"We try to give people a good grief memory" - crematorium worker wins award for outstanding service

Jane Matheson received an award from Edinburgh City Council.

Friday, 3rd January 2020, 7:45 am
Updated Friday, 3rd January 2020, 4:41 pm

It may seem a gloomy task, but for Jane Matheson working at Mortonhall crematorium is as rewarding as a job can be.

Ms Matheson was recently given an Outstanding Achievement Award by Edinburgh City Council for her commitment and dedication to the job.

Since she started as a Bereavement Services Improvement Officer in June 2016, she has helped countless families through difficult times.

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Picture: Jon Savage.

She has also worked on some unusual cases, like the man from Australia whose body had been at the crematorium for two years when she arrived because his family couldn’t afford to repatriate the ashes.

The family were entitled to funding for a funeral from the council under the National Assistance Act, but as they didn’t want a service, Ms Matheson hoped to use some of the leftover funds to repatriate the ashes.

But no commercial airline would take ashes for fear of losing them, and the funding would not stretch to £2,000 for a repatriation service.

Ms Matheson spent weeks contacting officials in Australia - often getting up in the middle of the night to make calls.

Eventually a Qantas Freight captain agreed to take the ashes, and the boys managed to get something of their dad back nearly three years after his death.

“One of the boys was the same age as my son at that point, said Ms Matheson.

“That’s why you get so emotional about it, you think ‘imagine if it was me’.”

On another occasion she had just 25 minutes to arrange a funeral, as an Italian family realised they couldn’t let the body of their loved one be cremated without a service.

As they didn’t speak English, she managed to connect to their local Italian priest to conduct the service via Facetime.

A big part of Ms Matheson’s job is contacting relatives of the deceased who cannot afford to pay for a funeral themselves and may need support through the process of claiming DWP funding.

“The police struggle to get in contact, because the families we’re looking for often won’t engage with them,” she said. “So we go out and put hand-written notes through their door with our phone number on them.

“Generally by the time you get back to the car somebody will have phoned you.”

People often still call council-funded funerals ‘pauper’s funerals’, said Ms Matheson, but they are no different to private services.

Staff also sit in on funerals conducted by videolink if the family live abroad and do not want the chapel to be empty, or lay flowers on relatives’ behalf.

“It’s a sad job, and you can’t make people alive again, which is really what people want,” said Ms Matheson.

“But if you can make it that little bit easier then that’s happy.”

“We want people to be able to look back and think ‘I did what that person would have wanted, they would have liked that.’ We’re trying to give people a good grief memory.”

Environment Vice Convener Councillor Karen Doran said: “Huge congratulations to Jane on her achievement. It’s it’s thoroughly well deserved.

"She and her colleagues always go above and beyond to help bereaved families, and it can’t be an easy job by any means.”