Fifteen years of my life was spent working with funeral homes around the country. Although a morbid environment—to say the least—I have to admit the experience fif provide great fodder for new stories. I often sort through the vast memories I collected over those years to come up with new story lines, and I often find my characters and settings are the better for it. That said, and since most folks never get a chance to go beyond a funeral home’s viewing room doors, I thought I’d share a little info you might find interesting….
Any body can be cremated, but many items in our bodies don’t burn, like dental gold, prostheses, metal plates, and metal sutures or screws. Although pacemakers don’t burn, those with lithium batteries explode when cremated. Most funeral directors remove pacemakers before cremation to eliminate that hazard.
Another medical device that causes crematoria problems are silicone breast implants. The cremains stick to the residual silicone, which means you’ll wind up with clumps of Aunt Erma instead of gritty ash.
All small pieces of metal from the body or container are normally retrieved with an electromagnet before the ashes are even removed from the oven. The amount of metal residue found in cremated bodies has increased significantly over the years. Items include not only the more common joint replacements and other bone-repair items, but also a variety of surgical devices, like forceps and scissors.
In rare cases, such as the now-closed Pasadena Crematorium, unscrupulous personnel made hundreds of thousands of dollars from ripping off gold crowns from the massive number of cadavers they received for cremation.
Most funeral homes and crematoria follow a protocol that enables them to correctly and continuously identify a body from the time they receive it until the remains are released to the family. Crematoria use either a stainless steel tag on the body or a plastic tag on the cremation chamber that stays with the cremains.
Now, usually, one body at a time is placed in each crematoria retort (oven)…usually. One southern California firm routinely packed nine to fifteen bodies into an oven about the size of a sedan. After pulverizing bone fragments with two shot-puts and a small cement mixer, they dumped the ashes into large containers. Operators often added a white powder to make the mixture more attractive to relatives before they doled out the ashes by weight: 3 1/2 pounds for a woman and 5 to 7 pounds for a man.
A mortuary in Phoenix was accused of mixing cremated human and animal remains. In some cases where families wanted rapid cremation services, the owner gave them animal ashes rather than those of their loved ones. He was also said to have dumped ashes in vacant lots or irrigation canals rather than scattering them in the desert as promised.
And this last fact has to be one of the saddest when it comes to cremation . . .
About 2% of individuals who are cremated never get their ashes collected by family members. Often times, they’re left to sit in paper bags or used shoe boxes in a designated closet in a funeral home, their names and date of death scribbled with a black Magic Marker on the container.
Just imagine the wild stories this small amount of behind-the-scenes knowledge can breed in an overactive imagination! Morbid? Yes. But the ‘what if…” possibilities are endless, and it’s small treasures like this, my friends, that make the writing experience well worth it!