Burial is no longer the default option. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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In small communities beyond our cities, the undertaker is always a jack of all trades

Cremation is our most popular mode of dealing with mortal remains: around three-quarters of British funerals are now held at crematoriums, a sea change from sixty years ago, when burial was the default option.

Midway through surgery I get a call from Peter, a GP at a nearby practice. “Hi, Phil. Can you do a Part Two for me?”

It’s on an 80-year-old patient of his, Brenda Roy, who has passed away at ten to one that morning. Peter gives me a summary: she went through the chemotherapy mill after lymphoma was diagnosed last year; when the disease recurred, she decided she’d had enough and declined further active treatment.

“She’s at Francis Kennearly’s. I’ll leave the paperwork there.”

Cremation is our most popular mode of dealing with mortal remains: around three-quarters of British funerals are now held at crematoriums, a sea change from sixty years ago, when burial was the default option. Worldwide, cremation rates vary markedly, reflecting cultural and religious traditions. Burial is virtually unheard of in Japan, whereas in strongly Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy cremation follows fewer than two in every ten deaths. Practical considerations play their part, too: cremation in the west is most frequent in cities, where cemetery plots are often in short supply.

From a UK jurisprudence perspective, cremation entails the permanent loss of potential forensic evidence. To guard against miscarriages of justice, two medical practitioners must complete a form that is scrutinised by an independent referee. The first part is filled in by the doctor who cared for the deceased. “Part Two” must be given to a practitioner with no prior involvement in the case.

Peter practises in a large village set among rolling hills, a long way from any A-roads. It is not especially picturesque; it’s a working community with few holiday and weekend cottages, and the local businesses and shops are still thriving. Francis Kennearly has been the undertaker here for twenty-odd years. The door of his funeral parlour is locked when I arrive. I ring him on his mobile, and it’s a somewhat dusty Frank who gets out of his van a few minutes later. Although he conducts virtually all the funerals in the village, there aren’t enough to keep his own body and soul together, so he undertakes various other jobs on the side. Today, I’ve interrupted him plastering someone’s living room.

He takes me inside and I perform a brief examination of the deceased, confirming her identity and excluding neglect or foul play in the absence of any obvious signs. In truth, it’s a redundant exercise. Frank gives me a swift run-down of Brenda’s life story, family connections and notable contributions to the village. He’s always known his deceased personally, often for many years, and nothing untoward would make it past his eye. His trusted place in his community has more than a little to do with the affection and respect he always shows towards the recently departed.

Following the Harold Shipman affair – in which the GP serial killer repeatedly evaded the checks in previous cremation certification procedures – the Part Two doctor is now obliged to make additional inquiries of someone who nursed the deceased during his or her final illness. This can be delicate when it is a family member: something about asking whether there was anything untoward about the way their loved one died generates an undercurrent of suspicion no matter how carefully the question is phrased. Again, Frank proves invaluable, not only tracking down Brenda’s daughter (she wasn’t on the number Peter had given me) but putting her at ease before handing the phone across. The only thing she has to tell me is how fantastically well Peter and his district nursing colleagues cared for her mother.

Part Two completed, I pop next door to the village shop to get some lunch. The assistant and the customer in front are ruefully discussing Brenda’s demise. The news has spread quickly; they even know the time of death. Living and dying in such a close-knit place might be too claustrophobic for some, but there is a connectedness and belonging here that seems the very essence of community, something increasingly rare in this country of ours.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.