When it comes to cremation, there are some questions that almost every family has asked.
“How do we know that we get the right person back?”
“Do you cremate more than one person at the same time?”
By far, the most common is:
“Can we watch the cremation?”
Legally, the answer is yes, but I always follow it up with “You don’t want to do that.”
Religious practices aside, of course, most families don’t want that to be the last thing they see. The last memory of someone they once loved.
“I need to make sure you’re not doing anything weird to my mother.”
Joseph was one of those people.
“I can assure you, we have a multitude of precautions that we abide by to ensure that each person is returned to the correct urn.” I calmly replied.
“How do I know?”
I then proceeded to walk him through the cremation process. The identification confirmation forms, the metal disc with the assigned number engraved on it, and the process of being granted a permit.
He was not satisfied.
“I want to watch.”
I explained the fees involved, and continued to try to urge him to change his mind.
So I scheduled the witness cremation.
The cremation took place on a rainy, Tuesday morning, and I met Joseph outside of the crematory. We went into the room where the cremation chambers, more commonly called retorts, were already roaring to life, warming up to greet the day’s decedents.
“You’re going to put her in THERE?” He half-shrieked.
“ I am,” I replied. “You can change your mind at any point.” I told him.
“No. Just do it.”
With the help of Aldo, the crematory operator, we identified Joseph’s mother one more time, opened the door to the cremation machine, and slid her inside.
The heat from the retort was unbearable, and after closing it, and checking to make sure I still had eyebrows, I turned to face Joseph.
“The cremation normally takes a few hours, but if you’d like to take her home today, you can meet me back here this afternoon, and I can release her into your care.”
It was as if I hadn’t spoken.
“You burned her.”
“I can’t imagine how difficult it was for you to watch this. Joseph, your mother’s wishes were to be cremated. I hope that gives you some peace, knowing you were able to fulfill what she wanted.”
“You burned her.”
He was louder this time.
It was at this point when Aldo stepped in.
“Shannan, go back inside and grab the urn. I’ll take it from here.”
I began to protest and then, Joseph spoke again.
“YOU BURNED HER!”
I turned and rushed back into the crematory vault, grabbed the urn, and sat down.
I didn’t understand. I’d told him not to watch. I tried to warn him. I was beginning to get angry.
How DARE he blame me for him deciding not to take my advice?
Aldo walked into the vault and sat next to me.
“Was it that obvious?”
“The first ones are always hard. Your job is to comfort people, but what a lot of you young directors don’t get is, there is no comforting people who just watched someone go into a literal room of fire. This is a time when there is NOTHING you can say. So you say nothing.”
He was right. There is nothing you can say. I began to feel pity for Joseph. The memory of his mother will now be veiled by the last image he saw of her. The cardboard container holding her body engulfed in flames.
I wish there were a happy ending to this story, but there isn’t.
Funeral Directors are here for a reason. We are there to guide families through their darkest hours.
When they offer advice, please, from the bottom of my heart, I beg you—take it.