Approximately 155,000 of us die each day; 6,458 an hour; about 2 every second.
Eight people died while you read that last line.
And for approximately 1,800 of us each year in Vancouver, Boris Gomez is our body’s final stop.
Boris looks like a gangster from East L.A.–baggy black Dickies, short sleeve black dress shirt exposing tattoos on his upper arms, hair pulled back in a Latino ‘fro ponytail.
He incinerates dead people at a Hell-hot temperature of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit six days a week, eight hours a day.
More than half of all Canadian deaths in 2008 will be followed by cremation. In the U.K. the number is over 70%, with Bulgaria limping along at 5%, Japan winning Gold with 99% and the USA below average with 33%. Generally cremation is on the rise world-wide. It’s becoming so popular even Catholics are getting in on the action.
With that in mind I needed to find some answers for myself. What happens to my body after sweet Jesus comes calling? Would I prefer my family watch as I roll into a massive oven inside a ornately designed, heavily lacquered box only to get swept up a couple hours later as ashes and dust? Or would I rather they gaze upon a Madam Tussaud’s version of me that afterward will be lowered into the ground to slowly rot and leak embalming toxins into the Earth for tw0 decades? That and I wanted to find out what it takes to burn bodies for a living. What with a looming apocalypse on the horizon cremationism may be one of the few decent paying careers left when our globe warms too much, the oil runs out and the asteroids hit.
Boris and I arrange to meet at the back of the funeral home after regular business hours. Apparently allowing strangers to watch and photograph other dead strangers burn is frowned upon. In some circles.
As soon as I step foot into the facility I am reminded of why dying can be such a morose experience for those left behind. How strange that all funeral homes look and smell like the last place you and your loved ones want to give Granny her send-off. Funeral homes are institutional and drab and have effectively ruined my ability to tolerate artificial air fresheners. Purple gel-pack fragrances–plugged into electrical outlets–emit sickeningly potent, artificially cheery odours meant to mask the stench of years of accumulated death. Having been through three funerals in the last two years in exactly such environs my initial response is to turn and walk away. But I don’t.
Boris guides me through the cremains display area–essentially an indoor graveyard for cremated people–then onto the actual room that houses the retorts or ovens. This room is accessed through a biohazard door, looks like a WWII Soviet military bunker, produces a constant industrial drone and smells like…cremation. Which is to say burning flesh is most often associated with pig roast. But that’s not all. Throw in some burning cardboard, plywood or lacquered hardwood coffin. Then add the unmistakable stink of singed hair, melting polyester, cotton and silk, and the chemical sting of boiling embalming fluid. Voila. You now have the pungent stench of the stranger’s cremation I chose to bear witness to.
Rob: How did you get into the job of body incineration?
Boris: Since I was 10 or 11 I’ve wanted to do make-up on bodies. I was really into Tom Savini (Vietnam vet who excelled in gory make-up), KNB Effects (Evil Dead 2, Day of the Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn, Pulp Fiction), and Fangoria Magazine and I thought to do it on real bodies would be great. After film school I went to make-up school and that got me closer to trying to do something with embalming. Then a couple years ago a friend of a friend who was working here told me there was an opening. Thought I’d fit the bill. And I’ve stayed with cremation because I really fell in love with the process. I enjoy working with one of the essential elements, watching fire dismantle a body.
Rows of cardboard and pine boxes, some covered with fuzzy blue fabric, lay side by side behind a hospital curtain, waiting to be burned. On each box is a piece of paper that reads HEAD in bold letters and gives details of the person’s time of death, age and gender. Boris selects a middle-aged man named Burt and rolls him on a stretcher into the retort room.
photo by R. Chursinoff
R: What temperature do the ovens burn at?
B: The retorts can be anywhere from 1700 to 2400 degrees farenheit. When you open the retort doors the brick lining has swelled because of the heat.
R: It takes the average body how long to burn?
B: 2-3 hours. But if you have a lacquered casket it can take 45 minutes longer.
R: And all that lacquered wood goes out into the air?
R: And it’s toxic?
B: Yeah, it’s horrible. If you ever get cremated it’s completely pointless to get put in this ornately decorated casket that costs anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000. And the casket is lined with zinc a lot of the time and at 2000 degrees zinc liquifies. It’s a huge mess. I think if a family saw the difference between getting cremated in a pine box as opposed to a huge lacquered limousine…
R: …They’d choose not to.
R: I recently read on-line that there’s increasing community opposition to the pollution caused by cremation, particularly mercury found in fillings and there’s been suggestions that you the cremator would be required to pull teeth out of a body before burning. How do you feel about this?
B: I’d be totally into pulling teeth out of bodies! If a family wants to bring their loved one to this crematorium I’d love to wrench at the body’s face to pull teeth. But I think in the end it’s a negligible amount of Mercury.
R: What’s the most disturbing thing you’ve had to go through here at the crematorium?
B: Nothing disturbing, there was something absolutely fucking horrendous to go through but I’m glad I experienced it.
R: Go on.
B: I received a close to 300lb woman in a cardboard box and I noticed a stain on the side of the box.
R: What was it?
B: It was her purging inside of the box.
R: What’s she purging?
B: Purging black bile basically. When you die all your organs start to fill with gases. They liquefy from the inside out and that’s purge fluid. I was dealing with another family about to witness their baby’s cremation. I was about to head into the witness room with them when this 300 lb. woman in this blue, cat-print velvet jump-suit plops out of her box (coming apart from purge fluid) onto the floor.
R: Oh shit.
B: So I dealt with the family and came back and grabbed the woman, who was face-down, and rolled her over. It’s weird how stiff and rigid and at the same time floppy a body is. It’s all those things at once. So I roll her over and she’s purging out of her nose and mouth and crotch. Her entire crotch area was just, like, blackened.
R: (I make a noise of disgust that I don’t know how to spell.)
B: The ground was covered in this basically greasy, filmy type of slime. I can’t really describe it’s consistency. Like oil. It’s right away sticky and it smells like…….rotting blood basically. It’s pretty amazing really.
R: Does it smell a little like faeces?
B: Faeces with, like if you left a pack of hot dogs out of the fridge for a couple days. And smelling salts. It’s got something really horrible like shit and then something else really pungent like rotting flesh but then there’s that third thing that even if you completely lost your sense of smell it would be like a punch to the face. Your eyes water. Automatically your head recoils. You can’t help it.
R: (whispers) Wow!
Boris has set Burt in line with the steel door of the massive, silver-coloured, industrial oven. The door slowly raises revealing the blackness of the brick-lined interior. Boris pulls a lever and Burt rolls into the dark, plopping off the conveyor belt with a cringe-inducing thud. Now the door descends and Juan presses a green button. A loud click can be heard signalling the furnace firing up, followed a few seconds later by an overwhelming jet engine sound. I imagine Burt as the dead Captain Spock waiting to be launched into orbit for his space burial in the final scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
R: How many bodies do you burn a day?
B: Six to eight. We have a guy who services our machines, he basically goes all over North America and he commented on how one of our machines basically just fucking swallows a body. What takes three to three and a half hours, our machine can do in 45 minutes to an hour. If you open up the door you’ll actually see the flame tear through the skull, it’ll chip the skull into pieces.
I expected to see eyeballs melting and skulls chipping away from flame but unlike the 1970s when a person could watch the entire grim process through an oven window, today’s laws state that the door must be solid steel. I can only witness certain stages of the process in 15 minute intervals.
R: Are you a religious person?
B: I am religious but I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are either not religious or extremely anti-religious. And whenever I bring those types of people in, whether they’re Agnostic or Atheist and they watch the retort door open up and watch a cremation and something elemental happens, they watch the flame bombard the body…it’s the closest you can get to a religious experience. A religious experience in a non-denominational way. It’s, it’s… disquieting and peaceful at the same time. People always come in and expect something really gory and nasty but I think what impresses people the most is how fascinating and awe inspiring it is to watch it.
R: It seems like someone who’s been around death or has seen death and maybe has a predisposition to being cool under pressure, like working with a dead body or being a doctor, well that’s the kind of predisposition it takes.
B: Yeah and I would say when it comes to what I do compared to what doctors or nurses see, it’s nothing. I can look at a body while it’s purging fluids from every orifice, it’s dead, it’s a slab of meet. You know what I mean? That’s the way I see it. But when I think of what a nurse sees, pain and misery and you know, somebody’s life in the balance, looming death…I couldn’t do that I don’t think.
R: Does the body make any sounds when it burns away. Like organs boiling or anything?
B: Yeah you hear flesh pop. You’re fat is really porous. There’s layers of grease basically beneath the skin that when it heats up, it’s got all this skin to fucking like… explode through. When the (oven) door’s open I take the ten foot hook and hook the body somewhere under the rib cage and because there’s only one flame I’ve gotta keep dragging the body forward so it’s always under the flame. So when I do that I hear oozing and melting and popping…um…and it’s pretty strange.
R: And have you ever been burned by fat popping out?
B: Yeah I’ve opened the door too early, like you’re supposed to wait an hour but I only waited 15 minutes. It was a really big man I remember, um…he was 400 lb. This man was like a circle basically inside the bag before I put him in his box, there were no poles to it, it was a perfect circle. So you have to open up the bag to I.D. them, you have to stick the toe tag on them…
R: You have to do that?
B: Yeah when I pick-up a body from the hospital. So I open up the bag and it’s this man, he still had a hospital gown on and he only had, I guess he was an amputee so he only had up to his, like, knees.
R: And he was still 400 lb.?
B: Still 400 lb., so you could imagine how fucking big he was.
R: ….(this is me being speechless)
B: We couldn’t even put him on a normal stretcher. So anyway we put him in a huge box (at the hospital) and a week later we got him. I put him in the machine, waited 15 or 20 minutes and then with the big hook I hooked him under the rib-cage and I kept pulling and pulling and I guess I tore right through him and some fat came popping out. I got some on the neck, on the arm and when fat burns it’s like napalm, it sticks to you and spreads.
Now Boris takes me around to the back of the oven to open the smaller back door for a close-up view of the process. As the door raises I can make out Burt’s feet which have been stripped to bone. Further back in the center of the oven the bulk of his body burns as an intense white light fueled by organs and fat. Further back still Burt’s right arm, which has curled upwards due to the extreme heat, is waiving hello to me. I wave back and pray that none of his fat shoots out and sticks like burning napalm to my face.
With the oven door open more than a few seconds black clouds of cooking Burt billow out. It’s now that I get my first-hand effects of burning body. Like chain-smoking a pack of human.
R: (Coughing and gagging) Describe what you inhale on a daily basis will you?
B: In the beginning it’s horrible because it’s the hair going and that’s all you can smell if you open the retort right away, and then the box covers that up so it’s nice. But then if you wait 15 minutes, that’s when it’s the first layer of skin and then you start to get to the fat and it’s got such a sweet smell to it.
B: It’s like mesquite barbecue.
R: How accurate is The Cremation of Sam MaGee? Does a body really dance around in the flames? Like, why was Burt’s arm waiving to me?
B: Well a body will go into a pugilist stance–the arms go up and it looks like it’s getting ready to fight. When the tendons are heated-up they contract and all the limbs kind of shoot up. Looks like a dead cartoon cat on the ground with all it’s limbs in the air.
R: Besides fat shooting out of the machine when the doors are open is there anything else hazardous about burning a body?
B: Pace-makers. The chest cavity will explode from the pace-maker heating up inside. And it’s so fucking powerful an explosion the pace-maker will actually make divets in the brick lining.
R: I thought you’d be a whack-job but you seem relatively normal for someone who burns bodies for a living. What are your co-workers like or other people you’ve met in this industry?
B: There are three types of people that come to work in the funeral industry in general: There are the people, like me, who know they’ve always been into this type of thing, who can handle it and find it interesting. And then there are the people who really find it rewarding to deal with the families, to give the families what they want and help them in their time of need. And a lot of them are gay men. Gay men are the best with families. They pay attention to detail, they’re so empathetic, they don’t rush the family through, they make follow-up calls, all that type of stuff. And then there’s the third type of person, who are the most interesting by far. They’re the type of people who had bank jobs or….basically come from all walks of life, tried many things before they got here. And failed miserably at all of them. They come here with a lot of hostility…strange pathologies. They’re really fucked-up people. And they stick out like sore thumbs. It seems like every funeral home has one or two. A lot of them are managers, secretaries or funeral directors. And they’re completely deranged people. A lot of people find crazy people cool or interesting or kitschy. I don’t. I work with these people and I think they’re nuts. It’s extremely painful to have a family come in and I’m working shoulder to shoulder with this illiterate monkey who every time they open their mouth offends the family.
It’s probably the hardest part of this job. Not the dead people or any of the macabre stuff. It’s working with this, like…degenerate inbred.
R: Other than that do enjoy this job?
B: I do enjoy it. I like working with one of the elements, with fire and watching a body burn. Because I always think about what I do here and where it stands in the larger scheme of things. It’s a pretty amazing thing to get on a bus full of people or go into a bar full of people or be at a friends house or a party; to be surrounded by people when six days a week, you know, you have just come from lighting someone’s grandma on fire or setting a couple foetuses aflame.
R: You’re a real conversation piece. Can I invite you to my next dinner party?
R: Do you have any coping mechanisms for this job when it gets to be too much?
B: Like many people, alcohol. I think about death a lot, I don’t see daylight or living people for long stretches of time. So when I go out and drink I turn into a Berzerker, I’m like a fucking Hispanic Viking. I remind myself to take advantage of life so in a way my job lights a fire under my ass.
R: An alcoholic fire?
B: Yes. But I only drink once a month.
R: Does the job or experience you have here change when you see the body, when you see their face before lighting them up?
B: To me it’s a warehouse when I come to work right? I come in here load boxes, feed them to machines and the machines turn them into ash. It’s a faceless job. But sometimes I read a name, I get curious and I look them up online or I read an obituary that’s been posted online.
R: You do that afterward?
B: I do it during the process. It doesn’t feel right sometimes that I uh…open the retort and it’s a carcass. It could be a fucking pig carcass and it doesn’t mean shit to me. But if I read a name…you know like Jewish people, one of the most intimate things a Jewish person does is tell you their name. That’s why to them God’s name is such an important thing. And I believe in that, I think it’s an important aspect.
R: Are you Jewish?
B: No. I’m Roman Catholic with some Agnostic tendencies.
R: Will you say the dead person’s name out loud to yourself?
B: Yeah, I’ll actually be on the bus, or I’ll be at a bar and I’ll be drinking my fifth or sixth beer and their name is still going through my head, and it goes through my head all night long. And sometimes I’ll read something on the casket written by a daughter or something and that goes through my head. And not in a sentimental way.
R: More like an imprint?
B: Yeah, no emotional attachment, it’s just that I do feel a kinship with every single body that comes through here. These are some of the closest relationships that I can build. And they’re with dead people. You know what I mean? Because I can’t think of anything more intimate than someone saying I put the responsibility squarely on you to do away with my body.
R: Do you ever say a little something, an invocation or prayer of any sort?
B: Yeah I say… different types of prayers. I basically beg God that nothing goes wrong again during a witness (when the family watches). Or if it’s somebody that nobody came to witness or there’s no next of kin, yeah I say something from me to them.
R: What do you say?
B: Uh, that’s uh between me and them. It’s however I feel at the time. Sometimes it’s something quick and I’m wondering what they were like or if they’re (spirit) present or if they’re watching. You know…is there anything beyond just this slab of meat that’s about to get cooked?
What remains of Burt is swept into a collector bin and carried to the bone-crushing room where Boris proceeds to do just that. Metal hip replacements, buttons from a suit, in some cases nails and other metal coffin parts, and in Burt’s case a mouth retainer, are all collected by an industrial strength magnet and thrown away. The remaining bone fragments are then funnelled into a large blender and aggressively reduced to ash.
R: What is the difference in funeral experiences for you between casket and burial?
B: When you cremate a body it’s such a final thing. I’ve actually never had anybody close to me die where I’ve had to go to a funeral or to witness a cremation. But whenever I do think about that, whenever I weigh the two options I think okay we take a body which is still intact and we put it in a box, it gets lowered 6 feet into the ground and we put soil over it, you can walk away but it’s still there. You know what I mean?
There’s still an attachment, like it isn’t completely final.
R: And of course the process of cremation, especially if you witness one, it’s immediate and there’s nothing left to hang on to.
B: Yeah I think with a cremation it’s so much more of a full stop. You know, it’s like, you get ushered into the viewing room, the curtain opens, you watch the casket go into this machine, you turn on the switch, wait a couple seconds and the light comes on and you hear the flame bombarding the casket, bombarding the body.
R: Have you questioned your own mortality or life in general since you got this job? I mean, beyond binge-drinking like a Hispanic Viking once a month?
B: Some people that get into this job like to pretend that they’ve cornered that aspect of living. Like they know death. I know death about as little as anyone. The bodies that I look at, that’s not death, that’s just a dead body. I still sit around navel gazing, doing little with myself the way I was before I had this job. But I reflect on life and death more. Before I got into this job I was scared shitless of death. I was so scared that I needed to be surrounded by it. I wanted to see it as much as possible.
R: But doesn’t that desensitize you in some way?
B: Yes and no. I can do eight bodies in one day and it won’t mean shit to me but then the first one the next day…an idea pops into my head and I think, that could be my mom or that could be my little sister. And then I think I’m glad it’s you in that box and not my family or me.
I left the crematorium that evening with the smell of burning human on my clothes. My eyes were red, my throat was dry and scratchy and I felt the overwhelming urge to hug someone. I drank Scotch with friends instead. And for days I was haunted by the experience; the stench, the cold industrial facility, the images of a body engulfed in flames.
I thought of the funerals of friends and family I’d been to in the last two years and thought about how pleasant it was after the sombre indoor service to be outdoors, gathered with loved-ones, watching the casket lower into its resting place. Would I rather my mom and dad, or a girlfriend get ripped apart by flame in a giant oven in a stark factory setting? No. Funeral wins. As macabre as it is that we’re able to cling a little longer to a mummified version of the once living person, slowly decaying over decades, it does feel like a more peaceful process.
As for my own body. Genetics informs me–and this is confirmed by two Gypsy psychics–that I die 60 years from now. So if any of my friends that care for me are still around… They can do what pleases them. Burn me, bury me, make art out of me, eat me. I do not care.
Could I do Boris’ job? If I had to. $20 an hour isn’t a bad wage considering the working conditions. Throw in $5 more an hour and send me to Bali to burn bodies outdoors on a pyre and I’ll cook ‘em all day. With reverence of course.