This story was originally published in 2009 on David Himmel's old blog, Himmel Ink.
Where I work my day job, a crematorium is located just across the parking lot, less than a stone’s throw from my office. The garage where the bodies are carted in opens up facing our building. Whenever I step outside I can often see a gurney with a body wrapped in white blankets resting on top.
On the roof, there is the wavy air of intense heat rushing from the chimney. This day job of mine has me as project estimator for a sheet metal contracting company. We deal in HVAC as part of the construction process. So when the crematorium needs a new oven, we’re a convenient neighbor.
If you’ve never seen one of these ovens, technically called furnaces, believe me when I say, they are huge. Each one is a 30,000-pound square hunk made of concrete and brick and steel. They have to be this big to fit some of the bodies that are dying these days. Just a few months back the crematorium had to borrow our forklift to move a 1,200-pound man into the building for burning. But he was too big to fit in the oven. So the man running the crematorium—I think he’s called a baker—had to carve the fat man up into separate pieces.
For many, this is a gory thing to even think about. And once you get past having to dismember a fatty, there’s still the whole gross factor of dealing with dead people all day and setting them on fire. But this little shop is mostly a one-man operation. It’s run by a 70-something year old Indian man. He is short, he is quiet and he always waves when I walk past.
The crematorium is much like its ovens—a big brick box. It now has three ovens, a cooler, an office and lots of extra space, which is filled with old coffins, gurneys, body bags and quite a collection of exercise equipment. I suppose the makeshift gym is for the Indian to get in some cardio while the dead smolder away.
Since I started working here I’ve been extremely curious about the cremation process. How long does it take? How hot is the oven? Are the bodies naked? Today we were installing that third oven. So I walked across the parking lot feigning interest in what my guys were doing to load in and connect such an impressive piece of equipment. But really, I was hoping to see a body get cooked.
The first few times I walked over all I saw was the usual body wrapped tightly in a sheet. It looked like a mummy wearing baggy bandages. But on my third meander, I saw him; Leroy Brown. He was a large black man, tall and thick. He had a shaved head and was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a zip hoodie. I knew his name was Leroy because I read the certificate from the funeral director OK’ing the cremation.
Leroy looked a little tough, even for a dead guy. Based on his clothes and his rigor mortis-induced scowl, I concluded Leroy probably died a violent death at the hands of a gang. I didn’t think this because he was black. I concluded this because he looked too young and still healthy to have died of any natural causes or diseases. Based on the clothes he was wearing, it didn’t look like he had an honorable funeral. And besides, we were in Chicago Heights so you do the math... But this is all based on suspicion. I had no way to fact check this. Leroy wasn't going to answer my questions. And I couldn’t make out the cause of death because coroners, like doctors have atrocious handwriting.
The gurney where Leroy was lying was next to a table that had a large unfolded cardboard box on it. The 70-something little Indian man walked over to Leroy, grabbed the sheet he was lying on and with the smooth speed of a professional, flopped Leroy off the gurney and onto the table. He was now lying on his stomach. I could see the stitches in the back of his head likely from the autopsy. His hands looked like those rubber hands you can get from a joke shop and stick in your car door to freak people out around Halloween. Leroy looked uncomfortable. But what did it matter now?
A few more adjustments had Leroy lying perfectly on the table in line with the cardboard box. The Indian assembled its sides and slid the gurney out of the way. He returned next to the table with a new gurney complete with a hydraulic lift. He shimmied Leroy onto the fancy gurney and wheeled him over to the second oven. He spent a few minutes pushing on Leroy’s chest. I don’t know why—looking for a soft spot, feeling him up, checking his breast pockets for pens or cash... Then he put on a mask to protect his face from the heat and opened the oven door.
The heat was impressive, a near 1,700 degrees. He pushed Leroy into the oven. Before Leroy was halfway in, his feet burst into flames. Black smoke from the cardboard rose up the flue. Three more shoves and Leroy was in, his entire body now consumed with flames.
The Indian turned to me and smiled as he closed the oven door. Sensing I wanted to see more he opened it back up. All I could see were flames. It looked like Dante’s Inferno.
When the heat started to fill the open room within a few seconds, he closed the door, took off the mask and walked over to the cooler. There was a table next to it with some kind of small machine on it and two sterling silver pitchers. He turned to the machine and began grinding something into a fine dust, which he poured into the pitchers then poured that into a bag already full of grey ash. He twisted the plastic bag and tied it off as if it were a bag with a goldfish inside like at a carnival.
What he was grinding were the few bones of the last guy in the oven. Not all of your bones burn to ash. Like the femur for example, is much to big, even at 1,700 degrees. The machine is called a cremulator, which sounds to me like a great name of a science fiction villain.
It seemed so routine for this man. Just another day at the office. And he shouldn’t be phased by it. He didn’t know these people. And it doesn’t matter how flippant he is with their bodies because in a matter of moments they’re going to be set on fire anyway. Besides, they won’t bruise. For me, I’ve seen more dead bodies in the last two months than I’ve seen my entire life. I can’t say I’m getting used to it or even that I want to. But for the Indian, the burning of Bad Leroy Brown was another great way to make a buck.
Because this afternoon I saw him drive off in one helluva nice H2—complete with vanity plates—the chimneys we installed still billowing out heat behind him.