I spent most of my time at Diarmaid Funeral Home operating the crematory, a hulking metal box big with an iron body the size of a bailing machine, but that could also set itself on fire. When you turned a key, the machine would suck in a heavy breath and its red lights would pop on like it had woken up suddenly, and in a bad mood. In five minutes it was hot enough to burn up to 400 lbs. of human down to his/her densest bones in about an hour, and it did so in remarkable quiet, like a man chewing stale tobacco who is not inclined to small talk.
Debbie taught me how to use it, a thick southern woman who spoke loudly and with a smirk. She had a heart like a good truck, made of steel and combustion, reliable, aggressive. She embalmed her own mother because she didn’t trust anyone else to do a better job. Her gestures, as she taught me how to cremate a human body, were as quick and stoic as if she was teaching me how to feed a Gila monster.
These were my instructions:
- When the temperature’s 1600, open the crematory door and wheel the box in front (the machine, you observe, is blinking and groaning madly by now, hungry, its belly on fire).
- Roll the box from the hydraulic cart, making sure to kind of center it (inside, walls of human soot-covered brick).
- Remember that the metal ID coin goes on the box, if you forget, just slide it in, inside of the crematory as far as you can get it (the heat licked your knuckles clean of all their hair and oil).
- Close door, set to “process,” set timer (the great metallic monster brooded and grumbled like an obese teenager at a buffet, seemingly, wickedly, pleased).
- In about an hour, come back, scrape remains into center where the machine is hottest, (this rendered the human-seeming skeletal structure without shape, just a fiery heap).
- Let cool, scrape remains into metal bin at front of machine, bring to processor (a smaller machine made of metal teeth that garbage-disposaled man into dust.
This, she told me, would probably be my main task, “bein’ the new guy and all.” I took notes.
She taught me one other thing during Step 5, when she opened the crematory door too early. The lesson was a sort of live visualization of ashes to ashes, or from dust you came, or another one bites the dust. Debbie thrust the long metal scraper into the machine, the long sharp claw of it reaching into the blazing chamber of fire and shadows and the metal bit into what was once flesh, and when she raked the scraper across the body’s chest, it sounded like a barbecue being cleaned. Ashes leapt out of the fire like panicked crickets. Then she shut the metal door and looked at the timer.
Well. Maybe oughta give it more time.
Don’t get squeamish now.
I swallowed hard. I blinked and there was an imprint of a burning skull grinning. Oh yeah, I was just thinking. Like, does it need to be cleaned regularly?
On nice days I would keep the garage door open and sit next to the crematory and read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. I would set my feet and my coffee on the desk. I could hear the muffled roar of the fire. Outside, dogwoods were shedding their blooms.
The themes for me were and remain sex and love and grief and death – the things that make us and undo us, create and destroy, how we breed and disappear.
I sipped my coffee and breathed deeply. The sperm-like dogwood smell mingled with the faint eau-de-toilette of burning human remains. “Life-in-death image” I muttered aloud, nodded, went deep into thought.
I was surrounded by the urgency of life ending throughout our city. I wrapped bodies in bedsheets and wheeled them quietly through their living rooms at midnight, gently greeting the newly widowed. Yet I kept getting lost on the way to homes, and I couldn’t embalm worth a crap. I sat around bored and burned bodies and wrote about it in my Comp books, wishing I didn’t have to wake up to pick up the next sad sack that died at midnight (they always died at midnight) and that I could just do something I liked and was good at.
People worked every day, then slept, and sometimes they died. In between, they wondered if they were well compensated. I thought: How am I not inspired by this? Why do I feel like I am still working at Target, only the shelves are stocked with the dead, the air filled with their ashes?
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, moaned MacBeth. In the crematory the women come and go, leaving as thin white snow.
Another day I was heaving bone and ash out of the crematory with the heavy, awkward scraper, which was like trying to use a 15 foot broom to pull a lawn mower toward you. I was in a suit and the metallic, blood-iron hot smell getting on my clothes, and there was the ash of someone’s loved one was on my pants, and the sun was being merciless with the pavement outside. Two Haitian men that our manager had hired to clean the cars were there, and they had moved on to cleaning around the crematory. Their eyes orbited the grumbly machine like full moons, while their hands tried to keep busy.
One cowered far away, cleaning one spot over and over, while one cleaned up in a circular pattern around the metal beast, and made reverential noises.
He came up to me while the door was open, the heat and odor flowing out.
In deh? That where you put em?
Ohhhhh. Put em in deh, come out like dat? –pointing at the remains, finger tentative—Where da rest go?
I don’t know. The sky I guess. There’s a chimney.Pointing up, vaguely.
Ohhhhh. How it wuhk?
Turn the key, push the button. Then—poof. –Shrug.
And just poof! In the sky like that, no? –He reached both hands suddenly into the air as if in worship, tossing up some invisible thing, a soul maybe, perhaps someone he loved he was throwing there to get him out of the brooding machine that lit itself on fire over and over again.
He opened his charcoal lips to smile for some reason, revealing a whole row of tall white teeth. He swayed his arms like a child wondering where to go next. We stood there for a second, in the whoof whoof of the machine’s exhaust fan.
And all I could feel was the sweat under my collar, and all I could smell were the ashes, and all I could say was Yes just like everything, poof into the sky.
Then he went away, shaking his head and innocently sweeping up the stray ashes as they spread everywhere.