Crematory Whoopsies! is Episode 2 (Season One) of the Death in the Afternoon Podcast.
Mistakes happen. Cremations happen. But few things capture our morbid imagination like cremation mistakes happening. Whether it’s the horror of cremating your coworker, a misplaced corpse on the way to America’s first modern cremation, or plumes of “human remains particulate” interrupting your Best Buy shopping experience, nothing fans the flames of our phobias like a cremation blunder. This week we talk about things that can go right, wrong, and sideways when you’re in the business of cremating corpses.
Several times a year we receive dozens of emails per day about a shocking deathy story making headlines. This month for example, we’ve been inundated with questions and press requests about both the kids baking grandma’s ashes into cookies, and the discovery of the remains of infants in an abandoned funeral home. But the story we’ve gotten the most questions about is one we’ve seen more than once. In this episode we get to the bottom of the story’s most recent incarnation, and end up falling down a rabbit hole, that leads us to a disturbing and unexpected revelation.
In this episode it is also revealed that Louise once went to school next to a crematory. Here’s Louise to tell us more about that:
I mention in the podcast that I went to school next to a crematory for years and had no idea. My mom knew, but it was no big deal to her, she actually liked it.
Death positive before there was death positive, my mom thought it was a great part of the neighborhood – you had your local coffee shop, your local bakery, and your local crematory. I remember her finally telling me about it on the way to school one day, after I’d been attending that school for four years. I was around 10 or 11.
“You know, that building is a crematorium.”
“It’s where dead people go to be burned to ash if they don’t want to be buried. You don’t rot in the earth. I want to be cremated.”
“Yes. I want to be ashes and I want to be scattered! I want to be in the wind!”
She was so excited about it, and I wasn’t scared or grossed out. I remember my mom’s enthusiasm. She seemed so happy.
But when I told my friends about the crematorium, I remember the “Ew gross!” comments or the looks of fear. My friend Marisa thought it was cool though – shout out to Marisa!
I do remember my mom talking to one of the other moms, a woman decked out in blue spandex and matching blue eyeshadow (it was the ’80s y’all), and that mom saying in a hushed tone, “Is this something we should we be, I mean…WORRIED about? I mean…should we talk to someone about…you know…SAFETY?”
I think my mom laughed at her. Such is her way.
Anyway, my mom’s reaction to the friendly neighborhood crematory is probably one of the reasons I am the way I am. It wasn’t scary, it was just another service the community provided. And my mom was all for it.
In Sarah’s segment this week we learned the road to getting cremation legalized and accepted as a form of disposition wasn’t easy. Here’s Sarah to talk a bit more about cremation, and the pioneering women behind it:
It isn’t often that someone can come up with a piece of death history or trivia that Caitlin “Granger” Doughty isn’t familiar with, but I’m proud to say I’ve been able to do it a few times in the past several years, including that thing about the healing properties of decomposing whales, the tradition of telling the bees when someone dies, and the saga of cremation pioneer Henry Steele Olcott, featured in this weeks episode.
As you’ll hear in the podcast, when the idea of cremation was first introduced it was viewed as “unchristian” and “undignified.” It’s interesting to note that today, we’re seeing an eerily similar reaction from “powerful groups” that are fighting to oppose “water cremation” or aquamation, a more eco-friendly form of disposition. “Powerful groups” meaning male politicians and the church two entities who have a long history of policing women’s bodies, even when they’re dead. Body positivity and the fight for rights to make decisions about our own bodies and how we identify does not stop at death. MY CORPSE. MY CHOICE.
Women would play an influential role in paving the way for cremations in the U.S. (much like the women/femmes of the death positive movement today!), as many viewed their advocacy for cremation as their moral duty to uphold public health and safety, especially considering care for the sick and dying typically fell to women.
Here are a few notable cremation activists:
One of the ways in which American women advocated for cremation was to be among the first to sign their future corpses up for the process (can we repeat history with aquamation, home funerals, or recomposition? Si, se puede!). Often, the first bodies cremated in crematoriums throughout the country belonged to women, and in several instances their bodies were held in storage until a crematory had finished construction. Some of these first crematories still stand today, and even honor these pioneering women, like, Barbara Schorr, whose portrait hangs in the chapel at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.
Here in Los Angeles, at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, (which, by the way, was the first cemetery here that allowed burials of all races and religions), the first crematory in the west was built, (it was the second in the U.S.), and, you guessed it, the first person cremated there in 1886, was a woman named Olive A. Bird.
California’s first licensed female architect, Julia Morgan is most well known for her work on Hearst Castle, but throughout her career she would design hundreds of structures all over California, including Oakland’s first crematory. It was here that many women were employed to support and advise families, as well as to help create meaningful rituals and memorial practices around cremation.
Perhaps the most well known cremation activist was feminist and suffragette, Frances Willard, a fascinating figure who stated that “Politics is the place for women.” According to the Cremation Association of North America, the following words from Willard, can frequently be found on plaques hanging in crematoriums across the U.S.:
I have the purpose to help forward progressive movements even in my latest hours, and hence hereby decree that the earthly mantle which I shall drop ere long—shall be swiftly enfolded in flames and rendered powerless to harmfully effect the health of the living.
Episode 2 Transcript
[00:00:00] [Music plays. Soft string music in background.]
Caitlin: [00:00:04] I remember the day that people from all across the internet started sending me the article. “Can you talk more about this?” they asked. “Explain how it could possibly happen?” The article in question was “Morgue Employee Cremated By Mistake While Taking a Nap.”
[00:00:24] It was a fake story, I knew immediately. Along the lines of other internet death hoaxes like “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to a Dead Man’s Baby.” Or, “Police Find 200 Penises at Mortician’s Home.” I still get people asking me about that one. If the headline starts with “morgue worker” followed by some truly bizarre MadLibs style claim like, Cremated By Mistake, Giving Birth to Dead Man’s Baby, etc, and it appears on a website like “Crazy News.biz,” spoiler: it’s always fake.
[00:01:00] But then I clicked on the link. The story wasn’t posted on crazy news.biz. It was ABC news, you know, the real news, journalism. Reported, in gruesome detail, by the way, from Macomb County, Michigan. As someone who has worked in crematories for years, every part of this story seemed wrong to me. But journalism involves interviews, proof, due diligence, especially in reporting a story as salacious as someone in America being cremated alive.
[00:01:36] It had to be true. But how?
[00:01:41] [Death in the Afternoon theme plays.]
Caitlin: [00:01:48] Welcome back to Death in the Afternoon, a podcast about all things mortal from The Order of the Good Death. I’m Caitlin, a mortician and death educator, and as always I’m joined by my fellow researchers and writers Louise Hung and Sarah Chavez. Today’s episode: Crematory Whoopsies.
[00:02:08] [Music continues.]
Louise: [00:02:12] Hey everyone, Louise, again. So, Caitlin, what part of this story, this article, seemed wrong to you?
Caitlin: [00:02:19] All of it.
Louise: [00:02:19] All of it?
Caitlin: [00:02:20] Aaaaall ooooof it.
Louise: [00:02:24] Okay, So, the piece starts with Henri Johnson, the dead man. He’s 48-years old and an employee of the crematory. He’s been working for 16 hours straight—I don’t know how many labor laws that break—and he’s so exhausted he decides to lie down on a stretcher to take a nap. And that is where the problem starts.
Caitlin: [00:02:42] Okay, that is not even where the problems start. The problems start even before that first line. The headline of this ABC News article says he’s a morgue employee, but morgues and crematories are different things.
Louise: [00:02:54] Okay, so can you explain the difference to us plebeians?
Caitlin: [00:02:58] Well, I wouldn’t call you a plebeian, but if you wish to self-identify as that before your queen, fine. So, a morgue, in America at least, is where bodies are stored before they’re gonna be autopsied. Usually, a morgue, you would find attached to a coroner’s office or a medical examiner’s office. But a crematory, on the other hand, is more like a private business where families pay to cremate their dead.
Louise: [00:03:24] Okay, so already the headline has given him the wrong job title?
Caitlin: [00:03:28] Right. I mean, they’re related, so it would be like if I was a McDonald’s cashier and then the headline about my death said “Jack in the Box Manager Killed.” Like, it’s sort of on track, but also factually wrong, which is really weird in an article like this.
Louise: [00:03:45] Ok, all right. So, okay, Henri Johnson is napping on the stretcher.
Caitlin: [00:03:48] Also, don’t do that. Don’t—just, no one would ever do that. These are the same stretchers we use to move bodies all day. Bloated bodies, leaking bodies. You could not pay me enough of money to nap on one of those. Like, especially in a hot, active crematory.
Louise: [00:04:07] Okay, okay. So, it’s gross, but, possible?
Caitlin: [00:04:11] Yeah, it’s possible. It’s a nappable device, I guess. Grosser things have happened.
Louise: [00:04:16] Okay, so what happens next in the story is there’s this new, young employee, of course, working at the crematory. And, he’s supposed to cremate the body of a car accident victim, a 52 year old man, who would be pretty close in age to the napping Henri Johnson.
Caitlin: [00:04:34] What does that new employee do, Louise?
Louise: [00:04:37] Well, he doesn’t check the toe tag AT ALL, poor form Young Employee. He grabs the stretcher with Henri on it, and into the cremation machine Henri goes, sleeping, but certainly not dead. Mistakes were made. So the story goes.
Caitlin: [00:04:52] That just would have to be so many mistakes, like 47 mistakes were made.
Louise: [00:04:58] Well, is this an impossible number of mistakes?
Caitlin: [00:05:02] To me, yes. Honestly, that seems like an impossible number of mistakes at a crematory with any sort of procedures. Like, say that this is not just a giant fire pit makeshift crematory after the apocalypse in some abandoned lot somewhere. Yeah, this is an impossible number of mistakes for a normally functioning, running crematory.
Louise: [00:05:23] Isn’t that what happens, though, like in a plane crash or something, somehow everything goes wrong at once, none of the failsafes come through, the black box implodes or something, and disaster ensues.
Caitlin: [00:05:33] That is what I was thinking, at the time. That had to be it, that everything failed, one by one.
Louise: [00:05:40] So, how is what happened here in Macomb County that different from a normal crematory?
Caitlin: [00:05:47] Well, no crematory is normal, first of all. But, I think the most telling thing, is that dead bodies are just different than living bodies. They are completely still. They’re silent. Their skin goes down to room temperature or, actually, it’s usually chilled if they’ve been in crematory refrigeration. It’s just, a profound difference from a living human, who is breathing and warm when you touch them.
Louise: [00:06:12] Okay, well, that makes sense to you and me and I assume, other sensible people. But, hey, the guy was new!
Caitlin: [00:06:20] Yeah, he was new, but you also learn how different dead bodies look from living ones day one on the job. Hour one on the job.
Louise: [00:06:28] Okay, okay. So, here’s another big question… how do you not recognize your co-worker?
Caitlin: [00:06:33] Right, yes. That is another mystery.
Louise: [00:06:35] So what else did you find suspect?
Caitlin: [00:06:37] Okay, every dead body that comes into a crematory is meticulously labeled. We’re talking toe tags, labels on the body, labels on the boxes the bodies are kept in. In the funeral industry, there’s this really fanatic desire to not accidentally cremate the wrong dead person, because that’s not only morally corrupt, but a massive lawsuit waiting to happen. So, each time you cremate someone, all the paperwork is triple checked and then matched to the body before the cremation happens. Grabbing a random guy on a nearby gurney and just assuming it’s your man is pretty unheard of.
Louise: [00:07:19] Yeah, some unlabeled breathing person on a nearby gurney. Let’s cremate this one!
Caitlin: [00:07:25] Exactly.
Louise: [00:07:25] So… okay, so Henri Johnson is supposedly put into the cremation machine.
Caitlin: [00:07:29] And even before he was put into the cremation machine he would have to be loaded into a cardboard container and then that container would go onto the conveyor belt then that loads the machine.
Louise: [00:07:41] Without waking him up.
Caitlin: [00:07:41] Right, without waking up the sleeping guy.
Louise: [00:07:44] And then the machine is, of course turned on, to 1400 degrees, and then they only learned that it was Henri when they hear 15 seconds, very specific, of his blood-curdling screams from inside the machine.
Caitlin: [00:07:58] No.
Louise: [00:07:59] The article quotes his co-worker Jenna Davis here, saying, “At first, we didn’t understand where the sound was coming from. When we realized what was happening, it was too late. We shut down the heating system, but he was already dead.”
Caitlin: [00:08:14] Aaaaaahhhhhh.
Louise: [00:08:16] That would haunt you for the rest of your life.
Caitlin: [00:08:18] It would, in theory, the screams of a dying man, but although I have never had a chance to test this out, thankfully, I really don’t believe you could hear a person screaming from inside an active cremation machine. It’s too loud, and the concrete and the metal that surrounds the chamber is too thick.
Louise: [00:08:38] So, even given all these red flags in the story, we know it’s real news. Henri Johnson was a real man who died in this horrific way, and now people on Twitter are asking you to explain how it could have happened. How do you explain these things while you have still so many questions yourself?
Caitlin: [00:08:55] Yes, thanks Twitter. I did what any 21st century mortician would do and tried to work out my thoughts in a Twitter thread.
Louise: [00:09:04] Oh, obviously.
Caitlin: [00:09:05] I tweeted the article first, and then I started writing everything I could think of that would have had to go wrong for this to happen. And as I’m in the middle of this very passionate Twitter thread, I get a reply from someone saying the story is fake. And I think I responded, “So ABC was tricked somehow, this is all an elaborate hoax?” And they said, “No, the ABC website is fake.”
Louise: [00:09:32] Okay, can you explain that?
Caitlin: [00:09:33] Someone had fully mirrored the ABC news website. We’re talking down to the logos and chyrons and banner ads, except inserting in the template this completely made up story about cremating a person alive. And the worst part is the ABC website is abnews.go and the fake URL is abcnews.us.
Louise: [00:09:57] Which is actually the less fake sounding website.
Caitlin: [00:10:01] I KNOW.
Louise: [00:10:02] Why do you think someone would go to all this trouble of creating a fake ABC news site?
Caitlin: [00:10:07] Ad revenue, man. Clicks. False news. They later described as a site “spoofing” ABC News. Except when you recreate everything about the site down to the last minute detail, and the only thing that’s different is the site is abcnews.us not abcnews.go or whatever, that’s not a spoof.
Louise: [00:10:28] Not a spoof.
Caitlin: [00:10:29] It’s not satire, it’s just news you made up out of thin air.
Louise: [00:10:34] Yeah, it’s not a hilarious send up of all the other cremated alive stories sweeping the media lately.
Caitlin: [00:10:39] And, then it gets clicks because it’s playing into this ur, primal fear in humanity that we’ll be buried alive, or cremated alive, or that we’ll wake up in an ice bath with our organs harvested.
Louise: [00:10:53] Clicks equal money. It’s like that false news stories from the 2016 election about like, Hillary Clinton running a pizza shop sex ring.
Caitlin: [00:11:01] It’s more straight up fake news than a satire outlet like The Onion. And yeah, sure, maybe a fake cremated alive story is ultimately less sinister than the damaging wave of false news stories, but it freaked me out that even though the story seemed so wrong, as a professional, I’m sitting there trying to find a way to believe it. I had to reconcile it with myself, because it was journalism, it was ABC News, which means it is true. So, here I am jumping through hoops in my mind to see how it happened just like they said it happened. And it hadn’t happened, it was a complete lie.
Louise: [00:11:44] Okay, so, after this story, this quote-unquote “story” broke, the Macomb County morgue was getting bombarded by calls from people wondering about their employee who had been cremated alive, to which they replied that there’s no story here, we don’t even have a crematory.
Caitlin: [00:12:01] Right, because again, morgues and crematories are different things.
Louise: [00:12:06] NOT THE SAME.
Caitlin: [00:12:08] Not the same. So the people who did this—it was a website named World News Daily Report, which is basically a fake news generator. And, fun fact: they are also responsible for the greatest hit, “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to Dead Man’s Baby.”
Louise: [00:12:26] They’re really into that sweet, sweet morgue worker content.
Caitlin: [00:12:30] Yeah. It’s evergreen. It’s always good. So, I guess, interestingly, they were ALSO sued by Le Journal de Montreal in Quebec for creating a similar “satire” site that mirrors the Journal. But the real paper is contending no, the design is too similar, and your average reader is completely unable to tell that this is not our paper, and not our articles.
Louise: [00:12:55] Which is exactly what happened with ABC news. So, what’s the lesson here?
Caitlin: [00:13:01] Is there a lesson here? I guess, we’re whipping through the internet all the time, and we’re taking in these small visual clues to try and determine if something is legitimate information. And, it’s so ingrained in our daily practice that we don’t even know that we’re doing it. So, for example, you see a New York Times article and you read the headline and you’re going to categorize that in your brain as true. And if you see a post from your uncle on Facebook that says Obama is a Muslim, you’re going to take that with a grain of salt. But what this shows us is that it’s harder and harder to make that distinction.
Louise: [00:13:37] So, to not end on a totally disheartening note, no one was cremated alive.
Caitlin: [00:13:42] Yes, that is good news.
Louise: [00:13:45] And we learned that morgues are not the same as crematories.
Caitlin: [00:13:49] Not the same! Not the same.
[00:13:54] [Music plays.]
Louise: [00:14:01] Cremation is now the post mortem choice for half of all Americans. And cremated alive hoaxes aside, your typical cremation usually goes off without a hitch. But cremation didn’t used to be so popular, it was perceived to be a scandalous, pagan practice. And it didn’t used to be so easy, either. Sarah Chavez is back to explain.
[00:14:23] [Music plays.]
Sarah: [00:14:31] Henry Steel Olcott, a retired U.S. Union Army Colonel, co-founded the Theosophical Society, with famed Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky in 1875. He was a passionate advocate for temperance, women’s rights, and cremation.
[00:14:51] Olcott viewed cremation as not only more convenient, sanitary, and economical, but also as proven way to put a stop to those pesky vampires that kept popping up all over Europe. His reasoning being that since vampires only existed in countries that practiced burial, cremation would definitely eliminate that whole VAMPIRE PROBLEM.
[00:15:18] An early member of the Theosophical Society, Baron De Palm, whose health was failing, befriended Olcott and appointed him his executor, instructing Olcott to hold a funeral for him “in a fashion that would illustrate the Eastern notions of death and immortality.”
[00:15:38] And that’s just what he did. With the corpse of Baron De Palm now at his disposal, Olcott decided to use the opportunity to popularize the concept of cremation by renting out a 2,000 seat Masonic Hall in New York, where he would put on a lavish funeral for the public.
[00:16:00] The day of the funeral finally came—newspapers had been hailing it as a, “Genuine pagan funeral.” When attendees arrived at the sold-out event, they entered into a darkened hall, the air heavy with smoke and the scent of burning incense. Candles were flickering in the dark, and the sound of chanting and singing could be heard emanating from an unseen source.
[00:16:29] Suddenly, Olcott enters, accompanied by seven men in black, hooded robes. And, just as he begins his eulogy, chaos breaks out as audience members begin shouting about the devil, and a man rushes onto the stage, only to be dragged off by police.
[00:16:51] While Olcott’s funerary event wasn’t exactly successful, it did garner a great deal of publicity and sort of fulfilled De Palm’s last wishes for a funeral. But now came the problem of how to actually cremate him, with no crematories in existence within the U.S. The corpse would need to be preserved until Olcott could come up with a solution.
[00:17:18] Prior to the NY spectacle, De Palm’s body had been injected with arsenic to stem further decomposition, but now, something a bit more lasting would need to be employed. At this time embalming was not widely practiced or common in America, but that didn’t stop undertaker August Buckhorst from… improvising the procedure. After removing De Palm’s intestines, Buckthorst replaced them with a mixture of potter’s clay and carbolic acid. Surprisingly, it did the trick, because four months later when Buckhorst did a show and tell of the corpse for journalists, De Palm was found to be in excellent condition, his perfectly coiffed mustache still hipster enviable, and not a single hair out of place.
[00:18:12] As fortune would have it, Olcott came across a story in a local newspaper about a Dr. Francis LeMoyne—a retired physician in rural Pennsylvania that had constructed a small crematory on his property, complete with a retort to dispose of his own body upon the event of his death.
[00:18:33] Olcott wrote to Dr. LeMoyne to request that his personal crematory be used to cremate the body of DePlam, suggesting the two men could join forces and use this as an opportunity to publicly demonstrate the benefits of cremation.
[00:18:51] The doctor agreed, and after acquiring the proper permits and undergoing necessary inspections, the men assembled a group of influential scientists, sanitary, theological, and economical experts as well as journalists, to witness the cremation, in hopes that they would all help to spread the gospel of decomposition by flame.
[00:19:18] Once all the arrangements were finalized, De Palm’s body was loaded onto a train, with a host of escorts, including Buckhorst, Olcott, and the assorted journalists and experts. The journey goes well, until they reach their destination in Pittsburg when the body goes missing.
[00:19:40] “How can we have a cremation without a corpse?” Buckhorst asks. After a chaotic period the body is located and then loaded onto a “woefully shabby hearse” while a large crowd of locals looks on.
[00:19:55] The small rural town of Washington, Pennsylvania was not exactly the ideal place to demonstrate this new, albeit ancient, form of disposition to Americans. The NY Times described the little town as being populated by “old-fashioned Presbyterians, who regard the waltz as an invention of Satan, and a game of cards as sure destruction,” so, basically the town of Bomont in Footloose.
[00:20:26] Once they arrive at Dr. LeMoyne’s property the crowd of invited experts, newspapermen and general thrillseekers, are treated to a unexpected glimpse of the corpse of honor, as Olcott removes the coffin lid, revealing what one newspaper would describe as “no spectacle more horrible was ever shown to mortal eyes.” The lid was quickly shut. Later, in the middle of the night Olcott would see to it that De Palm’s body was anointed with oils and herbs and shrouded.
[00:21:05] The following morning, dawned cold and overcast. A crowd assembled, some from as far away as France and Germany, representatives from numerous state health boards, friends and mourners, and number of uninvited, rowdy cremation crashers.
[00:21:23] The crematory was a simple and unimpressive structure, as Dr. LeMoyne had created it solely for his personal use. Olcott described it, as “very plain, repulsively so…as unaesthetic as a bake oven.” Their plans for the demonstration centered strictly on science and sanitation, in lieu of Olcott’s usual pageantry and ritual. De Palm’s shrouded corpse was solemnly carried by six men including the man who built the crematory, and the fireman who was assigned to build and attend to the fire. They placed De Palm into the retort, headfirst, and closed the airtight door. His hair caught fire first, providing him with what a reporter described as “a crown of glory for the dead man.” Those gathered were soon taken aback by the smell of burning flesh, but this was rapidly replaced the pleasing scent of the burning herbs and oils Olcott had placed on the corpse during the night. By 11:30 that morning Joseph De Palm had been transformed to ashes.
[00:22:42] [Music plays.]
Louise: [00:22:49] Sarah, it sounds like after the missing body, and horrifying looking remains and the initial smell of burning flesh, the cremation of Baron de Palm turned out ok in the end.
Sarah: [00:23:02] It was mostly successful and widely covered in newspapers across the country, but cremation would continue to draw harsh criticism, being labeled as “ghastly” “grotesque” “unchristian” and “undignified.”
Louise: [00:23:16] And this really wasn’t all that long ago, so how did this practice gain acceptance and grow to be so popular in such a short amount of time?
Sarah: [00:23:25Actually, women would play a huge role in paving the way for cremations in the U.S.
Louise: [00:23:30] Really, how so?
Sarah: [00:23:32] Well, women were among the first to sign their future corpses up for the process. Often, the first bodies cremated in crematoriums throughout the country belonged to women, and in several instances their bodies were held in storage until a crematory had finished construction. Some of the first crematories actually still stand today and honor these pioneering women who wanted control over their bodies not only in life, but in death.
Louise: [00:23:58] Amen, sisters.
[00:24:00] [Death in the Afternoon theme plays.]
Louise: [00:24:03] So, if we’ve learned anything so far, crematories are run by humans, and humans can make mistakes. Like a recent incident in San Diego where somebody left the door to a cremation chamber open and smoke billowed through the doors and chimney, and out into the community. Smoke laced with human remains particulate.
Caitlin: [00:24:25] Wait, wait. Laced with human remains particulate. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. Is that even—is that in the article, that phrase?
Louise: [00:24:33] Yeah, and aren’t you supposed to be the expert, here?
Caitlin: [00:24:35] Well, maybe, but I have never heard that before. I have no clue what that is.
Louise: [00:24:40] Okay, well, this incident caused what some might call, a “hoopla”.
[00:24:47] The fire department was called to “help” shut the door of the cremation unit; the health department was called because people claimed the smoke had—and I quote—a “toxic smell” (which actually from the crematory’s fire suppression system); and the local Walmart and Best Buy reported “plumes” of smoke visible from their locations.
Caitlin: [00:25:05] Oh no not plumes! Not at the Best Buy!
Louise: [00:25:10] We support our corporations right to safety from plumes.
Caitlin: [00:25:14] Right. Corporations are people, and they have a right to be plume-free. Okay, this is still—I always worry about any incidents at crematories. Was anybody harmed? Was the corpse harmed? Are we all okay?
Louise: [00:25:28] Everything was fine, we’re all okay. No corpses went uncremated, no humans got “corpse poisoning” or whatever from breathing in a minuscule amount of cremated remains particulate—and by the way, the health department confirmed that that is not a thing—
Caitlin: [00:25:45] Oh really? Well, yes. Someone told you that, and that person was me. Vindication.
Louise: [00:25:51]…and the sweet, sweet deals at Best Buy and Walmart went unaffected.
Caitlin: [00:25:55] Oh bless them.
Louise: [00:25:57] Priorities.
[00:25:58] So, okay. Do you feel that people have a genuine fear of cremation—crematories in their neighborhoods? I feel like this story sort of taps into that.
Caitlin: [00:26:07] Oh, for sure, yes. I think any HANDLING OF THE DEAD—a funeral home, a crematorium, morgue—in a community’s backyard sends fear rippling through the neighborhood like so much human remains particulate from a crematory. Even with green or natural burials, which are so lovely and innocuous, people are still freaked out about the ground water being tainted. And then, living near a crematory, people are mainly afraid, of course, of the dreaded CORPSE SMOKE.
Louise: [00:26:37] Okay, so about that corpse smoke, what is it?
Caitlin: [00:26:40] Let’s go back to the corpse smoke.
Louise: [00:26:40] Yeah, can we talk about the corpse smoke for a minute? What is it? If it isn’t human remains particulate?
Caitlin: [00:26:45] People definitely have this idea that if you have a crematory near you it’s gonna cause the SKIES WILL BLACKEN WITH THE SMOKE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES.
Louise: [00:26:56] Which is why smoke billowing out of a crematory, like what happened in San Diego, freaks people out so much.
Caitlin: [00:27:02] Of course, it confirms everyone’s worst fears. But here’s the thing, okay, well, a couple things: First, the EPA has done studies on crematory emissions, and when you look at these studies, the substances that are discharged into the air are well below any sort of regulatory guidelines. Which means, the smoke that’s coming out of the crematory isn’t going to hurt you, and that’s the part that people seem to be really worried about. The corpse smoke.
Louise: [00:27:28] People really care more about their wellbeing than, you know, the environmentalimpact, right?
Caitlin: [00:27:32] Right! And second, we don’t just shove a corpse into a cremation chamber and open a chimney and let the smoke out. There are actually multiple chambers involved in the cremation process. So, one chamber incinerates the body, and then the second chamber specifically filters out the smoke, and the odor and the emissions before they’re sent out into the atmosphere.
Louise: [00:27:55] Not to mention that a cremation chamber gets up to around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Ain’t no airborne bacteria surviving that.
Caitlin: [00:28:03] Nope. Zapped. And, to be fair, there are environmental issues that we have to look at with cremation. There’s energy consumption, carbon emissions, and it’s important to think about that, but a crematory in your neighborhood isn’t going to choke your children and kill your Pekingese and kill your crops, and all that.
Louise: [00:28:24] Plus, honestly, I think about how crematories do existin communities right now and have for a long time. If you’re not seeing it built, you mightnot know it’s there. I mean, I went to school next door to a crematorium for like four years—no idea!
Caitlin: [00:28:39] You did?
Louise: [00:28:39] Yeah.
Caitlin: [00:28:40] Where
Louise: [00:28:40] In Seattle.
Caitlin: [00:28:42] That’s fun.
Louise: [00:28:43] It kind of was, I guess.
Caitlin: [00:28:44] It’s fun for me.
Louise: [00:28:45] Yeah.
Caitlin: [00:28:46] I think it’s really when people know in advance that there’s a crematorium is moving into their neighborhood that really freaks them out.
Louise: [00:28:53] Yeah, like in Garden Grove, California a couple years ago. The community got all up in arms when a large funeral home with a crematory—named Heaven’s Gate Funeral Home—was set to open.
Caitlin: [00:29:05] I really like the name, Heaven’s Gate Funeral Home. Except the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate happened like an hour away from Garden Grove right near Disneyland, so maybe not the name I would have chosen.
Louise: [00:29:19] Yeah, maybe not, but honestly, the name wasn’t the issue.
Caitlin: [00:29:23] The name is the least of their problems.
Louise: [00:29:24] Right. It was that it was a funeral home and crematory set to open in their community. People were protesting. They signed petitions, they fought the city because of health concerns. And it really was all because they were worried about their wellbeing.
[00:29:40] And there was another case in Richmond, California in 2007 where a predominantly Black community fought against having a crematory opened in their neighborhood. They were afraid that they were going to be used as “guinea pigs” to suss out the effects of mercury emissions from fillings that would be incinerated in the crematory.
Caitlin: [00:30:00] There’s a lot to unpack there, because what we know is that black communities have been tested on in sketchy ways historically. That’s not what was happening here, but you can see why they would feel that way.
Louise: [00:30:12] Yeah.
Caitlin: [00:30:12] And, also, mercury and cremation aren’t the best combination. Mercury does vaporize when it’s incinerated and that gets into our atmosphere. So the vaporized mercury hangs out in our atmosphere until it bonds with water and that rains back down upon us. And from there, it can get into our water, which is not great.
Louise: [00:30:34] So SHOULD people be worried?
Caitlin: [00:30:37] No, but in some ways yes? People shouldn’t be worried about dangerous cremation smoke and human remains particulate and the skies raining mercury on your children because a crematory opened in town. No.
But, people should be worried about the broader, long term environmental impact of cremation.
Louise: [00:31:00] So, nothing is ever simple.
Caitlin: [00:31:02] No. It—no. And here’s the thing: I do feel for people. If you know nothing about how a crematory operates, and your community spirals into a kind of “mob mentality” of fear around you, you’re going to be afraid, and I get that. But for the record, I worked in a crematory for years and I’m still here. No worse for the wear.
Louise: [00:31:23] So far.
Caitlin: [00:31:24] Yeah, I mean. I’m a little weird.
Louise: [00:31:27] Yeah, well. That’s not the crematory’s fault.
[00:31:31] [Music plays]
Caitlin: [00:31:46] Death in Afternoon was written by myself, Louise, and Sarah. Engineering by Paul Tavener and editing and original music by Dory Bavarsky. We’ll see you next week, deathlings.