The last word: Backstage at the crematorium

Working for an undertaker, Tom Jokinen wrestled with stiff limbs, tear-away skin, and why we hide from it all.

FROM THE STREET, there’s little about Neil Bardal’s crematorium in Winnipeg, Ontario, to betray its purpose. Located near the airport—the last building on Notre Dame Avenue before the city turns into flat, treeless nothing—it could be an insurance office. Until you see the hearse parked in the side lot and the stone slab in the walkway inscribed Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls. Okay, it could be a very frank insurance office.

I have come on a mission—to understand the rituals of death by working as a funeral-home trainee. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has said, humans are the only creatures who know they’re going to die, and even worse, they know they know it, and it’s not something they can “unknow.” All any of us can do is distract ourselves, briefly, in the same way that we might mask the smell of burnt food by spraying the kitchen with Lysol. My goal in becoming a trainee is to figure out if the rituals that the funeral industry helps us perform are Lysol, or if, in fact, the way we handle death—with caskets and trinkets and stone markers—is our way of facing up, finally, to the smell.

Neil, my new boss, thinks so. He says we need the rituals to know that the person has died. We need to see the body, we want the proof; we’re empirical, enlightened souls who benefit from looking at death when it comes, standing up to sing and pray in its presence. But Neil, a third-generation undertaker, might not be the best person to judge.

MY INTERNSHIP STARTS with a slapdash tour, beginning in what Neil’s son, Jon, calls the Committal Space, a faux living room with faux colonial furniture, faux plants, and prints of other faux plants on the walls. Each end table has a box of Kleenex with a single, perfectly teased-out tissue, and on one table there’s also a picture frame, empty, which gives me a chill. The Committal Space is where the family gathers to view the body before cremation: There’s a nook for the casket and a brocade curtain for privacy. At the back of the nook is a heavy armoire topped by a bronze sculpture of a horse. The room smells of Endust; it reminds me of the living rooms of kids I knew whose parents declared the good furniture off-limits. The horse seems to add a touch of whimsy, but it turns out to be an urn. The Chinese lantern next to it is an urn, too, and so is the little blue porcelain teddy bear holding an umbrella, designed for infants. I don’t want to touch anything in here lest it contain someone.

At Neil’s crematorium, not only can you view the body before cremation, you can also watch the main event, car wash–style, through a window separating the Committal Space from the working side of the crematorium. When Jon snaps open the blinds, I’m face to face with a monster machine, one of the facility’s two “retorts.” It looks like an overdesigned Soviet-era East German pizza oven, with a black iron door and a fat stainless-steel chimney growing out of its head. This is Retort Two. She’s fussy, tends to belch black smoke and burn out of control when dealing with the heavier bodies, which the Bardals prefer to assign to Number One, an older, less temperamental machine. Number Two prefers thin, elderly bodies without much fat.

This whole place is built like a theater: a public space up front, with its living room set, and a backstage where all the magic happens. Except that Neil has broken the fourth wall, encouraging people to bear witness, to see the event through to the end, which is both noble and oddly post-modern. Jon admits most families prefer not to watch. But if you’re into it, Neil is the only open-window cremator in town.

BACKSTAGE PRESENTS A different vibe than front-of-house—20 degrees hotter, and noisier, to begin with. As soon as Jon opens the connecting door I hear the low rumble and feel the dry heat. We pass Number Two’s backside and all her ductwork, stop at the sort table, where the remains—shattered bits of bone and whatever else survives two hours at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit in the retort (casket hinges, pants zippers, artificial knees and hips)—sit to cool before human is separated from nonhuman. They use a magnet to pick out the metal artifacts and then sort through the pile by hand, chucking out anything that doesn’t look white and bony. Then it all goes into a sturdy blender, which turns everything to powder.

Jon hands me a plastic bag full of a recent customer; it’s about the size and heft of a 2-pound bag of cornmeal. I sneeze. It’s dusty at the sort table. There’s also a thin white film on everything, on the heavy black vacuum hose that hangs over the table, on a Remembrance Day poppy stuck to a bulletin board. People dust.

To get to Number One, I follow Jon down a dark hallway lined with medieval instruments: long-handled iron hooks and brooms with steel bristles, and a winch-like contraption for getting a body into a casket. Number One is in action, and I feel the rumbling of its burners in my chest. Jon explains the routine: Body comes in from the hospital, it’s transferred to a cardboard box and stored in the cooler, waiting for its place in the cremation queue. Or, if it’s going to be embalmed or “prepped” for a viewing and open-casket service, it goes onto a gurney and into the prep room. To avoid confusion, every former soul that comes in through the garage door is assigned a number: It’s written in Sharpie on their cardboard box and the corpse’s wristband, not unlike the wristbands they issue at raves and folk festivals.

We pass another doorway, through which I can see a young woman brushing an older woman’s hair. The older woman is lying on a gurney in a blue dress and clunky black shoes. The younger woman smiles and waves at us, then goes back to work, cradling the older woman’s hair in the palm of her hand, pulling the brush gently so it doesn’t snag. There are two other women on gurneys, both dressed in skirts and cardigans as if they were going out for afternoon tea with the third. One clutches a purse. It’s a quiet, domestic scene. They look so still and benign that there’s no reason my heart should be racing, but it is, and I back away from the doorway. It’s the stillness that scares me. Even sleeping people have some animating spark, you can sense it, and if you watch them for long enough you’ll see it too, a twitch or an itchy earlobe scratched. These women are empty. Well dressed and nicely groomed, but done.

Jon flips the cover off the peephole on Retort One so I can have a peek. The man’s body is on its back in the chamber, hands at its side. The orange and blue fire roars from the roof of the retort like water from a fire hose, hitting the chest, and I can see another jet farther down the chamber, and bits of fly-ash circling in the turbulence. The body is black, and the bones glow in the way a burning piece of firewood glows if you blow on it hard. There’s no smell, but I can feel a draft on my ear as an air current rushes past me. “The head burns slowly, the heart burns slowly,” Jon says.

Hanging on the wall next to the retort are two iron hooks. When the body no longer looks like a body, when all that’s left are scattered bones and a black mass the size of a pumpkin, Jon feeds the longer of the two hooks through the porthole and rakes everything into a pile under the gas jet, to finish the job.

THAT AFTERNOON, BOTH retorts are roaring, and Natalie, the head embalmer, has a job for me. She wants me to help her dress another of her endless supply of old ladies. Natalie (I can call her Nat) says there’s nothing to it: The arms and legs will be a bit stiff, but I shouldn’t be shy about manhandling them.

The lady is wrapped in a flannel sheet, her face and hands goopy with Kalon skin cream to keep them from drying out. She’s also green. Not a peaked green, but forest green, an artifact of the embalming chemicals reacting with the jaundice she had before she ended up here. This will be covered up by makeup, but for now she looks like the Hulk. Nat and I take turns, alternately rolling the woman to one side and then the other, scooting up her hose and skirt in stages, then the bra and blouse.

It’s a funeral director’s job to counsel families on clothing for their dead: Find something with a high collar (to cover the incision near the neck where the embalming chemicals went in) and please send underwear. Turns out most people don’t think of it, so Nat keeps a bag of spares. “I won’t bury anyone without underwear,” she says. Most men are laid to rest in suits and ties, and it’s gotten to the point that Nat can only tie a tie from above. When her boyfriend, Robbie, needs his tie done, she makes him lie down. “I had this dream once,” she says. “I was dressing my uncle, and he wasn’t even dead.”

She shows me how to roll a corpse without dropping it: Grab a wrist and a hip and hug tight, being careful not to be too rough with the bare skin, which has a tendency to slip. “Slip?” I ask. Yes, come off. Bodies that have been dead a few days before embalming accumulate little bubbles of gas under the skin, which can cause the skin to slip off like wet Saran Wrap if you’re not gentle. Our lady is still quite sturdy and fresh, but I do as I’m told, hug a hip and pull. Her goopy left hand is hard to hang onto, and as a result she slides more than rolls, to the edge of the gurney, where gravity’s waiting.

I hug tighter, and now we’re face to green face. This must be embarrassing for her, that’s all I can think. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry she’s green, and half-naked, and in the arms of a hapless stranger when she’d rather be alive and home watching Wheel of Fortune.

The blouse is next, which requires wrestling with an elbow that won’t unbend: It’s like dressing a tree. When I lay her flat, her hand slaps me on the chest. Fair enough.

Real makeup needs heat to stick to the skin, so mortician’s makeup is more like paint. For most corpses, Nat just adds a bit of color to those spots on the face that naturally respond to sun (tip of the nose, forehead between the eyes, cheeks), but the green woman needs a heavy base. Her lips are painted purple, which looks more natural than red on a dead person. 

Nat steps back to examine her work, adds a layer of powder, then blows lightly on the woman’s face to remove the excess. I can smell Nat’s peppermint gum. She grabs my hands and holds them against the woman’s scalp. “Feel that?” I do feel something, two knotty bumps over her temples. “Horns!” Nat whispers, wide-eyed. I pull my hands back. “Must be from the cancer, poor thing.”

Cut into conceptual bite-size pieces, all of this might one day be easier to digest: The dead put on their pantyhose one leg at a time like the rest of us. But there’s something black and malevolent breathing in here too, behind that rumbling noise. Freud said there’s nothing more uncanny than a dead body. Freud also said that if we repress primitive fears, they’ll sneak back to haunt us later as neurotic symptoms. But I think repression is underrated. I have the feeling it’ll be my most valuable friend here at the death factory.

When Glenn, Jon’s cousin, comes back from a body removal with a small cardboard box, we gather around to see what he’s brought. Natalie opens it. Inside is an infant, blue-gray. She lifts it up. It’s still wearing a Muppets diaper. “Aww,” she says, “I can’t wait to start having kids.”

From the book Curtains by Tom Jokinen. ©2010 by Tom Jokinen. Used with permission of Da Capo Press.


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