Crazy Cemetery Stories: Ashes to Ashes
WARNING to my Readers
Disclaimer : These anecdotes are written based on my years working at a large cemetery. They are written in fun with no disrespect intended. This particular set of stories deals with events concerning cremated remains. This may be disturbing to some readers. Others will find the stories interesting, even amusing.
Connoisseur of Cremains
After not too long at the cemetery, I became what you might consider a connoisseur of cremains. And what are cremains? Plainly put, it is the industry term for cremated remains; what most would refer to as “ashes”. To be correct, they are not ashes as most think. What is left after cremation is mostly bone fragments. These fragments are pulverized and the result looks like anything from dust to very chunky kitty litter. Which one all depends on the particular crematory. And it also seems which state. Certain states tend to produce a finer product. It got to the point where, just by looking at the remnants of a particular deceased, I could narrow down pretty closely where they were from.
Containers can be just as telling. I am not referring to urns, those speak volumes as well, but to the temporary container provided by the crematory. This ranges from a cardboard box containing Aunt Sally in a plastic bag, to the oh so popular black box, to what I refer to as the cookie tin.
We allowed the plain, plastic black box to be used as the permanent burial receptacle. I used to think it was sad. But if Dad was a plain, no frills kinda guy, then I suppose he would laugh at the thought of spending hundreds on an urn only to bury it or stick it in a niche. Just be sure you put him in something at least as nice as he selected for the dog.
The cookie tin looked just like it sounds. An aluminum tin, bronze in color. This was mostly used by the local teaching hospital that accepted those who wished to be anatomical gifts. A nice way of saying they donated their body to science. I always thought it considerate of them to use such a nice looking receptacle rather than the baggy in the cardboard. The hospital also designated several cemeteries where these generous individuals could be buried for free. We were not one of them. Gift to science or medicine or education or not, we charged.
Others in the Crazy Cemetery Series
Who Came In The Mail Today??
Yes. I said who. We often received loved ones in the mail. Cremains of course. Whole folks were allowed only with the accompaniment of a licensed funeral director. But not urns, or boxes, or cookie tins. You can just pop those in the mail. Postal regulations apply, though I found few actually follow them.
So now and again our mail carrier would show up with a box of the telltale size and shape, leading me to ask, “Who came in the mail today?” He was always a good sport about it. Having been delivering there for years he knew what was what – paychecks, bills, Uncle Bill.
The same could not be said for one poor UPS guy. Not the “regular” guy. He must have been filling in. He arrived one afternoon with a box of that certain size and shape. In this case I was expecting someone. As I signed for the package I said out loud, “This must be Mr. Smith. It’s about time!” He sort of laughed, like I was joking. Not thinking about it, I looked up at him and said “Oh. There really are ashes in that box. It’s Mr. Smith. I’ve been expecting him for a week.” Poor kid turned stark white. Guess he hadn’t delivered to many cemeteries yet! I wonder how long it was before that UPS kid could look at a box of that certain size without recalling that day.
Sometimes the arrival was anticipated, as in the case above. Family or funeral home would call to tell us that Mrs. Jones was on her way. And sometimes not. You would not believe the detective work I had to do on several occasions when the deceased and I were not properly introduced. I mean, seriously, if you are mailing me a person, don’t you think it would be a good idea to pop in a little note?
Don’t worry. Aside from minor incidents, like when the delivery went to the wrong post office, everyone arrived safely and always ended up just where they belonged. Eventually.
Mr. Smith's New Suit. Or Urn.
There were times at the cemetery when we were charged with transferring cremains from the plain cremation container to an urn. Many family members were uncomfortable with doing it themselves and we were more than happy to take care of it. I fondly referred to it as putting Mr. Smith in his new suit or Mrs. Smith in her new dress.
Usually the process went very smoothly. It was often as simple as opening the urn and placing a bag from the container into the urn. Done. If the opening of the urn was too small for this method, then it involved pouring… well, you get this idea.
Sometimes things happened. Like the time the bag got stuck half way into the new urn and wouldn’t budge in or out. And the memorial advisor and I started laughing so hard at the predicament we could hardly breathe. I was sure we would never figure out how to solve it. Or worse, that we would rip the bag in the process, as it had become hung up on the opening of the urn!
After some careful massaging of the gentleman, laughing and shaking my head the entire time as my coworker looked at me in amazement, I was able to finally get him in his new suit. The family having no idea what had transpired. I am sure some would have thought it just as funny as I did, others not. So best to keep it to myself. Until now.
Mr. Smith, meet Mr. Hoover
And then there is that incident in the copy room. Every time I think of it I cannot believe I did what I did. But for goodness sake someone had to do it.
It started out as a completely reasonable request to have this particular Mr. Smith changed into his new suit. Well this particular Mr. Smith had been nearly seven feet tall! Let me just say he even required a special urn. I suppose it would be the equivalent of a Big and Tall suit.
I was not initially involved with Mr. Smith’s change of dress. Had I been, I am sure it would have went much more smoothly. As noted above, I have skills! But in this case it was one of the memorial advisors. She was new and the nervous type. We will call her Nancy for the purpose of this story.
Nancy, not having the first clue what she was doing, decided to change Mr. Smith in the copy room. OK. Good enough. There was a large table in there. I was busy with other things and let Nancy work. I told her to recruit whoever she needed for help.
The next thing I know there is all sorts of commotion in the copy room. I think it was the superintendent who was there with her, or maybe another advisor. That detail isn’t important. All I know is they were discussing the mess she made. In her shaky efforts to put Mr. Smith in his suit, she spilled some of him! Mostly it was on the table and they just swept him into the urn. The issue was what to do with the portion she spilled on the floor. The carpeted floor.
As usual, all eyes turned to me to fix it. Seems that one of my unwritten job assignments was to clean up other’s messes. To this day I do not know why I didn’t just walk out of the room and pretend I never saw it. But I didn’t. I stood there with them staring at the tiny sprinkling of Mr. Smith at our feet. There was no way we could sweep him up. That only would have ground him into the carpet. There was only one option. The vacuum cleaner.
Everyone looked at the vacuum and said “No Way!” So I did it. I vacuumed up the tiny sprinkling of Mr. Smith. Along with the dust and dirt of the copy room floor. Even now I am shaking my head in a combination of disgust and bewilderment. As horrible as it was, I just have to laugh. Nothing like that ever happened again. The director and I made sure of it. Though that is not to say things always went smoothly!
And that, dear readers, is a sprinkling of the crazy things that happen with cremains. I hope you enjoyed it. For those of you that are wishing you had stopped reading at the disclaimer, I did warn you!