When I was twenty years old, I had the opportunity to witness the cremation of a human body. It was springtime in Virginia, when the air is laced with the fragrance of magnolia and cherry, and I was still young enough to think of death as merely a normal rite of passage.
I was down from college in New Hampshire, visiting my sister in Norfolk over the Easter holidays. My sister’s husband, George, worked part time as a cemetery groundskeeper in Virginia Beach. There were no headstones standing in the cemetery; the graves were marked with marble slabs or metal nameplates on granite blocks laid almost flush with the ground, so that from the road the place looked like a large park or a city commons. For the past several weeks, George had been potting around with peat moss and mulch, planting shrubs and flowers and mimosa trees wherever there was an outcropping of rock or an intersection of two paths.
In the center of the grounds, on a small rise, was a one-story brick building with a wide, squat chimney in the middle of its flat roof. This was the crematorium, one of only three in the state at that time, I was told. It was a deceptive little building; it could have been a clinic for a doctor or dentist, a small grammar school, the new bank in my hometown in New Hampshire. It did not look at all as I imagined a crematorium might. Ever since my father, ten years earlier, had announced his intention to be cremated as a way to avoid the mawkish fuss and expense of a regular funeral and to protest the greedy ownership of land by the dead, I had held in my mind a picture of some sort of large concrete-and-steel incinerator with an industrial smokestack, of the kind seen at city dumps.
“Do they use it often?” I asked George on the day he brought me to the cemetery to show me the work he had been doing.
“Maybe once a week, if that,” he replied. “Cremation hasn’t caught on here.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Once. The son of the man who owns the cemetery runs the crematorium. He invited me to witness one, and I didn’t know any better. I didn’t see all of it, and I wouldn’t see another.”
“Well, what did you get to see?” I pressed.
“Enough,” he said. He eyed me oddly. “It’s really gruesome. I couldn’t watch all of it.” Then he became vague, talking about everything he had ever imagined the fires of hell to be and how a man would burn soon enough.
The idea of cremation was compelling to me. I wanted to be horrified, felt it somehow necessary to growing up. Also, I wanted to see the manner in which my father had chosen to enter eternity. I pleaded with George to arrange for me to witness a cremation, even if I could only stand outside the building while one was in progress.
A week later, on the Saturday after Good Friday, he called me from work at ten in the morning. “If you want to see a burning, get out here now,” he told me. “They’re doing two this morning. There’s one already in and another coming.”
I flew the eight miles in my car, without breakfast, without hesitating to reconsider. I found George kneeling in a flower bed at the foot of the crematorium hill, loosening dirt. “Morris is expecting you,” he said without looking up. “I don’t think there’s anything left to see of the first one, but they’re still waiting on the second.”
Morris, the man who ran the place, was a short, stocky fellow with a florid face and straight-cut bangs like an ancient Greek or Roman. He carried the burned-out stub of a cigar between his teeth. He seemed pleased to have company, and he set me at ease about it.
“If I’d known earlier you were visiting, I’d have invited you a lot sooner,” he said, showing me into the little chapel still mantled with flowers from the funeral that morning.
Behind the chapel was another room with barren concrete floors and a steel-beamed ceiling. In the center, encased in a sheet-metal cabinet, was the crematory. It might have been the furnace in the boiler room of a modern office building, or a large kiln for firing statuary.
“This guy they’re bringing in was a merchant marine off an oil tanker. He died at sea three days ago on the way over from France. No chance to embalm him — the mortuary’s picking him up at the docks and then coming straight here. I’d show you the inside of it right now, but I want to keep it warm so’s the next one won’t take as long.
The corpse arrived shortly in a gray, pressed-wood coffin in the back of a blue hearse. The two men who accompanied it were dressed in polo shirts and slacks. After I helped unload the coffin onto a stainless steel cart, one of the men from the mortuary pulled a delivery slip from his shirt pocket and flattened it over the dome of the casket for Morris to sign.
Morris and I wheeled the cart down the walk to the building, and as we entered the chapel I caught a glimpse of my brother-in-law on his knees in the flower bed at the foot of the hill, his hands busy in the composted earth.
Down the aisle of the chapel, the wheels of the cart rumbled like a subway train coming into the station. I walked ahead and opened the doors to the room beyond. Morris stopped the cart, and I wondered aloud how we were going to transfer the body from the coffin to the furnace.
“We don’t,” Morris said. “We burn everything.” With a screwdriver he removed the brass handles from the coffin and handed them to me, clinking like manacles, to set aside. Then he raised the steel door with a chain-and-sprocket pulley, and the residual heat from within the vault wafted into the little room. He wheeled the cart to the lip of the furnace.
“Give me a hand,” he said, and he put his shoulder to the end of the coffin and pushed. I leaped to the other side and pushed too, and the coffin slid from the cart onto the firebrick floor of the furnace. The emery-board sound of the wood dragging against the brick raised the goose flesh on my arms. When it was all the way in, he lowered the door with a clatter of steel and went straightaway to the controls. He turned a valve, and there was a little poof of ignition, then a muffled hiss like a prolonged breath escaping.
There were two saucer-sized portholes of thick glass above the controls, and he looked in one, the stub of his cigar motionless for a moment while his hand adjusted the valve. I looked in the other. The interior of the furnace was alive with fire, like the flaming core of the earth. I could not see the source of the flame; it simply rolled in great tongues around the coffin, blackening it immediately, peeling it in burning petals away from itself.
“We start with gas,” he explained, “and then when the heat has built up to about a thousand degrees, we cut over to oil. That’s when it gets tricky, because you have to make sure the mixture doesn’t get too rich or you get smoke. If the neighbors see smoke they complain, because they swear they can smell the body burning.” He smiled. “They can’t, of course, but they think they can.”
As I watched the coffin burn like a huge log on a hearth, I felt both relieved and cheated. As though he had read my thoughts, Morris said, “You’ll get to see plenty in a bit. In about five minutes the coffin’ll burn away, then you’ll really see the old boy roast.”
“Wouldn’t it be something if he wasn’t in there,” I said.
“We charge ’em just the same,” he replied, grinning.
I stood with my hands thrust in my trouser pockets, my shoulders hunched forward, and watched the orange and yellow flames — more intense fire than I’d ever seen — roll about the oblong box. When the convex lid gave way I was expecting it, but was startled all the same. One instant the coffin was closed; the next it was open to my view as the lid, then the sides, caved in quickly with the disjointed motion of an old-time movie. Under the debris lay the body. My hands clenched into fists, and my testes retreated tautly back into the safety of my groin.
“There you are, you poor slob,” Morris said softly, peering through the porthole on his side. “I’m about to cut in the oil and cut off the gas. The heat in there will increase to between twenty-five hundred and three thousand degrees. It’ll burn everything up completely until there ain’t nothing left at all except a few bone chips. That’s what Great-Aunt Matilda gets in her urn — a few pieces of Uncle Harry’s bones. ’Cept this poor guy ain’t got an Aunt Matilda, or any other kin that they know about.” He turned another valve handle and the flame yellowed out more and seemed brighter, like false sunlight. “Won’t be long now,” he said. “This is where I go to check the chimney to see if there’s any smoke.”
He left, and with all of my senses for pain intact, I tried to imagine such unrelenting, inescapable heat consuming everything to feed its own insatiable energy. I thought of my father. This body on the other side of the glass, charred beyond any subtleties of human differences, could be his or mine or nothing but a hulk of knotted and scabrous meat, left too long in the ignorant fire of some primeval cave. I felt my flesh swell with revulsion and sadness.
Morris returned, grinning. “Clean as a whistle,” he said. He looked into the furnace, and I looked at him from the corner of my eye — at the filaments of his hair in a fringe about his forehead, at the flare of his nostrils as he breathed, at the purple compression of his lips over the little stub of cigar, at the tiny windows of light in the moistness of his eyes reflecting the yellow flicker of what he saw.
“Ah, he’s going now,” Morris said. I turned my attention back to the window, a child looking through the peephole of a sugar egg onto a macabre and shifting diorama. The bones had begun to show, startlingly white and clean, growing out of the corruption. The next moment, in a fright of movement, the skull dropped, its sinewy hold on the spine cut; it rolled back on its crown, coming to rest just below my porthole to leer up at me, out of direct reach of the gnawing flames. A trail of brain matter escaped from its apertures and bubbled thoughtlessly on the floor of the furnace.
It wasn’t much longer before little was left but the bones. The fierce flames, starved for food, subsided until there was nothing but an intense yellow aura. I saw the ribs, bleached incredibly white, begin to undulate on the waves of heat, like fingers touching invisible harp strings or merely drumming idle time on the air. Here and there at their tips, little points of pure violet flame danced like candlelight.
Then, in stages I could no longer distinguish, the bones wore away, crumbled — even the skull below me disappeared without my remembering its going — until only a thigh bone remained intact.
Morris turned the valves again, and the light within disappeared as on a darkening stage. “That should do it,” he said.
Twenty minutes later he raised the door of the furnace; the heat was still intense, but it dissipated quickly into the room. The litter of bone fragments on the brick floor had turned a dull gray. “What about that one?” I asked, pointing to the thigh bone that was nearly whole.
“Watch,” he said. He retrieved a long-handled broom from a corner of the room and poked it into the oven. In short strokes he drew its stiff bristles across the brick, gathering the fragments forward. Each time the bristles met the hot floor, they sparked like flint against steel. When he touched the thigh bone, it shattered instantly into a score of jagged pieces.
“Magic,” he said. “Nothing holding it together but friction.”
Finally he had a pile at the front of the oven, and he took a common dustpan and brush from a nail on the wall and whisked the fragments into the pan. Then from a shelf he took down one of three metal cans no larger than a one-pound coffee tin. He shook it to hear whether it was empty. “Nobody home,” he said. He opened it and tilted the dustpan to the lip. The remains did not fill the can.
“Have you ever mixed up any cans, given the wrong one to the relatives?” I asked.
“Not so’s anybody’d notice,” he replied and screwed on the lid.
Outside, in the brightness of Virginia sunlight and blue sky, I was surprised to find everything the same as before. I breathed the air still sweet with magnolia and cherry. I thought about going back to the house for breakfast, then a swim at the beach. At the bottom of the crematorium hill, my brother-in-law stood before a triangle of flowers, admiring his handiwork.