The crematorium and after: A London cemetery opened its doors to the public for the first time to reveal the facts of death. Report by Sandra Barwick. Photographs by Dillon Bryden

Sandra Barwick
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:27

What happens to loved ones after relatives have paid their last respects?

I want plumes,' said Hilary Dane, black straw hat in one hand. 'I intend to die in 20 years' time, and I want to be

cremated. How much would it all cost? In front of her on the shorn grass of the City of London cemetery were two high-stepping, jet-black Friesian horses, ostrich feathers nodding on their sensitive heads, attached to an engraved glass coach with space for a single coffin.

David Pilkington, funeral assistant with T Cribb & Sons, considered the question. 'The horses are pounds 575, he said. 'You'd be looking at pounds 1,000 for one car and a hearse and a basic coffin and disbursements - the doctor's fee and the ministry fee and the cremation fee and gratuities. Maybe around pounds 1,700 with the horses.

Even death does not deliver you from paying tips. It was to deliver revelations such as this that the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, near Manor Park in E12, held its first public open day on Sunday.

Part of its purpose was to lay to rest cynical stories about cremation. Do you really get your own ashes back? Or do they just scoop a few handfuls out of a huge heap? Is it true that sometimes the coffin you paid for never gets burnt - dodgy crematorium workers extract the body just before it goes in and put the box back on the market?

Another part of the open day's purpose seemed to be a soft-sell marketing exercise, a sort of dignified Ideal Tomb Show. You could try your hand at chiselling your own epitaph in Portland stone. You could choose the casket to fit your personality, from a modest folding cardboard coffin (from pounds 120) to a glossy white one made of 18-gauge steel, hermetically sealed, with ornate handles, a half-opening lid, a sort of padded duvet, and an adjustable bed for that final rest (retail price anything from pounds 800).

This is the last gasp of our consumer society. Death and money are inextricably linked, as they were in the Victorian era. Best look at it now, for in the shock of grief few can face shopping around. In the City of London Cemetery, which is non-profit making and subsidised by the Corporation of London, a new grave plot costs pounds 741. That will take two people, with a re-opening fee for the second. There is three and a half years of unused space left. Book now, and cheat inflation.

For that, of course, you are buying only a kind of lease on the ground. It is not yours. Seventy-five years after your bones have been laid to rest, if none of your relatives are around to object, your tombstone can be wrenched out and a stranger join you in the bunk above, as in a British Rail sleeping carriage. Of second-hand space of this kind, there is no shortage.

Then there are the Victorian catacombs. 'Creepy] said one woman, staring into their cool stone depths. British prejudice has made this kind of entombing, in stacked stone cells sealed by a marble plaque, a commercial disaster - only 98 of the 275 spaces have been sold in 130 years. They seemed tranquil and pleasant to me: around pounds 1,200 per space.

Don't put away your cheque book yet. There is still the gravestone to consider. Under the roof of the hideous modern crematorium building in the City of London Cemetery, Colin Winzar, of East City Memorials, was standing by samples of polished granite and gilded letters. 'Black granite's the most popular, he said. 'Your average stone's around pounds 500, depending on how many letters you have. It costs pounds 1.20 for each gilded letter. 'There was one fellow, said Mr Winzar, 'who had so much writing, we almost put PTO on the bottom.

Then there is a permit fee to be paid for the mere privilege of putting up a stone, from pounds 40 to pounds 150, depending on the local authority or church.

Cremation does not use land. It is cheaper. The stone tablets and caskets are smaller. The ashes are often scattered somewhere free. About 70 per cent of those who die in this country are cremated, and many in the business of death have found this a blow to their cash-flow.

But they are fighting back. A copy of Bulletin, the newspaper for memorial masons, was lying beside the catacombs. 'Marketing to the Cremation Client ran one headline. The author of the piece had been round his local cemeteries, suggesting places where ashes could be tucked in, and 'the appropriate fee. . .for the burial of ashes, purchase of a plot and right to erect a memorial. . .I stressed the income they were missing due to the lack of consideration in this area.

Down in the bowels of the City of London crematorium, visitors gazed spellbound into the ovens. They were still slightly warm. Here 46 bodies a day used to be burnt, with a ceremony in each of two chapels every 20 minutes, until congestion forced the numbers to be cut to two ceremonies every 30 minutes. There are ranks of video screens in the office to ensure that everything goes like clockwork.

There are seven individual ovens - and the ashes really are individual. Bodies are usually burnt within 15 minutes of coming down the lift from the chapels. And those who want to watch to make sure that the coffin really does go in too can observe the whole procedure from two glassed-in viewing rooms. 'We used to let people down here, said Michael Chambers, an employee. 'Some in the Asian community like to keep a hand on the coffin till it goes in. But it's 800C in there; you get the coffin in two feet and it ignites. We had to stop it.

The City of London's cremation fees are around pounds 170, including the use of the chapel and the right to strew the ashes in a garden of rest, part of the cemetery from which old gravestones have been removed. Two of Jack the Ripper's victims are buried here, but no trace of them remains above ground.

Round the visitors went, from chapel to grave, to the old crematorium (due to be refurbished to meet EC regulations), to the catacombs. At 4pm they began to drift away. Around 2,000 had visited, but some of those with relatives buried in the cemetery were upset by the whole idea of an open day.

'I think its disrespectful, said Doreen Hubbard. 'It's morbid. It's not the sort of place you should be going for a day out. But all those I spoke to seemed reflective. 'I thought one day I'd have to bury Mum or Dad, or make arrangements for myself, said Victor Ariyibi, from Newham. 'It's been really interesting.

Hilary Dane, all enquiries made, strode briskly towards the exit and her home in Fulham. 'It struck me as a brilliant opportunity to find out what was available, she said. 'I wanted to be buried under a rhododendron. Now the soil here is very good for that. I shall have rhodenderom fragrantissima, I think.

PLOT PRICES Standard size 6ft6in x 2ft6in.

Highgate Cemetery Swain's Lane, Highgate N6 (081-340 1834). From pounds 1,500 for a basic plot to five figures for a brick-vaulted sepulchre. Right of burial 70 years. Prices vary depending on site.

Hither Green Cemetery Verdant Lane, Catford SE6 (081-697 2555). pounds 636 basic or pounds 687 for plot near a pathway. pounds 739 for a full memorial grave (headstone, kerbstones etc) Fees quadrupled for non-residents and those who have lived in the Lewisham for less than 10 years.

Kensal Green Cemetery Harrow Rd, W10 (081-969 0152). pounds 910 standard charge, including digging fees, but plots are for 999 years.

Merton & Sutton Joint Cemetery Garth Road, Lower Morden, Surrey (081-545 3666). Residents of Merton or Sutton pay pounds 362.40, but if either deceased or purchaser live outside both boroughs, pounds 710 including digging fees. Right of burial 75 years.

St Pancras Cemetery High Road, East Finchley, N2 (081-883 1231). pounds 621 standard for Camden residents, others pounds 1,205. Full memorial (7ftx3ft) pounds 1,522 for residents, pounds 2,876 for non-residents. Right of burial 60 years.

Streatham Park Cemetery Rowan Road, Streatham Vale, SW16 (081-764 2255). pounds 1,000 for plot with headstone. pounds 1,150 for headstone with full memorial grave. Right of burial 30 years.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments