Cremation English Style

by Patricia Carr

On September first, 2013, my father, age 100, died in Yeovil, Somerset, a pretty county town where he and my mother had lived for close on thirty years until my mother died in 2005. Both parents had opted for cremation, and on each occasion it was conducted by a funeral home at the local crematorium. Unlike the United States, where the service is separate from the cremation, in both time and place,  in England the service and initial phase of cremation are combined.

The crematorium, surrounded by a beautiful garden of flowers, shrubs and trees, has its own inter-denominational chapel, a modern, light-filled space holding perhaps 60 people comfortably. There is a courtyard in front, filled with flowers, and a covered way leads from the driveway to the door of the chapel. There is also a room adjacent to the chapel so that people can gather before and after the ceremony inside or out, depending on the weather. My mother died in February, my father in September, so we saw this location in winter and in summer.

The people at the funeral home couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful in a kindly and discreet way. We were asked what sort of service we wanted, which hymns (if any) and if there was any particular music we would like played during the interval when curtains at the side of altar open, and the coffin automatically glides on its short journey, the curtains closing before it reaches its destination. For my father, as we had for my mother, we had chosen a magnificent arrangement of flowers to be placed on top of the coffin for the service. After the curtains had closed, these were removed by people from the funeral home and put in several smaller vases which were taken to the local hospice to decorate the patients’ rooms. 

My mother had been very fond of Gilbert & Sullivan operas, and so the organist played a (not too rousing!) selection of tunes from those very popular operas. My father, on the other hand, used to drift around the house, especially in the morning when he was getting ready for the day, humming Debussy’s popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”, a very wistful sounding piece, which was perfect for the occasion.

After the service, we all went over to the Airport Tavern close by—so-called because Yeovil is home to a large Royal Navy/Fleet Air Arm station, where a wonderful buffet of hors d’oeuvres was spread out for everyone. I suspect this tavern makes as much money from the crematorium next door as it does from the military base!

A stone already existed in the garden with my mother’s name and dates on it and with space left for my father’s name and dates, to be added.

In 1969 the number of cremations exceeded those of burials and currently the proportion of cremations to burials is about 75%. For more information about the U.K. death-style, google “Burials versus Cremations U.K.” and log onto the site for Lancaster, U.K.  and “Frequently asked Questions”.