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Cremation: Chinese Grill

September 20, 2016


Tuesday, September 20 @ 1324

This morning I promised to tell about a restaurant at the corner of Central and Santa Fe in Billings, Montana, that used to have a crematorium.  That’s right.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the soot in the massive chimney had any, well, fleshy charcoal, from the cremated bodies, mixed with the pork, chicken and beef from Mongolian Barbecue.

For research, I read some from one of my favorite books, Stiff, by Mary Roach.  Ms. Roach has written several books in which she has explored popular subjects, such as the digestive tract, but  I haven’t read that one yet, just the one about the “Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

I’ll paraphrase what she said about how human bodies react to being cremated.  I hasten to add that I have never witnessed a cremation, but I did speak to a mortician, a young woman at “Michelotti–Sawyers Cremations and Funerals.”

She showed us her cremation furnace, complete with smoke stack that looks like you could drop a volkswagen down it.  Just like the smoke stack in the Chinese grill restaurant that had since become vacant.  Makes me wonder what’s next for the corner of Santa Fe and Central.  Another crematorium?

My mother had an oil furnace in the house we rented when I was in high school in Dillon, Montana.  The M. — S. cremation furnace looked a lot like that.  I used to open the door to our oil furnace and watch the roaring flames.  I had another couple experiences with incinerators when I was a pharmacist with the U.S. Public Health Service in Lame Deer and again in Pryor.  Both of these incinerators burned fuel oil that sprayed out of jets in the side.  They made for a hot furnace that roared.  We used to throw bottles of liquid injectable medications into the furnace and the glass would explode and the liquid contents would vaporize.  Presumably that’s what happens to a cadaver being cremated.

The cadaver must be placed in a lightweight container in order to be pushed into the furnace.  Immediately the hair and skin is scorched and burnt off.  Next the muscles are burned and they contract with the intense heat.  Mary Roach didn’t know if the myth that a body sits up and screams when burnt had any truth at all.  Anyway, after a few hours the muscles and collagen all are reduced to ash by the intense heat, I don’t know, more than a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

Ms. Roach said that the brain is peculiarly resistant to being incinerated.  She said that even if the skull is broken by the heat the brain remains a kind of gelatinous mass.

The woman at Michelotti — Sawyers told me that frequently the bones look human once the cremation is complete, so they must be placed in a large metal blender to be crushed and pulverized into unrecognizable fragments, even the teeth, even the coagulated brain.  I don’t remember if she mentioned that the bones and the remainders have to cool.  She had a kind of fireplace tool-looking hoe she uses to remove the bones and ashes from the cremation chamber that is lined with firebricks.

Of course, I think I’ve said before that the metal hardware that orthopedic surgeons implant into their living patients ends up as fire-darkened artificial hips, knees, and long strips of metal with nails and screws poking out.  Of course these aren’t deposited in the container with the ashes, but are saved out, ostensibly to be “recycled.”  Whatever that means.  I guess eventually when they get enough artificial knees and hips together they make a trip to Pacific Hide and Fur.

I read in Ms. Roach’s book that smoke from a cremation does not have to meet any emission standards, such as the smoke from most other forms of solid waste disposal.  She surmised that the EPA doesn’t want to be accused of the impolitic description of human bodies as “solid waste.”

Once when I drove on West Seventh Street near a business called “Cremation and Funeral Gallery” I observed some black smoke issuing from their gigantic smoke stack.  I didn’t want to believe they were cremating someone, but now I know they probably were.  That’s what it looks like when the cremating is taking place.

What to do with the ashes?  Roach suggested that many morticians claim that, in order to sell urns and cemetery crypts, scattering ashes in most places is illegal, such as in Yellowstone National Park, but in fact it is not.  It may be illegal — and stupid — to disregard signs at Yellowstone warning one to remain on trails and boardwalks, but scattering ashes is okay as long as no one catches you doing it.

When my brother died in 1997 our younger son Bob took some of Tom’s ashes to San Francisco to a Zen Monastery where Tom had lived during the early 1970s.  Bob asked to place some ashes there, but the powers that be declined to give him permission.  Bob said he toured the facility — the people were friendly and helpful — and even saw the place Tom stayed and slept.  I think it might have resembled some sort of cubicle or cell large enough for one person to sleep on a mat.

Bob said he dumped his portion of Tom’s ashes underneath a bush at the monastery before he left.

Those ashes, by the way, reminded me of fine gravel and gray dirt.  Tom’s entire body reduced to less than a cubic foot of ashes.  I’d say the cubic box, lined with a plastic bag and tied with what looked like a bread tie with a metal circular tag, was nine inches cubed.  I’m good at estimating nine inches because that’s approximately the span from my thumb tip to my little finger tip when I stretch my hand out as far as I can.

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