The three of them storm into the office a little after 4:00 in the afternoon. A gust of wind slams the door behind them, and they all but cower under the fluorescent lights. I introduce myself to each of them, shaking their hands, willing them to be somewhat easy to get to know. None of the three even tells me their name.

I assume one of the women is a sister because I have talked with her on the phone. She called about twenty minutes ago to say she was leaving the hospital and needed to have her brother cremated.

I am trying to meet them where they are. They have never done this before, and I cannot blame them for lack of trust or even lack of basic formalities, such as telling me their names.

My words land slowly but deliberately to fill the awkward silence. Instead of hustling them away into the conference room, I decide to stay standing in the entryway for a moment longer. My eyes glance toward the floor as I extend my condolences for their loss. They do not respond verbally, but the man’s eyes begin to look away from his cellphone. Progress.

I explain that we will go over some paperwork for the death certificate and for the cremation. They follow me into the arrangement room. We discuss the particulars for a while, and I hand the sister a form to sign. She has been taking notes so I do not offer her my pen. She signs the form with her pen and I step out of the room to make a photocopy. When I walk back in I overhear the man asking for the pen she has been using. She passes it to him and he makes a few notes. I eyeball the container of pens in the middle of the table just to check that it is well stocked. There are plenty to go around so I don’t force the issue.

As we talk I notice their tensions begin to soften. They ask some great questions, and I fill in as many gaps as I can. I learn they are all siblings of the deceased. They are from a different state and are leaving in the morning.

Our meeting draws to a close. As the brother walks out the door, I call after him by name when I see his cellphone still sitting on the table. I rush to return it to him, and he thanks me.

After they are gone I notice the pen the siblings shared is still sitting on the table. I pick it up to find the name of a hotel emblazoned on the side.
Tonight will be their last night to stay in that unfamiliar room. They will head home tomorrow to a place where they will all be greeted by name. Their homecoming, however, will be without their brother, and they will continue living without his familiar presence. I slip the hotel pen into my pocket. I am sure they left it behind accidentally, and it will be quickly forgotten.

Our time together today was brief, but it was part of a story they will not soon forget. I hope they left here today with more than a disposable pen. I hope the unfamiliar they encountered here became the slightest bit more bearable, if only for a moment.

Burning Questions about Cremation: “Can I Watch?”

Every once in a while, a family comes to the funeral home to make arrangements for a cremation and somebody asks if they can watch some part of the process. Their reasons are varied, but most of the time, they are just plain curious.

In some cases, it means one last chance to view the body before final disposition.

Sometimes there are religious or cultural traditions that are carried out just before the body enters the cremation chamber.

Other times it means the family members don’t quite trust that we do what we tell them we do; they want to see for themselves that things are taken care of properly.

     I get it. I would want to watch too. I personally have no problem with people who request to watch a cremation. I will even go so far to say that I encourage it, as long as the desire is made known upfront and the individual(s) understand the gravity of the situation as well as the risks involved.

Typically, when family members or friends come to witness a cremation, they only watch the part where the body, which is in a ‘cremation container,’ or cardboard box, is rolled into the retort of the crematory. Part of this is because a cremation takes about 3 hours, and most people don’t want to stick around that long. There is also the fact that about an hour and a half into the process, the door of the retort is opened and the remains are re-positioned to ensure an even burn. When the retort is opened, flames are visible, and I would venture to say that most people would find it disturbing to witness this portion of the cremation.

Once the actual cremation is complete, the remaining bone fragments and ash are cooled and placed into a processing machine which grinds them into a powdery substance recognized as cremains. I’ll admit that this part is pretty neat. We even go through the bone fragments with a magnet to remove any small metal parts such as tooth fillings, staples, pins, or screws. Larger metal parts such as artificial hips and knees are also removed, but a magnet is not necessary for those: they’re pretty visible. The bone fragments are fairly dry and brittle, so grinding them with the processing machine is a relatively quick procedure. As the cremains are processed, the powdery mixture is collected into a plastic bag inside some type of urn(s). We affix a small metal identification tag noting the cremation number to the bag so that it can always be traced back in our records. At this point, a portion of the cremains can also be placed into memorial jewelry or saved out for scattering.

I would guess that most funeral homes would find the question, “Can I watch?,” a little uncommon and maybe even a bit unsettling, but there is really not much reason why you couldn’t watch at least some part of the cremation process. Some people even ask to help push the cremation container into the retort, and it is typically allowed. The crematory where I work has a viewing window into the room so that anybody who does want to watch the start of the cremation can do so from a comfortable couch in a private setting. I like this concept and it is one that many crematories have incorporated. The viewing window allows for a little bit of distance and helps to shelter the viewers from some of the potentially disturbing sounds and smells involved with cremation.

The moral of the story is: just ask. There is no shame in wanting to be a part of your loved one’s final disposition. It is not weird or freakish to want to watch a cremation, and I can almost guarantee it will be something you never forget. It’s a sobering experience to come face to face with a dead body, a cremation chamber, or an open grave; and I think people in our rat-race culture should do it more often.

What do you think?

Would you want to watch?

Crematory Retort (click for original website)

Burning Questions about Cremation: Memorial Jewelry

Growing up, there was a running joke in my household that whenever somebody died, we would cremate them and send the ashes off to California to be made into a diamond. (…….And people wonder how I came to be  a mortician……)

It was only a joke. (I think.) But it CAN be done! Don’t believe me? Look here, and here, and here! In fact, cremains can be incorporated into many different types of memorial options including coral reefs and even trees. The phosphates, sulfates, calcium, and potassium contained in cremains make many chemically intriguing possibilities.

More popular than these eye-catching options, however, is memorial jewelry (also called keepsake jewelry or cremation jewelry). Technically speaking, a diamond made from cremains is memorial jewelry too, but the kind I’m referring to is a type of product which has a hollow interior section into which a small amount of cremains can be placed. The piece of jewelry is then sealed and can be worn as an everyday accessory or for special occasions when there is a desire to have a physical reminder of a person close-by. Memorial jewelry comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors and can be personalized with engraving. To the unassuming eye, most memorial jewelry looks pretty much like ‘normal’ jewelry. It would be hard to really know there were cremains inside. Here are some examples:

(Click images to visit original websites)

One unique type of memorial jewelry is something known as a “thumby.” Thumbies can be made for anybody, cremated or not, living or dead, animal or human. A copy of a fingerprint, handprint, footprint, or pawprint is taken and scanned into a computer program; the digital copy is then etched or wax-casted into a piece of jewelry. Neat, huh?

There are so many creative types of beads, rosaries, keychains, and other accessories. They range from glass roses which hold cremains inside their stems to plastic “LIVESTRONG” type bracelets that are inscribed with names and dates.

One of the best-sellers at our funeral home is a bullet shaped keychain.

Truthfully, the possibilities are endless. The next time you’re admiring a unique piece of jewelry, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was a type of memorial jewelry.

Do you have any memorial jewelry?

Is it something you would consider?

What type(s) would you wear? I think I still might go for a diamond ;)