The Best (?) Time I Toured a Crematorium
One day in the early spring, my mother picked me and my friend Autumn up from school, and we went to run some errands. I was 11 years old, and my father had died just a few months earlier. While we were out, my mom asked if we minded stopping at the cemetery because she wanted to water some plants. I liked the cemetery. It was a peaceful place, and there was also something a bit morbid about it that fascinated me. So my mom turned her giant station wagon (complete with 1980s wood-paneled siding) into the cemetery, and got to work on the plants. Autumn and I wandered around reading people’s headstones and guessing what their deals had been when they were alive.
We got back in the car to leave, but my mom made an unexpected stop in the tiny parking lot near the cemetery’s exit. She’d remembered that she needed to get some important piece of paper from the main office, and so while she went in to grab it Autumn and I stood around, poking our feet into the newly thawed grass. A man came out from behind one of the other small buildings in the area and walked over to say hello.
He seemed quite old to me then, but in retrospect I think he was probably only in his 50s. He was stout and had a sizeable potbelly. He wore a button down work shirt, jeans, and work boots. He was chatting with us in a friendly manner when my mom came out from the office and sped over to make sure we weren’t being accosted by some creep. He recognized her because she’d had to deal with him to make arrangements for my father’s burial. I don’t remember his name, so I will call him George. I think he felt bad for me and my poor widowed mother because after we’d talked for a minute he offered to take us all on a tour of his crematorium, which he seemed to view as an act of great hospitality and kindness. My mother politely refused his offer, saying we had to be getting home for dinner, but I wanted to see it.
It was a low-slung concrete building. We began our tour in a small room where they stored any bodies that came in — either for burial or cremation. George talked a little bit about what his job was. It entailed more than just cremating people. He was in charge of all the burial logistics too. I will not lie and say that it wasn’t fascinating to me, because it was. The details of death didn’t scare me or creep me out. Quite the opposite, in fact, I think knowing the mundane little facts somehow made it all seem more routine and less terrifying to my young brain. Plus, I was sure that when I died I wanted to be cremated. So I was happy to oblige as George explained all the things that go on behind the scenes. My mother, on the other hand, seemed less enthusiastic, but she indulged me and was polite to George.
After five minutes or so, he took us into a second, much smaller room. It had a little window, and a screen door, and looked like a place where you’d do woodworking on weekends. There was a workbench along one wall that was scattered with tools and papers and random junk. With great flourish, George turned toward another wall, which was covered in concrete blocks and had a small metal door in the middle of it, and said, “This is where the magic happens.” Seriously.
I don’t know where I’d gotten this idea, probably from some stupid movie I’d seen, but I’d imagined that cremations happened in a great, candlelit hall. I envisioned a beautiful coffin being wheeled into a sacred spot and torched, burning in the open like a funeral pyre. I pictured immaculately dressed loved ones watching as their beloved was dramatically reduced to a pile of perfect ashes. Yeah, not so much. This room was the opposite of restrained elegance; it was a grubby workroom. And that’s what this was to George: work. It was a job filled with heavy lifting, managing parts, sweating, sweeping up dust.
He was clearly proud of his work, but he didn’t seem to view the job with great seriousness or dignity. As he walked around the room, he was casual and light-hearted about it all. He made a great show of pointing out all the tools of the trade, told jokes (who knew there were so many crematorium-related puns!), and just generally made a spectacle of the whole experience. George was a showman trapped in a cremator’s body, and he was thrilled to finally have a willing audience.
Sure, his campy tone and the revelation of macabre details might have been appropriate if he’d been giving a tour to his drinking buddies. But it definitely was not the right approach for two 11-year-old girls and a woman whose husband had just died. It’s obvious to me now that what George was doing was incredibly unprofessional, but in the moment I had been enjoying his performance, giggling along at his off-color cracks. That is until he pulled open the door to the oven, and with it came a large slab, on which he set bodies. You could see inside the oven, it was cramped and caked in gray dust. In those few seconds, something switched from being abstract to personal.
He rambled on, giving the details of how he unceremoniously loaded the body and how long it takes and all that, but I drifted, imagining if he’d been charged with hoisting my own body onto that slab. This vision didn’t cause me great trauma or upset, but it did shift the way I looked at George. Even my youthful, untrained mind now picked up on the fact that something was a little off about our tour guide. Suddenly he didn’t seem so much friendly as deeply weird. It was sort of like realizing that the mall Santa is just a sad old man not a magical figure who can get you what you want for Christmas.
A shovel and a bucket were next to the oven. He showed us how he scooped out the ashes and swept out the oven. He even pulled out some freshly “made” ashes. I think he regaled us with a tale about how he’d once mixed up two people’s ashes — but I have blocked out those details, thank God. After he was done, he wiped his hands down the front of his shirt. And then, with ash residue still visible on his ample stomach, he made a crack about how his wife jokes that he likes to bring his work home with him. (Umm, who was this guy’s wife?!)
My curiosity dashed by the thought of someday spending my last few intact minutes with the likes of this guy, I was ready to get the hell out of there. But he was not ready to let us go, and he was standing in front of the door, so there was no way to beat a fast retreat. He yammered on about the many ways a body comes into his hands. Sometimes no one claims it, other times it comes in after a funeral service, and occasionally it’s shipped there from another part of the country. Still trying to be polite (why my mother and I both feel the need to be polite even to the wackiest of wackos, I will never understand), I think I said something to the effect of “Wow, that must be hard to ship a body.” Why did I say that? Why did I do anything to provoke yet another story?
What followed was the most disturbing event in an afternoon filled with disturbing events. He began to tell the story of the craziest day in his professional life. Hoo-boy. (Fair warning: if the thought of a leaky body is more than you can handle, skip to the next paragraph!!!) A man who’d lived far away had died of AIDS, which at the time was still a relatively new and mysterious ailment — and there was a deep fear of how contagious it was. His family had shipped his body back home to be cremated. I don’t remember the exact logistics of how or why, but the body had arrived at the crematorium frozen and in a cardboard box. Somehow the box was left out overnight, and George had come in the following morning to find that it had thawed and basically liquefied; a substantial amount of “AIDS-infected juices” had poured out all over the floor of the crematorium. “Jesus,” he bemoaned, “was that ever a horrible mess to clean up!” Jesus, indeed. We all stood in silence with pained looks on our faces as he gave us a play-by-play of how he cleaned it up, but inside my brain was screaming, “Whyyy are you telling me about this, George? What is wrong with you?!?!”
My mother began her campaign to free us with a new urgency. She moved forcefully toward the door, making frantic eye contact with me and Autumn, begging us to follow her. We stumbled outside quickly, each of us sucking in the fresh air like we’d been held underwater and were desperate to get oxygen back into our lungs. As we strode quickly to the car, we called back to George, thanking him for his tour. But he followed us and kept right on talking, offering to give us another tour anytime. We could even bring our friends! As we closed our doors and my mom started the car, he was still talking, saying how he’d see us around the cemetery next time we came back for a visit.
My mom sped out of the parking lot. We were all a little stunned for the first few minutes of the ride. My poor mother was horrified that she’d allowed me to experience that and worried that Autumn and I were scarred for life. (We weren’t.) We joked about George, and my mom asked me if I’d changed my mind about wanting to be cremated. Weirdly, I had not. You might think after seeing that setup I’d opt for burial at sea or a solid pine casket, but it wasn’t the oven that was the problem, it was the man running it. So I still want to be cremated, but on one condition: George, if he is still with us when my time comes, is not going to be the one to do it.