06-08-2011 County Press
Ilse of Wight: Care and dignity at ‘The Crem’
THERE is, they say, only one certainty in life…and that is death. The probability associated with that certainty is that people don’t like talking about the subject unless they have to.
At the Island Crematorium at Whippingham, staff have been dealing with the sensitive subject for nearly half a century now and on Sunday, August 21, they open it up to the public to mark the 50th anniversary of what is popularly referred to as the crem.
The open day aims to tell people exactly what goes on.
It will include just about everyone associated in the process from undertakers to stonemasons, horse-drawn hearse displays to floral displays and bell ringing.
In the 50 years, almost 63,000 people will have passed beyond the curtain at Whippingham.
Beyond that veil is all the practical stuff to ensure there is a neat urn of ashes for families to do with as they will.
Environmental issues have made that process ever more problematic and the latest to affect the IW Council, which ultimately picks up the bill, is new cremators will have to have filtration that takes mercury out of the smoke.
It is reckoned, say the experts, three per cent of the heavy metals in our oceans come from the cremated amalgam fillings in the teeth of cadavers.
That might be seen as not especially savoury stuff, as might the fact that said cremators will have to have much wider doors to accommodate larger clients of these well-fed days.
The average sort of person takes about an hour and 45 minutes to be cremated before foreign bodies, such as hip and knee joints, are taken out before the remains are rendered to fine ash by the cremulator machine. The process can now take three hours.
There are some interesting facts and figures to come out of the bereavement services department, which is based down at Whippingham too.
On average, for every one person buried these days, seven and a half are cremated. That, and fuel price rises, contribute to the crematorium expecting to have a gas bill of more than £60,000 this year.
Did you know, for instance, that because the crematorium chapel is not consecrated, all religions and non-religious denominations can be catered-for? Except, that is Muslims or orthodox Jews, whose religions preclude cremation.
Crematorium construction started in 1960, with the foundation stone being laid by Alderman A. O. Purdy, JP, chairman of the IW Joint Crematorium Committee.
In 1961, in its first year of opening, there were 308 cremations carried out by the service. Today, the annual average is around 1,400 and up to 12 services a day can be held.
And they don’t always follow a standard format.
Bikers often like their favourite machine to be there at the end and a Honda Gold Wing is the largest to have been wheeled down the central aisle onto the dais.
One chap, associated with groundworks, arrived in the bucket of a JCB, another was transported not by hearse but in the back of a Land Rover.
At the service there is music and loved ones are given substantial latitude in the choice as long as it is within the bounds of what would not cause offence to those left behind.
Favourite choice, is, of course, Sinatra’s My Way. The Monty Python lyric "Always look on the bright side of life..." is not unknown to waft out of the chapel, as is the Crazy World of Arthur Brown classic Fire...
The whole operation is run by bereavement services manager Iain Donald, who even as a boy wanted to get into the funeral business, his deputy, Susan Campion, and cemeteries inspector Dave Harry.
They are all eager to dispel myths that have grown up from cremation: that coffins are saved-up until the end of the day, that the process is not an individual one, that coffin handles are taken off and re-used.
Those, and a good few others, are simply not true, the trio emphasise.
Ian came to the Island to join bereavement services because he could not get into the closed-shop funeral business in London; he worked his way up from a junior position and loves the job, as do his colleagues.
He loves coming to work to fill what some would see as a depressing role.
"It is not like that at all. We are in the background to help people in any way we can at a distressing time," he says.
"Most distressing of all, for everyone, us included, is the death of a baby because of all the hope and the expectation that is invested in a child.
"We do whatever we can and we are currently working with the Stillborn And Neonatal Death Society (SANDS) to improve the area of the garden of rest set aside for babies."
The garden of rest extends to a woodland walk but the sheer number of cremations means there is limited capacity for permanent memorials within the confines of the grounds.
That is not to say people are gone and forgotten.
There is a gem many people who have visited the crematorium will not have seen.
In the room where floral tributes are displayed, there nestles the Book of Remembrance and the more modern touch-screen version.
Within the vellum pages of the bound book, details are recorded in fine calligraphy, together with miniature decoration of choice, whether it be a regimental badge, a favourite flower, a tiny portrait of a favourite pet or something special for which someone was known.
Each is unique. Even the rose, the most common of motifs, has unique petals or is viewed by the artists from a slightly different perspective, whereas those who work hand in hand with death and the grieving look at things in exactly the same way.
Susan encapsulates the ethos:
"It is the last thing you are able to do for somebody — to treat them with both dignity and respect. And that is what we do."