One of the greatest mysteries of life is death, and because of death, we can realize just how precious every single moment of life truly is. Jerk Of All Trades met up with Crematory Operator and Comedian Juan Cias who gave us an exclusive interview shining some light on the art of Cremation, a job that is performed with the utmost respect for the deceased. To be the last person to spend time with somebody’s loved one in their flesh before going to the afterworld is such an intimate and unforgettable experience that is all about honor and respect.

Photo of Juan Cias by Desire Akes

How did you get into cremation?

I got into cremations while working in the funeral industry for over 10 years. I had an opportunity to become a licensed Crematory Operator, which like every aspect of funeral service, always interested me.

Do you remember your first cremation?

I can’t remember my first actual cremation. I had already been working at the crematory as an arrangement counselor. So I’d been exposed to it for a couple of years before becoming a Crematory Operator.

What cremations have stood out to you?

I had several over 400lbs, children, homicide victims, and decomposed bodies that had been found. I remember a lot of those. The overweight cases are always tricky as you have to take extra precautions. Average size cases go in feet first. However, oversized go in headfirst to help control the burn to prevent the flame from getting too high. They MUST also be the first cremation of the day to prevent the chambers from overheating. I had one case that weighed near 300lbs. I was trying to get a lot done that day so I had him in 2nd. That was a mistake. Throughout the cremation process, it’s necessary to open the chamber door so the body can be re-positioned in order to fully cremate. When I opened the chamber door for him, the flame was almost out of hand, and it caused a mirage effect. As I’m looking into what can only be described as the unmanageable flames of hell, I see what appears to be a 2ft gaping hole in the side of the chamber. I freaked out and thought it would cause a fire. But as the cremation proceeded, it turns out there was no hole, it was just my seared imagination.

What is a typical day/night like for a Crematory Operator?

A typical day includes routine. You’d come in, review paperwork. Then you’d check the cases for weight to determine who’s first, and the process begins. You’d review the case and go over the physical description obtained during funeral arrangements. One of the requirements was assigning a metal disk with its individual cremation number. That metal disk followed the body the rest of the way to be able to track the soon-to-be cremated remains back to the crematory.

The cremation process included repositioning the remains during cremation with a long pole with a paddle at the end. You’d toss the pole into the 1,000-degree fire to reach the end of the body and move it closer to the flames. At one point during the repositioning you’d crack the skull open and any contents that hadn’t baked away would spill out and catch fire.

How many cremations do you perform on your average day?

A good day of cremations we’d get between 5 – 6 cremations with 2 retorts. So about 3 per chamber in an 8-hour shift. We didn’t want to push more than that or the machine and the brick would wear too quickly.

What happens to breast implants and metal fixtures?

Breast implants would melt away, but any impurities could cause the cremated remains to discolor. Metal objects like replacement knees or hips wouldn’t disintegrate. They would glow bright orange after the cremation and you’d allow time for them to cool. The family was asked during the arrangements if they wanted to have the returned with the remains or separated and disposed of.

What do you do with the parts of remains that don’t make it in the urn?

Smaller things like screws or metal skull plates would have to be found by hand during the processing of the cremated remains. Mechanical devices such as pacemakers would have to be removed prior to cremation, as they create an explosion hazard. In case one was possibly missed, you’d make sure to not open the chamber door for at least 45 minutes to make sure if one present, it would give it time to explode. I once missed one and heard a loud BOOOM during the cremation. I thought a chunk of the chamber ceiling had collapsed. But I found remnants of a pacemaker afterward. Any non-combustible pieces that weren’t returned with cremated remains were disposed of in a biohazard bin. Some crematories recycled the items and donate the proceeds to charities, or so they claim.

What can you tell us about the witness cremation?

Witness cremation was always a special occasion. They were always to be performed first thing in the morning. We’d make sure to detail clean, and always show up in full suit. We’d always make sure the decedent looked viewable. The witnesses are allowed time to view/pay their respects or perform any prayers or religious rituals. During the process, there was usually a moment where the emotions were high and you can’t help but be caught up in the moment. There was one occasion, a 6-year-old child who died unexpectedly. The father and grandfather were there to witness. It was a very somber moment, getting the child ready into the cardboard box we used. The father looked at his son in the box, very stern and stoic, displaying very little emotion. He bottled it up into the deepest recesses of his subconscious. We always offered the family the honor of pushing the button to begin the cremation. He took us up on the offer. He pushed the button and stood there staring at the chamber. He didn’t move, and we followed his lead, for over 5 minutes. He sat there and stared at the retort as the process of incinerating his child proceeded. The quietness in the room really accentuated the subtle rattles of the chamber door that aren’t really noticed during normal operating procedures.

What are your experiences with cremations and various religions?

When it comes to religious cremations, it would be predominately Buddhist as it was a part of their custom. They would have a group of monks come out and perform prayers over the body alongside the family. The prayers included a series of chants that were very hypnotic in a way. I would close my eyes and just take in the moment alongside them. Once they finished the prayer’s we would proceed with cremation and the family would press the button. It was always a very respectful and beautiful ceremony.

What hobbies do you enjoy?

As for hobbies, I enjoy psychotropic drugs.

 

Interview by Maggie St.Thomas