Sunday, January 21, 2007


I’m not normally one for getting heavily stressed out at work. This week, however, I reached the limit of what I can currently cope with. January is my second month working full time at the Crematorium. Getting accustomed to that is enough for now. At the beginning of January, rather hurriedly and ill prepared, we Chapel Attendants have begun operating the music during services. On the surface this doesn’t sound a big deal, but it has been a steep learning curve for us all. At the same time I’m also learning the ropes of being a Cremator Technician. So the curve for me has been doubly steep.

In only my second full week in the Cremation Room I’m thrust into running it single- handed, without supervision. It turned out to be our heaviest week of cremations, post Christmas, with up to sixteen services a day. After the first day I was so strung out, I got no sleep that evening. This was pretty much how the week progressed, large amounts of stress, followed by small amounts of sleep. Cremating sixteen folk in a day, in eight hours, is not easy at the best of times.

On Thursday I had fifteen cremations, a third of which were obese. Fat bodies take two to two and a half hours to burn, a normal body takes an hour and a quarter. Cremating a body is dependant on body fat to get it going. Bodies that have no body fat, such as those wasted away from old age, or cancer sufferers, use more energy to get the body burning effectively. The situation with an obese body is the opposite, there is too much fat. The cremation oven easily becomes overwhelmed by the amount of heat and noxious gases being given off. Controlling this is my job. The first three bodies on Thursday morning were of this type. The first looked slightly large, judging by the coffin size. Once the coffin burned off, the body inside appeared to swell in size, soon resembling a huge Christmas pudding with limbs and a head poking out from beneath it. Dramatic rolls of smoke and flame enveloped it, for the first hour, this was all I could see. Two and a half hours later nothing was left but a few calcified bones.

So the day went on, services finished, coffins waited on racks until cremators were free. My shift was due to finish at six pm, the last coffin went in at ten past six, so I put the cremator on automatic and left it to complete its cycle. I drove back to Cambridge, met David at Tesco to do the weekly shop and came home feeling stiff, tense and emotionally strained. My sleep that night was erratic and shallow, so I awoke still bodily tense and apprehensive about the forthcoming day at work. I arrived at work not feeling too good. When my line manager politely asked me how I was, I told her. I knew I wasn’t quite my usual self. So before I knew it, the Crematorium Manager comes to see me and organises someone to help me out for the rest of the day. Inwardly I felt my tension ease and begin to relax.

I think the stress was cumulative, with quite a few weeks previous getting to grips with new working practices. The work itself, cremating bodies, is not exactly light. I think there is still some unconscious horror with what I do for a living, going on beneath my seemingly calm exterior. There is also the issue of leaving a trainee in sole charge in a busy period. There is supposed be one person every week who is the ‘floater’ who fills in and helps where needed. Recently with the new music system, he or she, has had their hands full helping Chapel Attendants gain confidence in the system. Hence why I was left holding the fort.

On a brighter note, this week was the second anniversary of David and I starting our relationship. We went out Wednesday night to Pizza Express and had a delicious pizza together. Popped into Tesco, bought a Tarte au Lemon and some double cream, and came home and indulged. Happy times before and after.

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