leads me past the red drapery and into a bright industrial-looking room. To my right is a hatch, through which the coffin is pulled off the catafalque and slid onto a trolley with its name tag. Next to the hatch is a large fridge and inside that fridge are two wooden coffins containing a 72-year old and a 90-year old. The entire room is filled with a deafening roar emanating from a large, silver unit off to the left. It is only by looking through the tiny spy hole that I realise there's a body burning while we chat. She's only been in 30 minutes but is already engulfed in a hungry mass of orange flames and collapsed coffin.
The room is surprisingly cool and odourless. Perhaps I've just got lucky there are no "decomp cases" that day, (where the decomposition process has started). James says the smell of death is unique: "It's very hard to explain, but once you've smelt it... You don't forget it."
Legally, they can't deal with the remains until the final flame is extinguished. The remains are then raked and cooled off in a separate compartment while the next coffin is charged. James has only worked here a year but has noticed some unusual objects among the bones. "Not long after I started there was an elderly lady in there, but when I looked through the spy hole I saw a hand sticking up — not something you expect. At the end of the cremation, we pulled out a two-foot porcelain doll, all her hair had gone but she still had paint on her face. We had to ring the funeral directors and tell them to please check their coffins as something like that could damage our machines." Cremators don't come cheap, costing upwards of £300,000. But that hasn't stopped TV remotes, 'World's Best Dad' mugs, cameras and all sorts ending up in coffins — once even a bible emerged unscathed. Usually, objects will remain intact because it's made from an incredibly durable material or because there's no oxygen in that part of the coffin.
We move to the Cremulation Room. On the table is a tray; its contents remind me of bleached coral. All that's left are the brittle bones of what was once a living, breathing being. These are then put through a tumble-drier-like machine filled with metal balls, which crush the calcium into the grey, powdered shards you'll recognise if you've ever scattered ash or peered into an urn. In the corner of the room, James puts his hand into a blue wheelie bin and rummages around its ashy innards. Anything that can be pulled out of the deceased with a magnet ends up here. For some reason, the clink of metal and surgical titanium rattles me more than the tray of human remains opposite. He picks up two bits of a steel hip joint "this will sit in the pelvis and rotate," he says before pointing out melted fillings, knee joints, copper from coins and Kirpan blades left behind from Sikh funerals. All of which will be sent to a company in Holland who melt it down and recycle it. "Obviously, the family can opt out and we'll give it back to them."
"One thing you never do is try and tell people you understand. We both may have experienced a bereavement but that doesn't mean we can share that bond. You can only appreciate, take the time to listen and offer a dignified, sensitive service." — Harry
James is chatty, enthusiastic and clearly as interested in living people as he is knowledgeable about the dead. Working at the crematorium has given him an insight into different religious practices. Traditionally, Sikh funerals are a celebration of life and they believe grieving at the funeral will stop the soul progressing. In India, funeral pyres are standard but you can organise a trip to the Thames if you didn't fancy the trek to the Ganges. "We try to limit the number of distressing things people see but we do have witness cremations, where Sikh and Hindus will watch us charge". I imagine James finds it harder to do his job when family members are watching. "Do you really want your last thought of your loved one to be of me pushing them into a cremator?" He says. "It's not very ceremonial, we need to push the coffin with quite a bit of force... especially when there's someone a bit heavy."
The FT2 cremator can take a 32-inch coffin but some stretch to 46 inches to accommodate an increasingly overweight population. On average people take around 90 minutes to be cremated. "The longest I've seen was three and a half hours. This guy arrived in a solid wood coffin, he was a lorry driver or something, so a pretty big guy with lots of muscle and fatty tissue." Other factors such as how the person died can impact how quickly they take to be cremated. Apparently, cancer is as aggressive in death as it is in life: "We always find that if someone has a lot of high-end cancer or tumours then it takes longer to burn it all off. In some cases, we can add more air to speed up the process but generally, we don't interfere."
You'd think cemetery staff would be jaded, humourless, depressed even, but the staff here are instantly open and inviting. Perhaps dealing with grieving people on a daily basis equips them with a heightened understanding of people's emotions. "Certainly you have to be able to read people". Harry, the cemetery and crematorium manager tells me. "You have to have a lot of empathy to work here. This is the last thing you can do for someone so you can't really have an off day."
Having previously worked in retail, Harry sees the two industries as poles apart. He sees his role as one based on interaction rather than transaction. "It's very hard to predict how many people will turn up to a funeral, we've had one person, we've had 500 people, but you never lose that sensitivity, you never get complacent. We're legitimately trying to help people, so you have to be professional but you have to have a certain level of emotional strength." One thing you never do is try and tell people you understand. We both may have experienced a bereavement but that doesn't mean we can share that bond. You can only appreciate, take the time to listen and offer a dignified, sensitive service."
Around 77% of all deaths in the UK end in cremation because it's cheaper, easier and it means you don't have to buy a grave. In London, the scarcity of burial space has led to the controversial 'lift and deepen' technique. After 75 years following the last burial, the remains can legitimately be dug up (lifted) and a deeper grave dug (deepened), the remains are then put back and the ground above is reused for another burial. Currently, there's a big hoo-ha about this practice in Southwark led by the Friends of Camberwell Cemetery group.
In the summer months, Harry's team might have one burial a week and charge around six to seven coffins a day. James says Fridays are busier, just because it's easier for people to get Fridays off work. They find their work load shoots up in winter: "The elderly don't cope so well in the cold and people struggle to afford heating bills, so they end up passing away. Last year February was mad, we'd have eight on a Monday, 10 on a Tuesday, six on a Wednesday, just really high numbers and a lot of reopeners — say the husband is already buried, we'll re-open the grave and put the wife in."
The reason you won't see black smoke billowing from a cremator's chimney? All crematoriums have to adhere to emissions regulations, so there are actually two burners: one for the coffin and one to burn off all the smoke, gas and CO2 released from the coffin, which is then dispersed at 15m. Both burners have to be above 850 degrees by law. This ensures everything bad for the environment gets burnt off before it leaves the stack. James says people tend to choose wicker coffins as an eco-friendly alternative, and indeed all the literature points to this fact, but James says they are worse for emissions than the standard wood coffin. "They're also a pain for us because they have to be sprayed with water to stop them igniting as soon as the cremator door is open."
Similarly, you might think burying remains is good for the ground, it's not: "We've got biodegradable urns, but there's no nutritional value whatsoever left in the remains themselves. It just sits in the ground until it rots away, which takes years and years. Once cremated remains are in the ground we can't move them, you have to do a full exhumation order." This involves writing to the Ministry of Justice, which is a lengthy process with a hefty price tag.
At this time of year, the cemetery is colourful with flowers, ornaments, photos; there are public watering cans that have been filled up by the hands of many hundreds of mourners. From the top of the hill, you can see the skyscrapers that have left their mark on London's skyline. After I leave James to attend a service, I wander around the grounds, reading the messages of remembrance, noting the untended graves, imagining what mark had that person left behind other than this unadorned headstone.
Generally, we like to keep death at arm's length, so having to deal with this scene on a daily basis must be overwhelming? "You do get used to death quite quickly," says James, "The way I like to look at it is I'm providing a service for that family. And if I can make that family feel calm and more at ease and make that goodbye as dignified as humanly possible, then I can walk away happy." But he acknowledges there is an emotional toll that comes with the job. "Kids are the worst, no child should die, I'm 26 now — anyone younger than yourself is difficult, it puts things into perspective."
Having stepped behind the curtains and got to know death's intimate details, does James know how he'd like to go? "To be honest it doesn't bother me at all," he laughs, "I think the job has kind of changed my perspective. You're dead and that's it. Obviously, we treat every single person that comes through here with the utmost respect. But for me personally, I'll be dead, I'm not going to know."
Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals interviewed.