It is a sad fact that clergy are well-informed about crematoria. They can tell you which crematorium has a cafeteria attached, and which wins prizes for its gardens. They know the crematorium chapel bathed in light, and the one shrouded in sepulchral gloom. They know where the service has to be dashed through in 20 minutes and where you are allowed twice that. All this is part of the melancholy knowledge that comes with being a priest.
Crematoria have been on my mind because I have been making the arrangements for my own funeral. I have no reason to believe that I will be popping my clogs shortly. But I turned 70 this year, and it seemed time to make those thought-provoking end-of-life arrangements. Friends agreed to accept power of attorney. I made a will, appointed executors and reviewed my funeral plan. I am a Catholic priest, so the main service would be a Requiem Mass. In my case, the Mass would be followed by cremation, which raises the question of which crematorium I should choose. I limited my choice to those crematoria in London where I have taken funeral services.
An obvious choice might be Golders Green, a noble red-brick pile in the Romanesque style. At its opening in 1902 it was the first crematorium in London. Since then it has seen many celebrity funerals, including that of Sigmund Freud, whose coffin slid through the shiny brass doors in 1939. Above those doors there is an inscription: Mors Janua Vitae. Death, the Gate of Life. Each time I take a funeral there I wonder what the old atheist would have made of this hint of eternal life. Incidentally, his ashes rest there in an ancient Greek urn. The urn was damaged during an attempted burglary in January 2014. No one seems sure whether the target was the urn or if this was a secular desire for relics.
Golders Green would be a tempting choice: there is an Edwardian sumptuousness, and its polished wood pews resemble an Oxford college chapel. But the high roof and shadowy spaces give it a lachrymose air. I remove it from the list.
I can also rule out Mortlake Crematorium. It’s too far for my friends to drive and is without good transport connections. Moreover, the sign directing you to the crematorium from the North Circular Road is accompanied by an adjacent sign announcing a “Recycling and Reuse Centre”. This has never failed to disconcert me.
Nearer home there is Islington Crematorium at the St Pancras Cemetery in Finchley. Going there requires driving through the enormous cemetery. The long, winding road gives ample practice in recollection as you pass acres of graves, some of them ziggurats in marble. More recently, an Italian-style mausoleum of many niches has been created. Thankfully the crematorium chapel itself is attractive in a minimalist style, with a domed skylight creating a bright ambience. The chapel is also small and cosy. Alas, on a sunny day the same skylight can make for a sweltering congregation. The maze of roads through the cemetery can also make it difficult to find the crematorium.
Neither Marylebone Crematorium in East Finchley nor West London Crematorium at Kensal Green is really for me either. This leaves Hendon Crematorium for consideration. The crenelated mock Tudor gatehouse, the sweeping driveway, the tall oak and chestnut trees, all give the pleasing impression of arriving at a stately home. The chapel has stained glass with Christian themes. This is unusual because crematoria chapels usually have religious symbols that can be set out or removed to suit any religion or none. Truth be told, the Hendon stained glass is rather kitsch, but I like this. It creates a more homely atmosphere and moderates the dread we associate with crematoria as places of sadness and tears. The chapel might even be familiar to you, because funeral scenes for EastEnders have been filmed there.
Why, though, have I opted for cremation rather than burial? Priest friends were shocked by my choice. The Catholic Church forbade cremation for centuries and insisted on burial or interment. Cremation is now allowed, but burial is still officially the preferred option. We are made in God’s image and it was felt that cremation did not respect this dignity. In Christian teaching the body also reminds us of our resurrection hope through the bodily resurrection of Christ, and so even in death it should be treated with dignity. This is my faith too, but in our crowded cities space is at a premium, even for burials. A funeral plot is also extremely expensive: burial in a private grave in London can cost between £2,500 and £8,500, whereas a local authority will charge around £700-800 for a cremation.
In addition to faith questions, there are other reasons why families are sometimes reluctant to opt for cremation. Mourners at a cremation can be left feeling that they are part of an impersonal process. As they enter the chapel through one door, the previous family will be leaving through another. The service can feel rushed. Some crematoria are better than others and allow more time. Families should be aware that they have a choice of crematoria and do not need to accept the first suggestion of their funeral director.
Sadly, I have no close relatives, so a grave seems unnecessary and cremation still feels the better option. So: where will I advise my executors to send me? Somehow, my mind is not quite made up. I keep postponing a choice. Freud might say that this is avoidance. He would probably be right.
Fr Terry Tastard is a Catholic priest in north London