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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.