I Try to Keep My Skeletons In

On the intimate privilege of witnessing a stranger’s cremation.

Self-portrait by the author in the crematory

In late August, we get the first call for a death that occurred in December of the previous year, three weeks before I’d even been hired on at the funeral home. Details are scarce, but he’d been dead for around a week before someone accidentally stumbled onto what was left of his body, tucked in a single-wide trailer hidden back behind the aluminum siding and brambles on a long, low stretch of land on the far side of the county. Semi-feral dogs running wild on the compound got to him over the following days, before the meat spoiled and there was nothing left to pick off the bones.

“We’re sending Julio to pick up that case today,” Lauren tells me in the morning over our coffee mugs. She drinks hers black; I used to drink mine with creamer but the sheer effort of restocking the office fridge has overwhelmed that preference. Now only one packet of sugar sweetens my last sip. “The coroner’s office says he stinks.”

“How is there anything left of him to smell bad?” I raise an eyebrow, trying to imagine what exactly is coming back to the funeral home. “It’s been eight freakin’ months!”

She shrugs. “I’m just telling you what they told me. The DC is signed, Julio’ll call us when he’s en route so we can get the machine kicked on.”

With only bones left and no obvious next of kin to celebrate his life, he’s what we call in the industry a “direct cremation “ case — his final disposition will be cremation instead of burial. It’s called a direct cremation because no funeral services will be held prior to the cremation process.

Usually, direct cremations don’t happen immediately after we receive the body at the funeral home. Death is a highly bureaucratic process, one limited by paperwork and the necessity of signatures in triplicate. A death certificate has to be filed in order for a funeral home to move forward with any type of disposition, regardless of whether it’s burial or cremation. The top half of the death certificate is made up of vital stat information about the deceased — where they were born, what level of education they completed, what they did for a living. Partly it’s used for family record — when some future generation wants to find out about great-great-great grandma, birth and death certificates are the most reliable sources of information. Partly it’s used for statistical purposes: how many embalmers who worked for at least a decade then end up dying of esophageal cancer?

The bottom half of the death certificate is the cause of death from the attending doctor. Some situations are easier than others to find cause of death; terminally ill patients on hospice have a clear roadmap leading to their eventual demise. Death isn’t always so cut and dry. Those that fall outside of the norm — the suicides, the homicides, the accidents, those lonely and wayward wanderers of the grim reaper — end up under the jurisdiction of the coroner’s office to investigate.

Depending on the situation, a coroner’s investigation can be as simple as granting us a number for filing purposes and releasing the case or as complex as performing a full cranial and torso autopsy with a toxicology panel.

Because this gentleman has been dead for eight months, the red tape has already been tied into a neat bow. His death certificate has been filed and we can move forward with cremation as soon as he comes through our back door. California law says the crematory has to hit 1500 degrees before we can place a body inside the retort, and like any oven, it takes a few minutes to heat up. I click the heavy knobs and dials into place when Julio calls, listening to the machine power up.

I hear the removal van pull up before I see the navy blue paneling flashing in the sunlight. Julio knocks on the back door like he always does, even though he’s been an employee with the company for almost as long as I’ve existed as a human. He waves and flashes his trademark grin, exchanging pleasantries in his lilting accent.

“Okay, Heather, are you ready for him?”

“Sure. Need help?”

Julio nods at the oversized box he’s brought in, the top haphazardly tucked closed. “That’s it.”

“…Huh.” I’m momentarily struck speechless, crossing the office to get a feel for the weight of the box. I guess wrong at the weight of the contents, exerting far more effort than what’s required for the feather light shifting inside.

“I thought they said it smelled,” I mutter. “There’s nothing in here to smell.”

Julio shrugs. He’s got no answers for me.

“Thanks for picking him up!” I call over my shoulder as I head towards the room with the retort in it.

The crematory itself is tucked into a room about the size of a horse stall, walls painted grey and the dark tiles almost always covered in fine grit. A dilapidated tan dresser leans against the far wall, stocked with cardboard rollers and temporary plastic urns, doors almost always hanging slightly askew. The center of the room is dominated by a hand-operated steel hydraulic lift, long and wide enough to hold a cremation container.

The retort itself is flush against the left wall, diamond plated metal from floor to ceiling and a guillotine door that lifts slowly when you push down a big green button. The chamber itself stretches back approximately 12 feet, lined with brick that glows with firefly cherries after a cremation.

I have a cardboard cremation container ready on the lift. The green numbers steadily rise on the temperature control monitor. I peer down into the box, pulling back the flaps to reveal blue-tinted plastic gallon bags and several shapes protected by bubble wrap.

I lift the lid off of the cremation container and lean it against the dingy grey wall. His name is already scrawled on it in black marker, one of the fail-safes in place to make sure we cremate the right body. The permanence and irreversibility of the cremation process means that we definitely cannot afford to make mistakes of any caliber.

I reach my hand in for the first piece of plastic, a round shape covered in bubble wrap. I pick at the tape with the edge of my nail, unwrapping it to reveal his skull, a neat cut separating the top portion at his forehead. The bone is yellowed; languishing inside the trailer loaned no ascetic austerity to it. A silver filling winks from his top molars, an empty gap between it and the next tooth. I hold the seat of a man’s entire personality in my hand. For the first time in my life, Hamlet’s soliloquy feels real. His empty eye sockets are mismatched oblongs that seem too wide and deep for a human face. I wonder what color his eyes were.

I place his skull at the top of the cremation container, as if he were lying bodily in the cardboard, then I reach my hand back into the box.

The second wrapped shape is his mandible. There is a faint scent of decay, the way the fridge smells after food has spoiled in it and you’ve spent all afternoon trying to scrub out the remainders. It’s hardly enough to stick in your nostrils at the end of the day, no heavy decomposition that makes you take soap to your skin three times in the shower. I nestle it just below his skull in the cremation container.

The third and final piece of bubble wrap surrounds his calvarium, the portion of bone known colloquially as the skullcap. This piece is removed during the autopsy so that the medical examiner can access the brain for removal and study. The fine sutures of bone meet in the middle of his skull, cursive petroglyphs carved in the womb and finalized as the fontanelles that closed when he was a toddler. I rest it above his skull.

Each of the gallon bags contains a segment of his skeleton. They’re loosely stacked in anatomical order, starting with his feet. Neat handwriting across the label defines the contents of each bag: left foot, right foot. As each bag goes into the cremation container, I roughly build the outline of a man.

The very bottom of the box holds his long bones, the ones too big to be contained by plastic bags intended for lunches brought to work and cafeterias. His ribs clatter together, a peculiar bundle against the palm of my closed fist. Somehow placing them inside the container makes his skeleton look lonelier instead of more complete. Somehow seeing the base structure of his very existence feels colossally intimate, even without the skin and muscle of his face looking up at me.

He had isolated himself enough that there was no one to notice he was dead and reduced to carrion.

In my hands, the heft of his femurs are thick, rounded curve of bone that could easily be used as a blunt weapon. I build his pelvis and knees and legs, rough-hewn texture beneath the smooth plastic of my glove. I could just dump the bones in the box and shove it into the retort without a second thought; many funeral directors would do exactly that. But I can’t bring myself to do that, if only because he didn’t have anyone to witness his death. There was no one to hold his hand and feed him ice chips between medication doses or write an obituary soliciting donations in lieu of flowers. I am sarcastic and profane at the best of times, and often both simultaneously, but I am not calloused.

Witnessing this, giving him form, feels like the least I could do for another human, someone who deserves more than just the bare minimum just by virtue of existing. I know nothing about him, but I know everyone deserves a good death — and ultimately, the desire to be witnessed and remembered is the driving force of the human existence, part of that good death. That fact is part of the reason why we procreate, part of why we spend so much time tapping statuses out on social media, part of why we maintain friends and further family. We want to be remembered after we’re dead because the idea of our entire lives being entirely meaningless is too brutally nihilistic for us to do anything but reject outright.

When the box is empty and his skeleton is built, I check the temperature gauge. It didn’t take long for the retort to warm up. I slip the top of the cremation container over the bones, covering what’s left of him in darkness. Beneath my bruised skin and flawed musculature, my skeleton reaches out to push the round green button that makes the steel door of the retort shudder open. My skeleton pushes the few pounds that are left of what used to be this entire human being into the roaring fire.

My skeleton witnesses his.

I am the very last person to see him exist in any form. Unlike him, I fervently hope there are other skeletons there to witness mine after I die, skeletons covered in skin and full of pumping blood and beating hearts. Skeletons that know I’m gone and feel sadness that hurts so much their chest might burst, skeletons with eyes I’ve looked into and ears that have heard me tell them I love them.

Then I close the door and walk away while the fire eats through what’s left behind, reducing him to even less than the little that remained.

All names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the decedent and former co-workers. I blog at MortuaryReport.com, where this post was originally published in 2015.