Burning Questions about Cremation: Super Size Me

Many of you may recall Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me,” featuring a well-known fast food chain and the ‘epidemic’ spread of obesity in America.

Click for image credit
Click for image credit

The reality of Spurlock’s message is sad but true: we are what we eat, and for many of us, it means we eat more than we should and then, for various reasons, end up weighing more than we should. (Not to mention the domino-health-effects of diabetes, heart-disease, sleep apnea, etc.) Unfortunately, the consequences of less than healthy lifestyles persist even after death. Overweight and obese bodies can pose ‘massive’ challenges to us undertaker types.

Consider for a moment walking into a room and being faced with a 500+ lb body that you must not only transport multiple times to multiple places, but also clean, embalm, dress, casket and either bury or cremate. It’s happened to me multiple times this year alone. If the current trend continues, I have a feeling I’m in for a lot of ‘dead weight’ over the course of my career. There are various types of mechanisms, equipment, and machinery to help lighten the load, but there is usually still some heavy lifting involved.

It may come as a shock, but there comes a point when no matter how much we try to gloss over things and use euphemisms about death to death, reality must be faced. There are practical considerations like methods of transportation and sizes of containers and even the potential for grease fires during a cremation that must be taken into account when handling the remains of obese individuals.

Sometimes bodies are so large they cannot fit into traditional vehicles or standard caskets or crematory retorts (a retort is the ‘oven’ part of the crematory into which the body is placed; it is made of brick and concrete and resembles the inside of a pizza oven with a large metal door at the front). Oversized bodies, dead or alive, can be transported in ambulances and even on flat-bed trucks. Oversized corpses require oversized caskets and vaults, and all that weight may mean extra pall bearers or special cemetery equipment. Larger bodies also require larger cremation containers, which may mean special orders or additional transportation to a facility with adequate accommodations. And, as you might guess, extra, special, and additional things translate to extra, special, and additional costs.

Currently, if an oversized person expires in the state of South Carolina and cremation is chosen as the method of disposition, there are only a few locations in the state with facilities large enough to accommodate them.  For all the kids slaving away over math homework, I bet you won’t see any word problems about cremation in your textbook, but the interior of a standard retort is about 72 cubic feet. The dimensions are approximately 8 ft (L) x 3 ft (W) x 3 (H). This means that a body cannot be over 3 feet wide or high (when the body is lying flat in a supine, or face up, position). And yes, we do measure bodies. Oversized retorts are larger (10 ft x 3.75 ft x 3 ft and up), and can accommodate up to 1,000 lbs, but there are still limits. I suppose if a body was too large to cremate, it would have to be buried.

The cremation process involves air, flames, and temperatures over 1700 F. Combine all of these elements with copious amounts of fat and it creates an environment where fat comes into contact with a very hot surface and, simply put, can translate to a grease fire. These fires can even escape the confines of the retort and jeopardize the building itself and the surrounding area. Bodies with a high fat content are placed into the crematory head-first in an attempt to dissipate the initial ignition flame over the lower end of the body (the feet) instead of directly over the torso. Depending on the size of the body and the elements at play, the cremation burners may even need to be adjusted during the cremation process so that the temperature will not get too hot. Needless to say, constant monitoring is required for these kinds of situations.

I don’t mean to scare anyone with any of this information, and please know that despite my humor and candor, these issues are not something I take ‘lightly.’ As a deathcare professional, it is part of my duty to treat every body with honor and respect and to try in every situation to perform necessary tasks with dignity. The details listed here are, however, the unfortunate facts associated with unfortunate consequences of unhealthy lifestyles and debilitating conditions. Perhaps some of this mental imagery will help motivate you the next time you’re feeling like a couch potato. It certainly does for me!

For more information about crematory specs, feel free to search the web or visit: http://www.blcremationsystems.com/

2 thoughts on “Burning Questions about Cremation: Super Size Me

    1. Generally speaking, I believe it would desecrate the body. Any sort of ‘extreme’ measures such as that are typically considered unnecessary and some view them as mutilation. I suppose there are cases, however, when consideration could be given and action taken with proper informed consent and authorization.

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