Allistair Anderson from the City of London cemetery explains why discretion and professionalism are so important in his line of business, as is a good sense of humour.
Outside the north chapel of the City of London cemetery and crematorium in east London, a single magpie hops around on the grass. Close by, a family is waiting for Allistair Anderson, the cemetery's senior crematorium officer, to go through arrangements for a forthcoming funeral with them.
A couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s, are accompanied by a younger woman and want to check their DVD of pictures will run smoothly on the huge screen at the front of the chapel. I assume the deceased will be an elderly relative, but from the titles on the first picture I realise with shock that he was three years younger than me.
Judging by the pictures it looks like he has had an amazing life – a sun-kissed childhood, adventures in rock climbing, skiing, white water rafting, worldwide travel, followed by marriage to the younger woman who is now sitting in a rear pew sobbing. Why should someone with such an enchanted life have died so young?
Once the family have gone I ask Anderson if he ever wants to know about the circumstances of his clients' deaths. "Sometimes I'm curious, especially when they are young or children," he says. "A member of the family might tell us what has happened, but we would never ask. It has no bearing on the service we provide to them."
I had tears welling up at the obvious distress of the young widow. How does Anderson cope with the emotion around him all day long? "You can empathise with the families for their loss. But you have to stop yourself being caught up so you do a proper job for them. You need to remain professional."
Anderson and his three colleagues work split shifts, with those who start early responsible for unlocking the buildings, getting the chapels (there are five) ready for the day's services, pre-heating the cremators to a temperature of 850C and sorting out paperwork. Cremations involve more paperwork and checking than burials: three doctors are required to verify the cause of death, for example, compared with two for a burial. "You can't dig the body up if there are any doubts," he points out.
The first funeral of the day in the north chapel is at 10.30am. As the hearse pulls up outside, Anderson walks out to greet the undertakers. He checks the identity of the person in the coffin against the details he has, then after the mourners have filed into the chapel he, one of his colleagues and two undertakers lift the coffin on to their shoulders and walk slowly in unison into the chapel, placing the coffin on a platform which is actually a lift that will eventually drop 70ft underground to the crematorium.
"We are occasionally asked to shoulder the coffin: maybe because one of the undertakers has been held up in traffic or because a member of the family who thought they wanted to be a bearer decides against it on the day," he says.
Anderson says more people are now wanting to get involved in the service – such as the family bringing in their DVD. "The families have hired this space for half an hour, and they can do what they like within that time, provided it doesn't break health and safety rules," he says.
Coffin art is becoming popular: some now have the deceased's favourite photo printed on the outside – Anderson recalls one bearing a picture of a glorious sunset at Glastonbury. And at least one funeral a day involves a horse-drawn hearse (my personal preference when I go).
Then there is the music: "We have downloaded Marilyn Manson, and a funeral yesterday used The Final Countdown, by Europe," says Anderson, who admits he often finds himself humming Amazing Grace and The Lord Is My Shepherd when off duty. "The one I really can't stand is Wind Beneath My Wings by Bette Midler. The words are fantastic but I've heard it too often."
At the end of service the coffin is lowered down to the cremators and, after the mourners have departed, we follow the coffin downstairs.
The area where the four cremators are kept is quiet, bright and spotless. The first cremator we see – the newest model which has extra filtration chambers to make sure no residue is passed into the air – is at work on a coffin from the previous day.
Anderson explains that previously all four cremators were kept hot every day, but to keep CO2 emissions down the chapel now tries to limit use to one or two cremators. This means, though, that some coffins may be held over to the day after the funeral service.
What does he think about the idea of energy from a cremator being used to heat a swimming pool? "Well, it's not the first thing I would have thought of, but I'm glad the waste of heat is now being discussed," he says.
Now for the gory bit (please skip the next few paragraphs if you are squeamish). Anderson explains that bigger, fatter bodies provide more fuel for the cremator, causing the temperature to rise. After a while, when the fat has burned off, fuel must be added to keep the contents burning briskly. If the body is burning very quickly, the amount of air being fed into the oven is reduced to calm the process.
It is best to dress a body in a simple cloth gown, Anderson says, but most relatives choose their loved one's favourite clothes, or a smart suit or wedding dress: "There's nothing to stop them wearing rubber fishing gear if they want, but that's really bad for our emissions."
Owing to a fall in the death rate there has been a downturn in cremations – from 5,000 a year to 2,700 last year – in the 11 years since Anderson has worked here; it is expected to increase again from 2015. But he has noticed an increase in the size of bodies. The new cremator is extra wide to allow for coffins that are 46in wide at the shoulders, compared with the 31in maximum width of the older furnaces.
Through the small glass window at the front of the cremator, surrounded by a glow of orange flame, I can make out the shape of a body. Except that it seems to be a body made up of lumps of lava – nothing like a human being. "That's because you are seeing the coffin, which has collapsed on top of the body," Anderson says.
Bodies normally take about 90 minutes to burn completely, but this particular one is still alarmingly lumpy at the end. The technician trying to remove it thinks it was possibly a homeless person who had been frozen while the authorities tried to contact relatives. No one turned up to the service.
The remains, bits of metal and bigger bones – I can see vertebrae, a bit of skull and what looks like a hip – are raked into a container underneath the oven to cool off. The technician wears thick gloves and uses a rake with a 15ft handle, but still the heat coming out of the open door is tremendous.
Anderson sweeps a few scraps of ash into a dustpan and wheels the next coffin forward. As soon as it starts moving into the cremator it catches light with a flash of flame.
Once the remains are cool enough, the metal container is lifted out and taken to a side room which holds the cremulator, a machine that pulverises the remaining bones into ash. Metal staples and screws from the coffin, plus hip and knee replacements, fall to the bottom and are set aside. Such joints are usually made out of valuable metal and are sold on, with the proceeds going to charity.
The ashes, which weigh from 8lb-10lb, are then put in a plastic bag and held in dark blue cardboard boxes, ready for relatives to collect. If they fail to contact the crematorium within three months the ashes are dispersed in the cemetery grounds. Nevertheless, there are row upon row of dark blue boxes, dating back as far as 1976, which are being stored on request.
Anderson was working as an undertaker when he saw the job at the crematorium advertised, and was attracted by the offer of a house – right in the middle of the cemetery. The reaction of his then-wife was dubious ("Oh my God, what have we done?" he recalls her exclaiming as they drove to the gates with their son for the first time). But the cemetery proved a great place to raise children – lots of open space, and completely safe.
Anderson's second wife and their four children live at a house down the road – more to do with the size of the family rather than fear of living in a cemetery, he assures me.
It has been a very reassuring experience interviewing Anderson, and seeing him and his colleagues at work. They admit there is a certain amount of gallows humour shared at work – necessary to alleviate the intense emotion they are surrounded by. But I have only seen them quiet, calm and considerate with the bereaved families. They are empathetic, kind and professional, and they treat the ultimate customers – the deceased – with the utmost respect.
As Anderson says: "No one would think when they leave school 'I want to work in a crematory'. But it is an honourable job."