tagNon-EroticThe Unwilling

The Unwilling


This actually happened to me back in 1981, when I was the greensmaster of a large Memorial Park in Southern Oregon. Some names have been changed, but the rest is pretty much how it came down. If you ever have a change to spend time in a working relationship with the deceased, I suggest you do it. It will change you. Please vote!


The wind blew oak leaves down the drive and under the cast iron gate as I fumbled with the lock. The vinyl door of my jeep flapped against the mirror, and the frigid air inflated the fabric top of the CJ like a party balloon. A big, black, frozen party balloon, except I wasn't laughing. I pushed the creaking old gates open and tied them to the stakes beside the hedges. Getting back into the orange Jeep, I held my hands near the heater outlet to warm them.

I put the Jeep in gear and started up the drive into Cascade Memorial Park, passing the gate house on the right and starting down the rolling drive to the mausoleum. Gray mist rolled off the reflecting pool, partially cloaking the raccoons sweeping their hopeful paws through the shallow water. They looked up at me hopefully.

"Don't look at me like that, you little bastards," I mumbled. "I put the Koi in there; you're the ones who couldn't make them last. If you hadn't eaten them in June, you wouldn't be hungry now."

The peach-colored marble facing on the front of the mausoleum appeared through the fog of the late October morning. I noted the muddy footprints on the cheap red carpet leading to the doorway and made a mental note to hose it off later.

Unlocking the aluminum doors, I made my way inside, struck as always, by the chilly interior. It is illogical to heat a building used to house the dead, but modern humans are unused to entering a building in the winter-time and finding the inside as cold as the outside. The fluorescent lights in the thirty foot ceilings flickered and buzzed as they responded to the light switches. A quick trip around the inside reassured me that the roof patches had held so far, since the stains on the ceiling hadn't morphed into new shapes since the last time I'd checked.

I went to the rear of the building to check on the Bertha room. In a room built for twenty-six permanent occupants, seven of them were named Bertha. I wondered if there had been a special on interments of Berthas, or perhaps there was a glut of bronze Bertha names. Whatever the reason, there were more Berthas in this room than in the entire population of the rest of the cemetery, which numbered some 27,000 strong. Weird. Returning to the main chamber, I checked the other two wings for break-ins or damage, and other than a fallen dead bouquet in the oldest room, all was well.

They are so much closer here, these shells of humans. Only six inches of marble and concrete separate the living from the dead, unlike the subterranean residents, who slept silently underneath between two and six feet of earth, concrete and water. "Six Feet Under" didn't film here, in the cemetery placed atop one of the only patches of near-surface shale outcrops in southern Oregon. The only caskets six feet under here were the ones where the crew had been given enough time to jack-hammer for three days. Some were shallow enough that the grass wouldn't even grow, and the buried flower vase had to be placed way up by the headstone, so the bereaved didn't see casket liner when they placed their flowers on Memorial Day. The cold radiated off the marble walls all the way to the false door leading to the crematory in the right rear corner of the main chamber. I opened the wooden door that hid the steel one, and found the key to the cremator chamber on my huge key ring. I inserted it like always, and stood, staring stupidly, as it broke off in the lock. I cursed softly as I started back out the door to circle the building. Around the back, the empty flower pots and discarded wreath shells piled up near the back door to the cremator, and I added another mental note to my list.

The Schlage key opened the rear door normally, and I stepped into an environment as surprising as the other end of the building, this one eighty degrees hotter than the inside of the mausoleum. The light switch turned on two feeble incandescent lamps, evenly spaced to provide inadequate lighting to all parts of the thirty by thirty foot room.

Built of cast iron and concrete by the Ray Refractory and Foundry Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this cremator was installed here in 1924. In the eighty years since, uncounted bodies found purifying flame inside its twin caverns. Like a design by H.R. Giger, all ribs and angles, it crouched in the semi-darkness, primordial, waiting to welcome the next travelers to the infinite.

The left chamber still radiated heat from the day before, the disposal of various body parts from three area hospitals; ranging from unidentifiable tissues to a perfectly formed right leg. Wrapped in vacuum sealed plastic and complete with delicate toes, their nails a girlish pink, it spoke to my heart as no corpse could. The kneecap showed a small scab, evidence of a recent tumble, and I wished the previous owner a swift return to health and a level of play raucous enough to produce a similar scab on the remaining knee. The Ray accepted all visitors, cancerous or not, young or old..

I flipped the switch for the fuel pump, and heard the rotary pump begin to churn. I opened the heavy iron inspection door to the chimney turbine, and dipped a rag on a steel rod into the coffee can of diesel. Looking around on the shelf for a lighter, I found none. Dropping the rag end of the rod into the diesel can, I turned to go outside to my Jeep for one. As I stepped toward the door, I heard a soft pop, and the fuel pump spun down into silence. I stopped outside the door and opened the power box on the wall. Blown fuse. I screwed the old one out and replaced it, listening with satisfaction as the pump started again. The glove box had a lighter in it, so I turned and went back inside.

I closed the switch on the back of the chimney turbine and lit the diesel-soaked rag. Black sooty flame burst into life and the smoke curled toward the darkened ceiling. I put the rag through the opening and twisted the valve open on the turbine. The tornado-shaped fog of diesel burst into flame with a soft Woomp and the brick lattice work on the back of the chimney instantly began to glitter in the orange light.

As I waited for the chimney lattice to heat, I pulled the heavy cast iron door open on the left chamber and grabbed the garden hoe from the rack on the wall. Reaching in with the hoe, I scraped the long bones of the little girl's leg toward the trough on the near end of the brick-lined retort, along with other bony bits from the other tissue containers. I scooped them up into a five gallon metal can. We had been promised a cremain (the industry catchword for Cremated Remains) grinder for years, but it, like benefits and raises, had yet to materialize. As I pounded the desiccated bone fragments into suitably minute fragments, I reflected on the term "ashes".

When one opens the door of a crematory retort, one finds nothing resembling ashes. What Occupies the interior of the chamber is quite obviously a skeleton. The bones are dry to the point of collapse, and in fact may be partially powdered already, but they are instantly recognizable. They only become "Ashes" if you pound them up with the end of a 2X4 in a bucket. If you're real lucky you'll have a cremains processor, kind of a Cuisinart for bones.

I bagged the bits up to be stored for burial later when they would join a casket in a grave in our "Potter's Field", or Welfare section. Again I uttered a silent prayer for the little girl whose leg was taken from her.

I suddenly realized that I was not hearing the low roar of the chimney turbine, and went to check on it. Sure enough, the flame was out, and I was amazed to find the valve to the diesel turbine closed so tightly I could not turn it. The valves are quite delicate, so much so that one of the first things I did when training people to use the cremator was to caution them that the valves are to be closed gently, so as not to damage them. I tried the valve again, but this time it turned easily. Whatever. I re-lit the turbine and went to inspect the rectangular cardboard box on the casket stand.

The paperwork taped to the lid of the transportation/cremation box stated that the body inside should be that of an 81 year-old Caucasian woman. I filed the paperwork in the date-indexed file box and cut the strings securing the cardboard lid to the pine-reinforced plywood bottom. I lifted the lid off and leaned it against the wall.

As I turned back to the container, I was mildly startled to see that the woman's eyes were wide open. Although the image of a deceased person you see on C.S.I. or in the movies is totally unreal, I didn't get many whose eyes were this wide. The frown on her closed mouth combined with her eyes to transform her face into a visage of intense disapproval. For a moment, her eyes appeared to be full and clear blue, but in a heartbeat (mine, not hers), they returned to the flat, milky appearance of the dead. She lay, to her evident disapproval, naked on the box bottom save for a stained sheet underneath her.

As was required in the state of Oregon, I inspected her for a reasonable match to the description on the paperwork. I also checked to make sure she had not been fitted for a pacemaker. Some early pacemakers had been powered by batteries containing radioactive elements, and you can imagine that I didn't want one of those being burned in my cremator.

I also checked for breast implants. Silicone makes an incredible mess when it explodes under heat. It was painfully obvious that she had not been augmented. This poor woman had been horribly burned at some time in her life. Her legs and abdomen were almost totally covered in swirling scar tissue, as well as the left side of her chest. Her left arm was drawn up against her chest, and the web of thick scar tissue from the elbow to her twisted hand made it obvious that she had lost the use of that extremity completely. Her left breast was incorporated into the scar tissue, almost as if it had melted into the surrounding skin, as perhaps it had over time. The scarring had taken on a paler version of the yellowish skin tone present on the rest of her withered form, although in life, it was probably an angry, livid red.

I stood in quiet sympathy of this tragic soul, and wondered if she had ever prayed for the release she'd finally found. The expression on her wrinkled face was definitely not peaceful. The faces of the dead, at least the ones I had seen shortly after their passing, expressed a range of expressions. Some appeared puzzled, as if the final moments of their lives had been quite mystifying. Some plainly showed a rictus of misery, especially those who perished from trauma. Some appeared as if they had seen just what they'd hoped for, their faces composed in total repose, even joy. I liked to imagine that these few had been lucky enough to die at home; surrounded by those they loved, at peace with the world and the afterworld.

My inspection complete, I replaced the lid and rolled the cart toward the right hand chamber. I pulled up on the locking lever, only to find it immobile. The lock lever was only a swinging plate of steel with a loop handle, mounted to the door with a bolt; it was not a complicated mechanism by anyone's imagination. The end of the handle fell into a V-notch on the cast iron door frame, but in spite of its elemental design and total simplicity, it had me stymied. Pulling up with both hands and my considerable strength didn't even make it wiggle. I turned back to the table where I'd left the two by four I'd used to crush the cremains a few minutes ago and grabbed it. Inserting it under the outer loop of the handle, I pulled on the end of my lever with all my strength, and with a hollow pop the handle came out of the notch.

The great iron gate opened and the portal yawned wide. Reflected in the end of the chamber, through the opening into the chimney, the orange fire danced gaily.

I went to the corner of the room and grabbed one of a handful of ¼ inch dowels and placed it across the entrance to the chamber near the edge of the brickwork. This would allow the container to roll into the void without too much effort, as well as sparing the fragile brick from too much wear. I turned and pulled on the end of the cardboard lid, pulling the cart toward me. Apparently, several of the wheels were jammed, and the box came off the cart and fell partly to the floor. Fortunately, I had a good grip on the box bottom, so the body didn't fall out on the floor. I skidded the foot of the box to the opening of the chamber and propped it on the dowel, then went around to the other end and lifted it level. As I slid it in, the dowel skidded and chattered, making a horrid screeching noise.

I placed the box inside the chamber far enough that the turbine wouldn't touch it and then I shut the door.

This was getting strange. It usually took about two hours to do an average cremation, and I'd nearly spent that long already.

I hit the power for the right side turbine and lit my diesel rag. The moment I opened the lighting/inspection door, though, it went out. I resoaked it and tried again. This time it stayed lit. The turbine mist caught on the first try and bloomed into flame, immediately lighting the face of the cardboard box and burning it away. As the box burned, I turned the flame down a little so it wouldn't cause the chimney to smoke. When the box was mostly gone, I turned the flame back up. When fully formed, the flame extended from the door to a point near the rear wall of the chamber. To my amazement, the flame appeared to bend up at a 45 degree angle toward the roof of the chamber, missing the body altogether. Almost as quickly as it had begun, it curved slowly into a corkscrew shape and returned to its normal pathway. Instantly, the body began to sparkle with heat and the skin began to blister.

A little background info: When I hired a person for a cemetery job, the first place I took them was the cremator. Not to gross them out or haze them, but because there is something primordial about seeing a human body catch fire and burn. Frankly, if you can deal with the sights, sounds, and smells of cremation, you can probably deal with most of the other things pertaining to the job. In the 1980's, doing a cremation involved watching the body as it was consumed, so you could be on hand to adjust the flame and watch for smoke. I installed a new cremator in the same room in 1983. By that time, though, it was called a Controlled Pyrolysis Pathological Destructor, and it was computerized, sanitized and produced a Natural Gas flame a foot in diameter and nine feet long. You opened the door, put the body in head first (the greatest mass toward the flame), closed the door and pushed a button.

Back to the present: I leaned back to stretch, and three things happened.

The chimney flame blew backwards through the inspection hole, setting the can of diesel afire.

The door blew open, filling the room with black, sooty smoke.

The lights went out.

Since it was now mid-morning, there was enough light that I was able to see to grab the can of diesel with a pair of pliers and put it outside, where I found a saucer from a flower pot to extinguish the flames.

The chimney was now smoking like a locomotive, since the turbine had blown out, and I had to shut down the main chamber to allow the chimney to reheat. I then relit and refired everything.

I had no more mishaps other than far more adjustments than was normal, until finally, around 4:00, the job was done. It had taken five times as long as usual. I went home shortly thereafter, returning just after dark to do my annual Halloween night patrol of the cemetery. Other than a pumpkin launched at the front gate, and the typical high school kids whistling their way across the graveyard in the dark, the night was calm.

I repeated my unlocking mantra the next morning, a clear, still Sunday, and soon found myself in the warm crematory. I opened the right chamber, and the skeleton lay as I would have expected, with the exception that the left arm now lay at the woman's side, relaxed and nearly straight. I scraped the remains into the can and reduced them to small fragments. As I poured them out into the white cardboard box, I saw a gleam of light.

The ring I found in the box appeared to be undamaged by the heat, which was unusual. Most metal objects, such as gold teeth, were totally destroyed. It didn't appear that it was an expensive piece, but I was no judge of jewelry. It was a simple gold-colored band, with three stones, all different in color. If I were to guess, I would have guessed they were birthstones. I had used a pencil to move the fragments of bone away from the ring, so it rested in a shallow depression in the grayish contents of the box. I retrieved a small manila envelope from the shelf, intending to place the ring in it and tape the envelope to the outside of the box.

When I touched the ring, I felt my heart stop. I don't mean flutter or palpitate. I mean stop. I felt no pressure, no pain. No pulse at all. When I recoiled from the box, dropping the ring, I felt my heart restart with a gallop and beat normally.

I approached the ring with my fingertip. The closer I got to touching it, the slower my heartbeat became.

Accepting the warning, I left the ring in the ashes and boxed and wrapped the contents, putting the name of the deceased on the top in black marker. I felt fine. My heartbeat was normal and strong, I was clearheaded and calm, but I was changed.

I looked at the paperwork clipped to the board on the wall and memorized the name. I locked the outside door and walked to the steel door between the crematory and the mausoleum. I turned off the light and locked the steel door behind me, then closed the wooden door. The smell of the mausoleum struck my nose as the cloying smell of diesel left. It was a smell of moldy flowers, dampness and something else, something unknown.

The sun was over the mountaintops when I walked out of the mausoleum, and its warmth shone on my face. As I raised my hand to shade my eyes, I noticed our silver Dodge van speeding in through the main gate up the hill to my left. It swept around the curve and approached me, far too fast. I was composing the chastisement I was going to give the driver when the rear wheels locked, and the driver's door opened while the van was still skidding to a stop. Ejected through a combination of inertia and evident panic, my friend Stan launched himself out of the van and toward me at a trot, his tie flapping over his shoulder.

As he approached me, he slowed and by the time he saw the box in my hands, he was walking.

"Let me guess, Owen. That's Mrs. Smith, right?"

I nodded. "And you have no idea how much of a pain in the ass she has been in the last day," I said. I proceeded to tell him, including the discovery of the ring. As I spoke, his face got pale and he started to weave until he finally just sat down on the concrete.

"Are you OK, buddy?" I asked.

"No, actually, I'm not," he replied. "I just got off the phone with her lawyer in Colorado. They went through the Will yesterday. The ring was in remembrance of her husband and twin daughters, who were killed in the house fire that she barely survived. She hasn't had an open flame in her home since 1956. She was terrified of fire, Owen. The lawyer called to tell me that under no circumstances was she to be cremated."

There are those who say that when we die, we cease to exist in any form. Until November 1st, 1981, I would have agreed with them. But now I know better.

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byowengreybeard© 7 comments/ 19612 views/ 0 favorites

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