So, the cemetery and funeral home that I was attached to decided they wanted to build a crematorium. Real estate was scarce in our more-than-a-century old 63 acres, a much smaller parcel than what most modern cemeteries are built upon. For decades, no burials at all took place there, until engineers came in with fancy sonar equipment and located every last nook and cranny not occupied by a grave. Somehow, they found enough space for thousands more burials, but that would only last us for a few years. Some mausoleums were erected, but they too offered finite space. Cremation was clearly the way to go.
Unfortunately, the cemetery was undergoing a purge just before I was hired. A new owner had taken over, fired the office manager and embalmer, and was picking off the old funeral directors one by one. “You won’t last long here”, Brian told me. Brian was one of the old guard funeral directors, and he knew his days were numbered. “The new guy’s intent on sweeping out the place. I have resumes out already” I kept a low profile by sticking to driving; out of sight, out of mind. After a couple of months, all the old-timers were gone, replaced by young, inexperienced amateurs. For awhile, there was only one licensed funeral director in the whole place.
So the problem arose as to who would run the crematorium, once it was built. None of the greenhorn funeral directors raised their hands; they still weren’t comfortable with dead bodies, they saw funeral directing as more of an artistic pursuit. So at some point it must have dawned on someone that it was the drivers who saw and did all the unpleasant stuff, and therefore would be well suited for the job of overseeing cremations day in and day out. So I was asked, along with another driver, to take the State licensing exam for crematorium manager.
The test wasn’t really that hard, but it sure put the job into perspective. Almost half of it was concerned with safety issues. A cremation chamber (or “oven” as we recklessly call it) reaches temperatures as high as 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than twice as hot as the planet Mercury. The biggest dangers are explosions and fires; when a body burns, its fat liquefies, turning into a fluid with the combustibility of gasoline. For this reason, we can’t cremate people who are obese; 260 pounds is the outer limit for weight in most places. Chambers have been known to explode when the pressure gets too high, which not only will kill anyone standing nearby, it will level a whole building. Cleaning was another big issue on the test. The chamber must be cleaned after each use, which involved the operator literally crawling into the chamber himself (usually operators are male, but a few hardy women do the job too), on all fours, where he scrubs and brushes out the remnants of the last cremation. I imagined some wiseguy slamming the door shut and turning on the burners while I was in there cleaning; I get obsessive ideas sometimes.
We both passed the test, certifying us as capable of managing a crematorium, even though I still had only a fuzzy idea of how they work afterwards. So, the manager sent me to Bill’s. Bill and his wife have run a crematory in the industrial section of the San Fernando Valley for many years. He is a soft spoken, somewhat sad man; his cheerful wife usually does much of the talking. I spent all week, watching them move bodies into the chamber and out again, watching the temperature gauges, and assisting with the cleaning.
It was a trouble-free week, and I did enjoy taking a break from all the driving. The only uncomfortable moment was when a woman arrived who wanted to see her father before we cremated him. He hadn’t been embalmed, and decomposition was underway.
“Go out there and tell her that he’s decomposing” Bill told me. “She’s not going to like it, and you need to prepare her”.
“Whoa, wait a minute”, I objected. “She’s your case, not mine”.
“If you are going to manage a crematory, you are going to have to talk to people. Go out there and talk to her. Now! I don’t need her freaking out because you didn’t tell her what to expect”
The woman was standing beside the casket, which was waiting its turn in the chamber. She looked at me with a strange mixture of despair and hope. This is what I hate; talking to the customers. The bodies never say anything; I can spend all day with them. It’s the living ones that make me uncomfortable.
“Can I see him now?” she asked in a trembling voice.
I didn’t really know what to tell her; it isn’t in the test material. So, I winged it. “Before we do, I need to tell you some things”, I began, the words coming from somewhere else and not my conscious mind. “You asked that he not be embalmed, which means there are some changes to his appearance. It may be disturbing to you. Please understand that it is a natural process, which all people undergo, and one that we have no control over”
She nodded her assent, and I lifted the lid. He didn’t look too bad compared to many of our cases. Just very discolored and spotty. However, he was her father.
She gasped a little, and let out one breathy sigh, but then nodded and closed the lid. Later, as Bill and I loaded him in the chamber, he told me I did good. However, I was beginning to have doubts. The idea of spending the rest of my life shoveling bodies into an oven seemed to me the closest approximation to living in Hell one can achieve on earth. God bless the crematory workers, but I decided then that if the boss announced that I was going to manage the new crematory, I would have to resign.
However, I didn’t have the balls to tell him right away, so my next stop was Sacramento for a weekend to attend the annual crematory manager convention at the Radisson. They had a buffet all set up on Friday night, and the eating was good. I was a little late getting downstairs, so a lot of the food was already half-finished. However, I noticed a silver platter piled high with barbecued spare ribs that seemed utterly untouched. I helped myself to a greedy plateful and sat at one of the tables, where a couple of managers from Yreka were eating.
“You must be new”, one of them said cheerfully. I figured they were referring to my age; I was in my early thirties and almost everyone else was in their fifties. “I’m older than I look”, I said, with a polite little laugh.
“Oh, it’s not your age I’m referring to”, the veteran replied. “It’s your food. One thing you’ll learn in this business is that it is a rare crematory operator who still has an appetite for barbecued ribs. A little too close to home, if you know what I mean”
I was beginning to catch on.