Updated: August 8, 2013 6:25AM
The 30-year-old cremation chamber looks like a large pizza oven, something I didn’t expect considering that thousands of human bodies have been burned inside its walls.
I decided long ago that I want to be cremated after I die, rather than a traditional burial with a casket, vault and gravesite marker. So, I figured, why wait until then to see what the cremation process looks like.
During a visit last month to Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville, for another column, I noticed the facility has its own crematorium. My interest was piqued. I had to see it up close and personal.
“This is it,” said Tim McClure, the cemetery’s grounds superintendent who has worked there for 33 years.
Along with Tom Music, assistant grounds superintendent, the two men showed me around the garage-like crematorium located in a separate building on the spacious grounds. Inside, a family waiting room has comfy furniture and a big window to watch their loved one get wheeled into the chamber.
“If a family member wants to switch it on, that’s their preference,” McClure said as he demonstrated the chamber’s various knobs and dials. “Some people actually do. Cremation is more common than when I started here.”
Cremation is certainly on the rise in this country, so much so that more Americans are expected to be cremated than buried within the next few years — a first in the U.S.
In 2000, the national cremation rate hovered around 25 percent, the same as Indiana’s current rate. That national figure is projected to be doubled in the next few years.
Several reasons explain this, including its cheaper price tag and eco-friendly capabilities, our harsh economic times, and a more secular and mobile society. Let’s face it. It’s easier to haul around an urn than to exhume a casket. It’s legal, too.
What do Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, George Harrison and John Lennon have in common beyond being rich, famous celebrities? That’s right, they were all cremated, which is cooler to do than ever before.
“Even the Catholic Church, which adamantly opposed the concept for centuries, has accepted the process if the ashes, called cremains, are interred in consecrated ground,” said Dan Moran, general manager of Calumet Park Cemetery.
Cremation, however, is a process, not a final disposition, he noted.
“The question of what to do with the cremains is a significant one, and can affect many people who shared important time with the deceased,” Moran said. “The choices are to delay the decision by taking the cremains home or to find a final placement in a cemetery.”
Some families disagree over cremating their loved one, especially if the ashes are scattered.
“Once the cremains have been blown to the wind, they cannot be recovered,” Moran said. “And there is no place for those left behind to go when they have a need to be near the mortal remains of their lost loved one.”
Two of the cemetery’s board members have a pilot’s license and they have been known to use a plane to spread a customer’s ashes from the air, as long as it stays within this state, Music said.
According to law, a 48-hour wait time is required before a body can be cremated. It takes roughly three hours to cremate a body, depending on its size and other factors. A large person with more bone mass, versus simply more fat, will create more cremains, McClure noted.
Every decedent whose body enters the chamber is clothed, out of respect and dignity. After the body gets cremated, a hand-held magnet is swept across it to detect any hidden metals, such as surgical screws, pacemaker parts, or tooth fillings.
At this facility, a special “shop vac” is used to vacuum all the ashes to ensure none get lost. McClure or Music even tap the shop vac’s filter to make sure all the ashes are emptied, noting that using a brush or broom could lose up to 20 percent of the remains.
“Whatever goes in there we give it back to the family,” McClure told me.
The ashes, which are actually bone fragments, are then poured into a processing unit to be pulverized into finer particles, which takes another hour or so. Afterward, an identification pin is attached to the cremains in case future exhumation and identification is needed.
Sometimes a body is so large that its cremains will not fit into a standard-sized container. In those cases, a larger container (or two) is used, reflecting another trend in this country, rising obesity rates.
For anyone considering cremation, there are basically two types — direct cremation, and traditional funeral services with visitation and viewing followed by cremation. Direct cremation is just that — no ceremony, only the disposal of human remains.
“However, there is a lot that goes into what’s called a simple cremation,” Moran said.
Also, there is a more modern and high-tech form of cremation using a combination of heat, water and potassium hydroxide to break down a body, rather than flames. Something new to consider.
Before I left the crematorium, I asked the two workers, McClure and Music, if they will someday be cremated. McClure said yes in a heartbeat. Music was more elusive.
“That would be up to my wife,” he said with a smile.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.