A Crematory Operator Explains What It's Like to Burn Bodies for a Living

"There's no sugar-coating the burning of a body."

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Jul 21 2015, 4:30pm

Photo by Brian Weis.

Lauren Rosen is a 26-year-old crematory operator and cemetery groundskeeper. She is stylish and petite, with tattoos and wavy dark hair, and a far cry from what most of us think of when we picture a stereotypical funeral home worker. Rosen is part of a new wave of female workers in the death industry. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, 57 percent of mortuary science students are women. As a crematory operator, Rosen's duties consist of lifting corpses into crematory machines, raking shards of bone out of cremation units, reading toe tags, and keeping body parts organized.

Rosen works in Detroit, a city that has a close relationship with death. It's one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, with a crime rate of 21.23 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. The vast majority of the city's homicides occur in the principally black inner-city, and the bulk of suicides in the mostly white suburbs. Additionally, Detroit has a startling number of abandoned properties. These vacant homes and storefronts often serve as drug houses where violent crimes are common.

Rosen attempts to maintain a sense of detachment from the personas and identities of the bodies she burns, while simultaneously ensuring each one is treated with care and dignity. It is a complex dichotomy.

VICE: How did you get involved in the death industry?
Lauren Rosen: I dealt with loss when I was very young. I lost someone who was very close to me in a very tragic way, and it kind of sparked an interest in me. It became a sort of morbid curiosity. When I started to research career options I learned that the burial, embalming, and funeral industry was heavily based in "merchandising." A huge part of my job would be up-selling, and I really didn't feel comfortable with that. I didn't want to be the person scamming mourning families out of money. I chose cremation because it's inexpensive, and it's the more environmentally friendly option.

Did you struggle to get into the industry?
Because of my size, people doubted my ability to do this. I'm 5'4", 125 pounds, and it's a lot of heavy lifting. The place where I work now, we don't have a lot of the newer technology that the brand new crematories may have. We use our hands more than most crematory operators would. We don't have lifts or pulleys or anything like that to help move the bodies. Straight up, it's a body in a long cardboard box or a wooden frame and we have to push it with our hands. We have a roller set to help roll them in. So yeah, my boss had doubts but I guess that's one of my favorite things about the job, that I've been able to prove everyone wrong in just a few short months. I've actually gained a lot of physical strength.

What is the grossest thing you do at work?
Sometimes we get bodies in that are fairly decomposed. Because I'm at a crematorium in Detroit we often deal with bodies that have been found in abandoned houses and they're there for quite a while until they're found. So when they are found I have to make sure each body matches up with the paperwork so I have to check the toe tags and ankle bracelets to check and keep everything organized. Recently we've been dealing with the universities and donor cadavers and sometimes the cadavers aren't all in one piece. If they're in multiple pieces, each piece is tagged with the same ID number to make sure no pieces get misplaced. I had to hold a severed human head and it was a lot heavier than I thought it would be. That could be a little weird for people.

If the bodies are in bad shape there's definitely a smell and it's one you'll never forget. I'm used to it. There are times where the bodies have been decomposing for so long that there may be flies or maggots on them. During the summer it gets hotter, and the warmer weather makes the smell more intense. There are definitely times where I'll maybe have to step away for two seconds to get it together to make sure I don't throw up and then continue to do my work.

Walk me through the cremation process.
With the average cremation, the burning takes about two hours. Temperatures are on average around 1800 degrees. The parts of the body that will be left at the very end are your hipbones, your spine, your skull, and part of the brain. So when there's 30 minutes left I usually look inside the unit. I can typically see a little black mass, which is the brain, and then I can also see the spine and pelvis. Sometimes, even after the cremation is completely finished the brain remains. It's so dense it just won't break down. It's so dense and the skull covers it so it's protected for the majority of the cremation and even when the skull is no longer there it's still incredibly dense. When I take the bones and sweep out the unit, I dump everything out on a metal table and there will be pieces of brain in there most of the time.

How do people know they're getting their family member and not just dust?
We don't want to overcook the bones. We leave slight bone fragments. There was a family who owned a crematory and they were giving families back a cement mixture and they were burying the actual bodies on site, so people weren't actually getting their families back. This made people want to start doing witness cremations.

What exactly is a witness cremation?
A witness cremation is when the family can come to the crematory and witness their loved one's body go into the unit. They can say goodbye for the last time, they can say a prayer, they can even push the button to start the cremation if they want. A lot of these started happening when people became wary of the industry. The requests for these has died down a lot but my boss said he used to get a request for a witness cremation every day. I would say that we do one witness cremation per week. I like the idea of family members being receptive to the process and being involved. I think it's really cool. It's not a delicate process; it's hard to explain to a family member. It's a violent way to dispose of a body. There's no sugar-coating the burning of a body.

A hip replacement leftover from a cremation. Image via Rosen.

Have you had unusual experiences with the families or friends of the deceased?
At the first witness cremation I ever performed, the daughters of a woman who passed away came to witness. I explained the whole process to them, which is standard practice before a cremation is witnessed. Neither of them wanted to push the button, so I pressed it. They were small-talking with me and one of the girls turned to me and said "so my mom is completely on fire right now, right?" and I turned and said "yes, she is." Out of nowhere she started hysterically laughing, total hysterics, and the other sister was hysterically crying.

Do you ever come home from work after a long day dusty or ashy?
Yeah, I come home dusty. It's hard because it gets in your hair, on your collar, you get some soot in your face and you don't realize it. Sometimes I get home and think about how much of that I've been breathing in all day. That's the only time work will really linger with me. I think to myself, there are a bunch of people inside of me.

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