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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
glasnevin cemetery

'What I've learned from working in a crematorium for 33 years'

“Down through the years I’ve seen some really tragic cases … It can be hard.”


JOHN CAMPBELL HAS BEEN been working at Glasnevin Cemetery since 1979.

He started his time there as a gravedigger before applying to become a technician in the Republic’s first crematorium, which opened at the cemetery in 1982.

He is now the longest-serving member of staff there.

“I was actually out of work at the time and a neighbour of mine, Mr Reilly, he used to worked here in the cemetery and he was retiring. In those days in Glasnevin Cemetery everybody was related in the job here – they were all brothers, uncles, brothers-in-law – it was a family job.”

Mr Reilly had no one to replace him and got John an interview, which went well.

“At the time I didn’t really intend staying that length of time,” he recalls – 36 years on.

He notes that initially there was resistance to the opening of a crematorium, with some people viewing it as un-Catholic.

At the time it was very different because there was only one crematorium in Ireland – that was in Belfast. So I decided I’d have a go at this. A lot of people at the time would have thought ‘Oh, you’re off your rocker – cremation will never take off in Ireland, being such a Catholic country’ and all this carry on. As it turned out they were proven wrong. It was very much the opposite.

John says a lot of “falsities” about what went on at crematoriums, such as rumours the coffins had false bottoms and were resold after the bodies were taken out, were doing the rounds.

“They knew the bodies were getting burned, but they thought we were flogging the coffins back … and making a fortune.”

In the early days there were fellas in the pub adding little bits and pieces (to the rumours): ‘Oh, your man was telling me this and your man was telling me that.’ Then he’d go on and tell somebody else and he’d add his little party piece to it.

“The other one was ‘Oh, what do you do with the gold teeth?’ and all this ridiculous stuff from people who wanted to wind things up.”

John notes that about 300 people from the south were cremated in Roselawn Crematorium in Belfast per year before the Glasnevin facility opened.

He tells us that in the first few years the crematorium was primarily used by members of the Church of Ireland, noting: “We didn’t do very many Catholics in the beginning … a few years later the Catholic Church gave its blessing that cremations were okay and then all of a sudden it started to increase.”

About 150 cremations were carried out in the year it opened.

John says this figure peaked at 1,600-1,700 a year in late ’90s and early 2000s. Currently about 20-30 cremations take place there every week (about 1,300 per year).


The process has now become computerised, but technicians are trained to use the machine manually in case a technical fault occurs.

“It’s all gone automated, it’s all computerised now. When I started off first we had two cremators and they were manually operated, which means then obviously you had to physically turn on the burners, turn them off. You had to introduce air, so much air into the chamber, you had to do everything. Whereas now you go to the computer and you put in a programme and the computer takes over … Then again, if the computer goes down you still have to know how to operate it manually.”

It’s manual or automatic, but as the fella says ‘You don’t hire a taxi and walk behind it’ – we go automatic most of the time.

John notes that the process generally takes about an hour-and-a-half, but longer for a person who is overweight.

You may have to extend the programme if it’s a large person … a lot of people nowadays are a bit bigger than they used to be years ago. You hear all this talk now about people being obese and all that, but they are actually getting bigger and it is actually taking us longer to cremate people. Size-wise the machine can only take a certain size of coffin.

Cremators are now being built to cater for larger coffins.

“The machines are like all machines – like cars, every few years there’s a newer model brought out with some new features in it,” John adds.

Why do people choose cremation?

John says that while a cremation is a bit cheaper than a traditional burial, cost is not the only reason more and more people are choosing to be cremated.

He says younger people seem to be more likely to be cremated, but families of older people are also opting for it.

“We got a lady the other day who was 102 years old. It’s across the board.”

The crematorium caters for all religions and none.

We get an awful lot of services in here and there’s no religious context at all … it’s just readings of poetry and maybe a bit a music, or a family member might read a eulogy. You’re nearly doing more of those now than religious ones. You usually find now that it’s the older generation, the real older generation, that’s hanging on to the religion, and for the younger generation it’s immaterial really.

John notes that the average cost for a cremation at the cemetery is €600-700 if the ashes are given back to the family for private disposal. The cost increases depending on the type of urn chosen and whether or not the ashes are being interred in the cemetery walls or in the Garden of Remembrance.

A lot of people nowadays are actually taking the ashes away with them, but after about six months or so they’re inclined to come back with them because they’re probably sitting at home looking at the urn and saying ‘What do I do now?’ It’s bringing back memories and things like that. Whereas when they come up here and have them interred in the wall or the garden it’s somewhere for them to come. They’re secure here.

John notes that many people also fear the ashes being stolen or inadvertently scattered during a break-in or accident.

An average day at work

John starts work at about 7.30am. The first thing he has to do is “fire up the chamber”.

“The chamber has to be brought up to a certain temperature before we can put a coffin into it. The main chamber must be 550 degrees centigrade (Celsius) and the two secondary chambers must be 850 degrees centigrade.”

This process only takes a few minutes.


The number of cremations on any given day can vary widely.

“Last Wednesday we had nine, the following day we only had three. I think the most we had on one day here was 18,” John tells us.

Is the crematorium like a conveyor belt?

“You do your best to try and personalise it, but you’re under such pressure then from the family (outside). The family are inside having their service and they’re oblivious to what’s going on outside – they think they’re the only funeral here today. Meanwhile, three or four people could be outside waiting to come in and they’re getting anxious because things are getting held up so you have to be very diplomatic and careful in how you approach people and you sort of try and persuade them to leave.

You can’t exactly go up and say ‘Right, your time is up, out you go.’ You have to be very careful about that. It is very difficult to do – you’re trying to give people their time and be respectful to them and give them their bit of space. Then you have the other family outside having a go at you because they’re being delayed. You’re trying to balance it. Everyone understands, but just when people are dealing with bereaved people they’re very sensitive and you just have to be very careful of how you approach them – even the expression on your face … You watch your P’s and Q’s, as the fella says.

What kind of music do people like to play?

We went through a spell of Time to Say Goodbye, that was like the national anthem here at one stage. You could have ten cremations and I’d guarantee you ten Time to Say Goodbyes.

Some other popular choices are The Rose (made famous by Bette Midler), songs by Gábor Szabó and Pachelbel’s Canon – brought to a wider audience by One Million Dubliners – a critically-acclaimed documentary about the cemetery.

theLonerboyie / YouTube

Does he ever get emotional at cremations?

“No. I’ve blocked it all out … I’m hardened to it over the years,” he says, before adding that he still finds it sad when the service is for a child.

Down through the years I’ve seen some really tragic cases here. We did a lot of people from the Air India disaster – nearly 90 to 100. We’ve seen car accidents and the lot. It can be hard. When you’re here all day and you’re dealing with it every day of the week and you’re dealing with it a number of times a day… I go out the gate there and just leave it all behind, forget about it. Up my way if somebody dies I don’t even go to the church. I’ll see the family and I’ll sympathise with them, but I wouldn’t go the funeral. I’ve seen enough, end of story. I don’t want to be carrying it outside. People might think that’s hard or bad but that’s my way of dealing with it.

John believes there should be an age limit of three years on children getting cremated, but adds: “That’s my personal opinion, I wouldn’t impose it on anybody.”

He would prefer if younger children were buried in the Angels plot at the cemetery.

John says it can be difficult to know what to do when grieving parents come, sometimes alone, to cremate a young child or baby.

“You’re a parent yourself, you’re trying to understand what they’re going through … What do you say to them? You just leave them be.”

John has worked at cremations for relatives, neighbours and colleagues.

“You come in and do your job, you knuckle down and you just don’t look at that end of it, you know. People have often said that to me ‘How do you cope with someone that you know?’ Neighbours and things like that. I’ve actually cremated a neighbour and brought her home that night and handed her to her husband.”

John says his job is “very interesting” as he gets to meet diverse groups of people.

“Every family is different. You see all walks of life and different styles and people dealing with death in their own way.

Every service, generally 20 minutes, can be different.

“Until the hearse pulls up you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s one of those jobs where you come in and you don’t know what’s going to take place,” he notes.

People sometimes ask him about “the nitty gritty” of the process, an issue he’d prefer not to discuss.

“During the service, the priest, minister, lay person – whoever is doing the service – pushes a button and the two curtains come over and the music starts playing. It’s real gentle, it’s nice. That’s all the family need to know. They don’t need to go into the real workings end of it.”


John says that it’s very rare but sometimes people want to go down to where the coffin enters the cremation machine – but that this figure stands at “less than five people over the years”. Of this, about one person “stayed for the whole lot”.

“As soon as they saw the door opening and they saw the flames, ‘Oh no, hold on a sec, I’m out of here.’ They didn’t want to be there. They thought it was a good idea at the time but…”

John says one person from the family is welcome to stay for the entire process if they wish as there is nothing to hide, but there is no need if they don’t want to.

Does he want to be cremated?

“Oh god yeah, it’s more clinical – it’s better off really. In an hour-and-a-half you’re completed, as the fella says.”

It’d take months, maybe years, in the ground to do. It only speeds up what it does in the ground. People say about cremations ‘Oh I wouldn’t like to be cremated, you could wake up.’ You’re not going to wake up …

“If you’ve a fear of waking up like that then donate your organs. You’re not going to wake up then, end of story. Nowadays they’re too far advanced for anything like that to happen.”

All images: Órla Ryan/


Read: Everything you wanted to know about grief but were too afraid to ask

Read: Advice: What to say – and not say – to a friend who is recently bereaved

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