One of the principal crematoria used by Hammersmith & Fulham Council has been garlanded with awards.
Mortlake Crematorium gives the most exceptional customer service in the UK, with chapel attendant Steve Biggs crowned crematorium assistant of 2016 – accolades which recognise the teamwork involved in the smooth running of each funeral service.
The crematorium, designed in 1937 and officially opened in January 1939, was built for the old Hammersmith Council, and remains one of the key crematoria for residents’ funerals.
The rose garden was recently restored, and the formally landscaped circle at the front returned to its original 1939 design.
But what goes on behind the scenes, and what is the role of a chapel attendant?
Steve’s background is intriguing. He has only been in the role three and a half years, though wife Vicky, who works at Epsom cemetery, has been in the business a lot longer.
Before that, Steve, 44, was a retail manager at Homebase for 20 years.
“Vicky reckoned I’d be good at the job,” explained Steve. “You have to have a degree of empathy. If you provide the best service you can then it eases the family into facing the future without their loved one.”
Steve’s mantra is to make every funeral service as smooth and pristine as the first of the day (and there can be 13 on a busy day).
His role is to oversee services in the chapel, show families around so they are familiar with the building ahead of the funeral, liaise with the minister, explain everything to the bereaved, oversee the music and keep everything on time.
Steve, who lives in Walton and has two stepdaughters and a son, loves his job and really appreciates the thanks that he gets from grieving families if he has helped lay on a professional and well-run ceremony.
“I come from a retailing background, where people would ask ‘Where’s the white paint?’ and maybe say ‘Thanks’ if you were lucky,” he said.
“But here people thank you for organising a lovely service, and the warmth and reality of their thanks took me by surprise when I started. It’s genuinely meant.”
He was delighted to be named the UK’s crematorium assistant of 2016, but insisted: “While it is really nice to get an award, you do this job to make each funeral the best possible, rather than to win prizes.”
Few ceremonies are as emotional as the funeral following the death of a child. “Often the hardest are where a child has died after, say, a stillborn,” said Steve. “It can sometimes be just mum, dad, the minister and me.”
But in many ways, the death of lonely older people can be just as affecting, Steve added.
He had only been in the post for four weeks when he was the chapel attendant for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.
But it was the one that followed immediately after the crowds had left that struck a particular chord with Steve.
“It was just me and the minister,” he said, adding that a surprising number of people in their mid-50s to mid-70s died without any family, friends or neighbours attending.
Organised by the local authority, there are usually one or two of these funerals every week at Mortlake.
Steve always makes a point of sitting in for those funerals, selecting what he hopes is appropriate music while the minister says a few words and prayers, even though nothing is known about the deceased.
“We always have a few moments silence to reflect,” said Steve. “Each funeral is still done properly and with dignity.”
Steve has built up a good relationship with all the funeral directors in Hammersmith & Fulham, and admires the way they help each other out in a way that he says would have been alien in the retail trade.
“The funeral directors help one another,” he said. “For example, if one is a pall-bearer short because he’s been stuck in traffic, they’ll be lent one!”
Technically, coffins become the Crematorium’s responsibility once they are driven through the gates of Mortlake Crematorium, and it is responsible for the legal processes and the smooth running of the crematorium equipment – all housed in a scrupulously clean and well-maintained area behind the chapel.
One curiosity is a box containing artificial hip joints, which are made of such high-grade medical metal than even temperatures of more than 1,200C will not damage them. Mortlake Crematorium is part of a national scheme, and bereaved families give permission for the metals to be recycled, with the money going to local bereavement charities. This year, £4,444 was given to the Stillbirth & Neonatal Death Charity, while £4,347 was given to the West London branch of the Prevent Dementia Charity.
The crematorium, which has a full staff complement of 10, has its own dovecote, with eight snow-white doves in residence.
Being a chapel attendant has changed Steve’s outlook… but not in ways he could have foreseen.
“It hasn’t changed my attitude to death, but it has altered my attitude to life,” he said. “I’m much more laid back; if I’m driving home and a car cuts me up, I’m relaxed about it. I sometimes find it difficult to recognise myself!
It has also expanded his knowledge and appreciation of music.
“The more I listen to classical music, the more I love it,” he admitted. In fact, he’s more likely to play a symphony in his car than his former choice of 80s disco.
Steve, whose other claim to fame is that he and his wife were champions on the quiz show Pointless, said: “My aim is to make each family feel that the 40 minutes they spend in the crematorium is the only 40 minutes of the day,” he said. “And if I’m unseen, I’ve done my job.”
- The awards picked up by the Mortlake team in the past weeks are the 2016 Wesley trophy for outstanding service (collected at the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management awards by superintendent Natasha Bradshaw), runner-up in the Good Funeral Awards national crematorium of the year category and crematorium assistant of 2016, won by Steve Biggs (a statuette in a coffin-shaped box).
For more details, visit Mortlake's Crematorium website.