When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.
I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of an exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.
The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.
The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.
Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.
As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.
The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.
After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.
Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.
Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.