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This Is What It's Like to Burn Bodies for a Living

Cremation is becoming more and more popular in the US. We spoke to a young crematory operator about what it's like to make a living incinerating human carcasses.


Photo by Henry Mühlpfordt via Wikimedia Commons

Cremation is booming in the US. In 1958, only 28 people were turned to ash. Today, more than 40 percent of Americans are cremated after they pass. We spoke to a man who's making a living off of this uptick. This crematory operator hails from California, a state where a surprising 58 percent of the deceased are cremated annually. He's in his mid-30s and is still learning his craft. He requested that we maintain his anonymity due to the concerns of his employer. He had a lot say about how and why he fell into the business of burning the dead. —Rick Paulas

After graduating college, I worked a lot of shitty part-time jobs. But within the last year, I started being drawn to the funeral industry. I'm still figuring out exactly why. I didn't grow up wanting to do this, nor did I just wake up one morning and decided to shift gears. It had a lot more to do with me wanting a career that feels meaningful.

My desire to enter the industry became clear to me after some conversations I had with friends. One was about how the US healthcare system is designed to keep people alive at all costs regardless of quality. I surprised myself with how passionate I was about that topic and how much I had to say. When our conversation shifted to the green burial movement, I was fascinated. We discussed it on a few more occasions, and she intimated that I seemed like a good fit for this industry. Eventually, I took the plunge and started looking around on the internet for a job cremating bodies. I came across a Craigslist listing for a "crematory operator/mortuary assistant." I responded, did two interviews with the funeral director, and was hired about a month after sending in the application.

Before getting into this field, I hadn't seen that much death. I saw my dad die at home of cancer when I was 25. I briefly saw the aftermath of a woman who got shot in front of my house back in 2009. And one time I saw a guy who was standing next to me jump in front of BART. So, I realized around the time I got hired that my interest in death was mostly in the abstract. I wanted to do this work, but I'd never actually been exposed to it. I had never handled a body up close and personal. I wondered, What if I see my first body and barf?

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau

The first body I ever actually cremated was a man in his 60s. Before we load them in the retort [the cremation machine], they're in body bags or wrapped in sheets. One thing you have to do is check for jewelry, watches, and pacemakers, because those have batteries and they'll explode. To do that, you just push and feel the hard metal under the skin. If they have a pacemaker, you have to get these big scissors and rip it out. So, when I unzipped the 60-year-old's body bag, the first thing I noticed was he had bandages all over his legs and ankles up to his thighs. But he was missing his junk. There was just a big hole. I thought about it and was like, Well, he's a tissue donor, maybe it was taken for a burn victim who was burned from the waist down?

Sometimes, there's a bad odor. Two days ago we had a de-comp, and he smelled awful. He had been in the reefer [walk-in refrigerator that can fit about 25 bodies], and I cremated him like everyone else. There's always this cloud of dust that comes up when I processes the bones. I wear a mask. But when I did this guy the other day, it smelled so bad, it was like a cross between B.O. and a really bad burp in the back of a moth-filled closet.

One thing you learn pretty quickly on this job is how to deal with big bodies. Big people are a challenge because a major part of my job is just schlepping carcasses around. We move bodies on this big steel gurney thing that has hydraulic pumps. I call it the widowmaker. Another thing about larger people is that you have to cremate them before anyone else. The retorts are like kilns—they get really hot. When big people will burn too quickly, the flames get too hot, and it creates more smoke than the afterburner can process. It's bad for the machine. Their fat can actually pour out. So, the big ones have to be done first thing in the morning, when the retort is still cool, so they burn at an even temperature.

To heat up the retort, I have to use these big sci-fi-looking knobs. You can't cremate a person unless the chamber's heated to 1500 degrees. Heating up doesn't take long, maybe 15 minutes. I just open up the door and put the body in making sure the flame is at the right spot. The flame has to be hitting in the chest, the densest part of the body. After that, I will open the door periodically to see how it's doing. Doing that is like you're glimpsing into hell.

The whole process takes two hours, give or take. An hour or so in—depending on the size of the person, how soon they need to get done, and where they are in the process—I stoke them with a long rake. By that point, they're like really tough meat on a bone, like overcooked ribs. Today, I stoked one and didn't realize how underdone the guy was, and his eyeball came globing out a little, like Mars Attacks or something. But it's hard to mess it up. You're not hurting anybody. One way or another, they're burning down to their bones.

When there's just bone fragments left, I turn the retort off and let it cool to about 500 degrees. That's when I use this flat metal rake to get out the big chunks, pull them through this chute into this contained drawer, and go in with this big brush with sharp steel bristles and sweep the rest out. It all goes into the cremulator, this big stainless steel coffee grinder-like thing. Most of what goes in is ash, but there's a metal tray that sits on top, and I pour the remains in it to look for hunks of metal like dental hardware, hip replacements, joint replacements, and other stuff that can damage the blades. The cremulator won't break down all the bones when it's an infant or fetal tissue, so that's when I need to break them up manually with pliers. Then I sweep it all in and grind it into powder because the fragments need to be unrecognizable for scattering.

Some families chose to do a witness scatter. A private charter costs between $700 and $800, depending on how many people come along. Miscarriages and infants who died at birth tend to be scattered at sea without a witness, which costs $150. This is something my boss does. We'll save them up until we have enough and then he'll go out on the boat and toss them overboard.

Even though we do it everyday, this work can be pretty emotional. I cremated a woman once who used to live a couple blocks from me. She was my neighbor. Not that I knew her well, but it felt really good that I was the one taking her out.

I know I'm not doing anything for the deceased, they don't know what's happening. And my work probably doesn't even cross the minds of their grieving loved ones. But I like that I'm providing a service and helping fulfill someone's last wishes.