A Visit To The Crematorium

In medical training, one studies everything that happens from conception to demise. But oddly, the minute somebody expires, it all becomes very mysterious.

One can argue that a doctor’s role is over once the patient is dead, and I suppose there is some truth to that. Still, I’ve always been fascinated by the American ‘death industry,’ in no small part because it functions as the deus ex machina of healthcare: the orderlies silently whisk the body away to the hospital basement, and the next anyone hears, the funeral service is taking place.

I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies over the years, so seeing someone stretched out in the morgue wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted to see was a cremation.

So I called up an acquaintance who owns and operates his family’s funeral home and crematorium in a rural part of the state.

“Mind if I come and watch?”

“Not at all.”

Down I went one day. Knowing that my co-workers would think I had lost my marbles, I merely said that I had an appointment and would be taking off the rest of the afternoon.

I met my acquaintance in his lobby and he gave me a quick tour of the building. A body had just been delivered from another funeral home (one without its own crematorium) and he escorted me back to the refrigerator where it had been placed. That body was naked, stiff, wrapped in plastic, and inside a cardboard box… just like the frozen salmon fillets at Sam’s Club.

The act of burning a body to ashes is not rocket science. But four aspects of my visit stand out even months later.

First, morticians rarely let their ovens cool all the way down unless maintenance needs to take place. It takes too much energy to cool and then reheat repeatedly (much as is the case with the HVAC in your home). Thus, a functioning crematory oven cools a bit, maybe to ‘only’ 450’F, and then the switch of contents takes place. An instrument with a very long handle is used to scoop out still-hot ash and then push the next body inside. Even standing way back from the partially opened door, the blast of heat is impressive, and one starts to sweat almost immediately. And because no one, obviously, goes inside the oven to scrub it between cremations, it is inevitable that there is co-mingling of ashes. This is something that is not advertised to families, I suspect, but it’s obvious to even the untrained eye.

Second, once a body is inside the oven and the door is closed, the heat is turned way up, but periodically the door must still be partially opened so that the long-handled tool can be inserted to ‘turn’ the remains (much as you might do with logs in your fireplace at home). Bones – even those that have been blasted with intense heat – still can retain their shape; when the door was opened during my visit, even after a seemingly long time in the heat, I could still recognize a few bones in silhouette. But like the ashes at the bottom of your charcoal grill on the porch, once the long handled-tool touched them, the bones quickly disintegrated into a pile of pulverized calcified ash.

Third, when the ashes are swept out of the oven at the end of the process, they contain larger chunks of bone that haven’t powderized yet. The mortician takes what looks like a mortar-and-pestle and crunches the cremains to give the ash a more uniform finely granular appearance. And then he runs a magnet through the ash to pull out small bits of metal, such as screws from artificial joints or gaskets from artificial heart valves. These pieces of metal are unceremoniously tossed into a bucket on the floor for recycling.

Finally, some sort of filter is attached to the exhaust system that vents from the oven to the outside. This prevents black smoke from billowing out the chimney on the roof; instead, the hot gases that issue forth are clear and colorless, and not seen by anyone in the surrounding community. The only way that one might know that a cremation is taking place is noticing the slight background distortions caused by heat rising out of the chimney. And I suppose this makes sense – the vision of a crematorium with black smoke belching forth has a slightly Nazi-esque ambience to it, and is almost certainly not good for business.

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