Death and dying have become far too medicalised — pretending it is not happening, doesn’t make it go away, writes Alison O’Connor.
MY OWN neighbourhood in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, has a wonderful annual festival. This year I decided to do one of the local tours on offer, but was quite surprised by the reaction of people to my plan.
My destination? Well our local crematorium and the guided tour which I hoped would satisfy any curiosity I might have about exactly what happens when the ceremony ends, the music starts, and the coffin disappears behind that curtain.
Well, having stood staring into the oven, or the cremator as it is called, in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross, I can confirm there is only room for one coffin at a time. There are apparently a couple of false beliefs around cremation, and one of those is that two or three coffins, and therefore bodies, get put in the oven in one go, and as a result there is no way you could get your own ashes exclusively in an urn. Others believe that the coffin does not get burnt but gets reused.
On the point of the perpetually reusable coffin, according to Alan Massey, manager of Mount Jerome Cemetery and Crematorium, it is actually always burnt because, with the intense heat, it is needed to safely put the body into the oven. A high priority is placed on keeping the ID card in sight at all times to match it with the correct ashes. At one point as he was explaining the process, and I was watching intently, I found myself leaning against a shelving unit that I realised was used for holding coffins waiting to go in to the oven. I almost expected myself to shudder when I realised what it was, but surprised myself by not being particularly bothered.
Now if you’re feeling squeamish I wouldn’t read on any further but from what I could see of the small group on my tour most people seemed to find it fascinating, myself included. I guess they wouldn’t have been there unless they wanted to know what happened during your typical cremation. At this particular crematorium after around 10 seconds the coffin will ignite with the temperature rising up to a high of 1,000C. We are all carbon based and with enough heat will eventually combust. As you can imagine the burning of the coffin creates a lot of heat and this heats up the human remains. The coffin burns within the first half an hour but the average cremation takes 80 minutes. In total it can be up to five hours before the process is complete, allowing the cremated remains to be cooled down, and then to be crushed, and the ashes put into the urn.
At the end of the cremation process what is left are brittle skeleton bones and a small amount of coffin ash. The remains are scraped out from the back of the oven. At that point they are too hot to be further processed and are placed in a cooling cabinet before being taken to an ashes processor where they are further broken down.
The remains are taken out from the back of the oven. I found it particularly interesting, although I know others would describe it as macabre, how at this point they take out all the metal, not just coffin nails but also hip or knee joints, which have not burnt.
If you are about to get, or already have, an artifical joint I guess it is quite mind boggling to think that after you die, if you plan on being cremated in Mount Jerome, this hip or knee could end up in the Netherlands. After removing them from the cremated remains they are sent to Holland to a non-profit charity where they are recycled. As a result around €6,000 is given by Mount Jerome to a number of charities and the main recipient is Our Lady’s Hospice which is practically next door to the crematorium.
From a practical point of view a low-grade, low-resin coffin works best for cremation. Irish coffins, however, are usually most suited for burial, and even if a cremation is planned, people could still spend up to €2,000 on a coffin, even though it is to be burnt.
In Ireland the average number of people who opt for cremation is 15%, while the figure is double that in urban areas, which make sense, given the location of crematoriums. Still though, I was surprised at a figure as low as 15%. It is 70% in the UK. I had thought it would be higher in Ireland, as more and more people appear to go for the cremation option in recent years. Following cremation around 50% of families opt to bury the ashes in family graves, while a further third or so are scattered. It’s easy to see the economic sense of that, given that a grave, in Dublin at least, could cost €3,000 or more, while the cost would be around €1,000, depending on where you go, for cremation and burial in an existing family grave.
During the tour Alan Massey was keen to stress the eco-friendliness of his crematorium, saying the carbon footprint created by any of us being cremated was the equivalent of a one-way flight to London, around 300kg of carbon.
At least one member of our group of 15 or so was clearly looking to the future and his eventual demise, as was clear from his line of questioning. Nobody seemed queasy or upset at what they saw, but they may have been hiding their discomfort.
When my time comes I want to be cremated. If anything, what I saw on the tour, and the demystifying of it, confirmed that for me.
It reminded me of a friend whose father is an undertaker in a small village. He said that each day he came home from school he would pop into the funeral home to see who was dead from the locality. He is incredibly at ease with being around death.
This was in stark contrast to the vast majority of people who I met before and after the crematorium tour who had great difficulty understanding why I was interested in it. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” was the standard question.
Maybe it’s a phase, or a particular stage of life I’m going through, but my own feeling was: why would I not want to do that?
Shortly after that tour, coincidentally, or maybe not, I picked up a book called The Way We Die Now, which is written by Seamus O’Mahony, a consultant gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital.
It’s a very interesting book exploring how death and dying have become far too medicalised. It does have moments of crankiness and I didn’t agree with all I read, but Dr O’Mahony raises some really valid points of how our society is in denial about death.
We simply don’t want to talk about or acknowledge the reality of death. But, as Dr O’Mahony also writes, it comes to us all, and the way things are now many of the people he encounters die in a busy, noisy hospital, surrounded by strangers.
Who knows how any of us will react when the time comes, but pretending it is not happening, doesn’t make it go away.
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