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The final journey

Updated Tuesday, 29th September 2009

Richard Wilson takes a behind the scenes look at the business of crematoriums and walks us through the ultimate final journey

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Copyright BBC

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Richard Wilson: Everyone’s final journey is carefully choreographed. With up to 200 cremations a week, it’s a military operation.

Manager: We have two chapels --

Richard Wilson: Yeah.

Manager: -- one on each side of this building --

Richard Wilson: Uh huh.

Manager: -- which is shown by the camera here and here.

Richard Wilson: Yeah

Manager: I was just making sure that there’s only, you know, one service per chapel.

Richard Wilson: Right.

Manager: And slightly staggered times of around fifteen minutes, just to make sure that we don’t have two sets of funeral cars approaching at the same time, and they’re controlled by a traffic light switch that we have here.

Richard Wilson: Uh huh, I see, and this monitor here, there’s a coffin going into the cremator there.

Manager: That’s right …

Richard Wilson: Would that be the coffin that just came down?

Manager: That would be, yes.

Richard Wilson: I see, so it’s quite quick.

Manager: It’s quite quick.

Richard Wilson: With four cremations an hour, a lot of thought has gone into avoiding potential pitfalls.

Manager: This is the chapel itself. So you have the button which is down here.

Richard Wilson: And if I press that button …

Manager: One button. You can press that, yeah.

[Presses button]

Richard Wilson: There we are.

Manager: There we are.

Richard Wilson: And so if I press this, will it open?

Manager: No, the opening process is limited to our control, just in case you accidentally lean on and open the curtains again which wouldn’t be good.

Richard Wilson: And I see there’s a sign here which says services are not to take longer than twenty-five minutes maximums.

Manager: Twenty-five minutes, which is a little bit of a, just a nudge for the clergy that don’t quite understand the time constraints that we have.

Richard Wilson: Yeah.

Manager: And you notice that can’t be seen by the public.

Richard Wilson: [Laughs]

[Music]

Richard Wilson: Speaking for myself I think less is more, so I wouldn’t want more I don’t think than twenty-five minutes. I haven’t planned my funeral, but I would expect people to have a good time. I expect there would be a party of some sort so. But I wouldn’t think it would have to necessarily be in the crematorium.

[Music]

Richard Wilson: But what happens behind the final curtain? To me, it’s just another euphemism; something has too frightening to be seen. I can’t help but wonder wouldn’t it help if we knew what happens after the curtains close.

[In the crematorium]

Richard Wilson: It is rather strange of course to realise that there’s a body in here waiting to be cremated. It’s quite a sobering thought that this is the last moment, as it were.

Crematorium manager: Okay.

[Cremator]

 

Richard Wilson: Oh!

Manager: Can you see anything interesting?

Richard Wilson: I can [laughs]. I can see a skull.

 

Manager: You can, that’s it, that’ll be the first, the first part that you see.

Richard Wilson: Right. So there’s no coffin there any more.

Manager: The coffin has mostly gone has it?

Richard Wilson: Yeah.

Manager: Let’s have a look. Well you can’t, that’s completely gone hasn’t it.

Richard Wilson: Completely gone.

Manager: Yeah. So that’s taken twenty minutes for the coffin to disappear. People can’t understand how we look at that, but you have to separate yourself. Someone has to do that job so, you know, we’ll do it as best we can.

[Music]

Richard Wilson: Curiously enough, it’s not frightening at all.

[Cremator]

Richard Wilson: That doesn’t upset me in any way. I can look at it quite dispassionately. I wasn’t expecting to see a skeleton, but it’s quite clear, and that’s just part of the process I suppose.

Richard Wilson: I’m surprised at how ordinary it all seems.

Manager: From that point, they still resemble bone; they’re not what you would call ashes. They’re taken to what we call a cremulator. In, it’s one of my words again. In essence, it’s a pulveriser. And if we follow Mick he’ll show you how it works.

Richard Wilson: Right.

[Pulveriser]

Manager: It’s almost like the drum of a tumble dryer with holes in them, in the drum, and these are ceramic balls, very heavy, and when they turn they make the crushing motion. So as you can hear there’s a, almost a grinding action.

[Machine sound]

Manager: And there you are. And that’s the ashes, the final …

Richard Wilson: So this is the ashes.

Manager: Yeah.

Richard Wilson: So this makes it much more sort of palatable in a sense, doesn’t it?

Manager: Absolutely, yes, it’s, it’s not recognisable --

Richard Wilson: As a person.

Manager: -- as a person.

Richard Wilson: There’s no bone chips or anything like that.

Manager: No, that's right.

Richard Wilson: It’s quite a hefty portion isn’t it.

Manager: Yes, yes, it’s sort of like maybe seven, eight pound. There you go.

Richard Wilson: Yes. So this was a human being, dead human being, today! Earlier?

Manager: Yes.

[Music]

Richard Wilson: From arriving in a coffin to leaving in a small blue box takes under two hours. It’s extremely efficient. But is all of death such a production line? It’s certainly big business.

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