I Work At A Crematorium And I Have No Idea Who We Burned Last Week

crematorium smoke
Jonas Forth

I’ve been a crematorium tech for almost two years. I’m still new compared to some of the guys, and I get a lot of crap for being the only female in the place. But I’ve been here long enough that I’ve developed a thick skin. We see some shit here: death in all its ordinary horrors could fill about a thousand stories.

But you get used to it, which is maybe the scariest thing of all. It’s good, too, though. I don’t really fear death anymore, for more than one reason.

The place I work is a stand-alone crematorium. About six months ago we got a contract with the county to handle overflow cremations for indigent and unidentified corpses. This is a great thing for us: it gives us steady business, and it doesn’t come with weeping families. We never even have to look at the faces of the dead. The bodies come in from county stacked up, wrapped in a thick layer of plastic and tied off. All we do is take the tags off, assemble coffins around them (glorified cardboard boxes), and load them into the oven.

In case you don’t know the full process of cremation, let me summarize: the crematory burns most everything in a couple of hours. When it’s done we’re left with ash, dust, and some bones. Bigger bones, like skulls and hip bones, stay intact longer. We usually peek in when there’s about a half hour left in the process, and take a whack at whatever bigger bones are still intact to shatter them.

After the oven’s done we rake everything into a metal box, let it cool, then run it through a cremulator, which is basically an industrial blender the size of a big crock pot. That takes care of bone fragments and teeth and reduces everything to that nice powder that people throw off cliffs or into the ocean or whatever. Then it goes into a box, we make sure the right ID tag goes with the right powdered-guy, and we’re all done.

The process for unclaimed bodies is the same, except once it’s powder we store it. We’re under contract to keep ashes for two years, in case someone comes forward to claim them, and then after that they’ll get returned to county and thrown into a pauper’s grave with the ashes of everyone else who went unclaimed that year.

Since we got the contract not a lot changed for us, except the storage unit behind the building where we stack the boxes of ashes.

Not until last week.

Last week we got a van in pretty late: the county’s overfill comes at weird times. There was only one body in the van, which was unusual, but whatever. Less work for us.

The driver from county is one of those cheerfully sexist sixty-something dudes who can’t let a run-in with me go without making some comment about little ladies doing ugly work, or how if I put on a little makeup I might wake some of these guys up, wink wink, heh heh. Gross, but harmless.

That day, though, he wasn’t cheerful. His normally ruddy face was pale, and when he got out to hand me the forms to sign, he didn’t make any jokes. He looked me up and down, which wasn’t unusual, but there was no wink or grin.

“You shouldn’t be doing a job like this,” was what he said, as I was checking over the paperwork.

As usual, I didn’t pay him any attention. But when I handed him back the form, he didn’t take it right away. He met my eyes.

“You need to quit. You need to leave. Tonight. Get in your car and drive away.”

I usually don’t respond to his comments other than a smile and a ‘have a good night, Jimmy,’ but there was something about his unwavering stare and the paleness on his face. Something that made my shoulders tighten up and my stomach clench.

He took his clipboard back after a moment and looked down at my signature. “Please,” he said. “I have a niece your age, I don’t want to leave you with this.”

For a moment, seeing the genuine distress on his face, I almost agreed. I glanced over at my shitty ten-year-old Hyundai parked in the back lot and I had a strong urge to go get my keys and take off without a word to anybody.

But of course, reality comes back, even when your instincts are shouting. That shitty Hyundai rattles so bad I know it’s dying, and since I dropped out of college it isn’t like I have a ton of career prospects. I have rent to pay and a body that requires food every damn day like an asshole, so walking away isn’t an option.

Still, I felt the need to comfort the guy. “Tell you what, Jimmy, I’ll just sit back and let Snoopy handle all the work tonight.”

He didn’t relax much, but he nodded. “Yeah, good, do that. That asshole deserves it.”

Jimmy was a jerk, but me and him shared a mutual hatred for the guy I was stuck working with that night. Snoopy was a part-time apprentice who had been there maybe two months. His real name was Jason, but he was one of those skinny white blond dudes with cornrows and fake grillz who felt more than comfortable using racial slang that didn’t belong to him, and blasted out hip-hop from his phone at all hours. Some of the other guys called him Snoop for a while, but when he liked that too much I changed it to Snoopy.

It wasn’t his dubious relationship with hip-hop culture that made me hate Snoopy. He was a genuine creep. You get those, working around dead bodies. We’ve had a few goth types come and go, but most of the time the death-obsessed who come to apprentice here don’t stay very long. People who romanticize death have no place at a crematorium.

Snoopy, though. He would stand there in front of the crematory looking in the window, watching the bodies burn, for ages. Not moving, not paying attention to the heat, just watching. He asked questions, too: how easily do people burn outside of our little ovens? Are stories true that places like this sometimes burn two bodies at once to save time, or lose bodies? Could someone burn here without all the paperwork?

There’s always horror stories out there, and I had the feeling he was hoping they were true.

Which they aren’t. Not for us. The director is paranoid about always being able to prove we don’t screw up, so everything is recorded. Cameras everywhere. And so far, we’ve never had to use any of the footage. We’re good at our jobs.

Point is, Snoopy was one of those guys you really didn’t want to be alone with. He was off-putting in both the obvious and the can’t-put-a-finger-on-why ways. I didn’t really worry about working alone with him. Cameras everywhere, and though I didn’t really trust him alone with the bodies I didn’t have the feeling he’d try to make me into one.

I did feel sorry for whoever he went home to, though. The guy had problems.

He showed up behind me, accompanied by his tinny music, as Jimmy was driving away.

“This it?” he asked, looking at the lone plastic-wrapped corpse on the table I’d wheeled out to the van.

“Yep. Just one.”

“Fat fucker, huh?” He moved around to the back of the table to wheel it up the ramp. One good thing about Snoopy’s fascination with death was he was never lazy about working with bodies.

At his comment, I studied the body for the first time. It did seem bigger than some. Normal height, though, so just some obese person. They take a little longer to burn, but they’re common enough.

He wheeled the table up the ramp easily, though, as if the body didn’t weigh much of anything. “You get the tag?”

It’s the worst part of the job with these indignent types, taking the toe tag off. Often they’re found days after their deaths, and there’s nothing more nauseating to me, even after two years in the business, than the misshapen purple of a decayed human foot. This time of the year especially, when the heat is so bad the skin basically wants to slide right off.

“All yours,” I said. I hadn’t intended to leave him with all the work, but what the hell? One body, the crematory was already on and at temperature. Wasn’t like there was much to do. “I’m gonna put in the paperwork, bring me the tag when you get it. And shout if you need help with the coffin.”

He scoffed at the idea of needing help, as I knew he would, and wheeled the body further inside. With him went the quieting sounds of the music leaking out of his pocket under his scrubs.

I moved in through the door that led to the back office. I’m better at paperwork than most of these guys, even on that Windows 95 nightmare of a computer.

Before I could start with inputting the details of tonight’s guest, though, Snoopy’s voice piped in from the intercom on the desk. “Yo, Lulu, come look at this shit.”

I rolled my eyes, but on the list of complaints I have against Snoopy, him giving him a stupid nickname is pretty low. I figured we were even there.

When I got to the workroom the body was still on the table, though one of the huge cardboard rectangles that would fold neatly into a ‘coffin’ was pulled out beside it.

“What’s up?”

He was peering at a tag, his forehead a set of lines that either meant he was confused or posing for a deep selfie. He stretched it out to me. “The fuck kind of name is that?”

“Name? He’s a John Doe on the forms.” I took the tag, and saw his confusion.

I had absolutely no idea what was on that tag. It wasn’t a standard printed John Doe, that was for sure. I had no idea if it was even letters. It wasn’t in English, or any alphabet I knew. Russian, maybe, since I’d seen a post on Tumblr about how different Cyrillic looked written in cursive.

Still, there was absolutely no reason for a hand-written tag, in whatever the hell language it was in.

I shrugged. John Doe on the form, John Doe in the records. “Whatever, someone at county screwed up.”

“I’ll say. Dude’s not even fat, they just wrapped him in like twelve sheets of plastic.”

He was right. I could see from where Snoopy had peeled back the plastic to get at the tag that half the guy’s mass was sheet after sheet of heavy plastic. Weird, again. By the time indigent bodies get wrapped up they’ve already been in storage long enough to have…well, drained, so one sheet is enough.

I was starting to get a little creeped out. There was nothing overtly alarming, but all these little non-standard things were bugging me.

Funny thing was, when I caught sight of the exposed foot Snoopy took the tag from, it was…perfect. And not just that it wasn’t decayed and gnarly like so many of them are. It was this golden-skinned slender perfect foot, with no sign it had been lying at county for days. No blood pool, no skin sloughing.

I left Snoopy to deal with him, though, heading back to the back with the tag in hand. I couldn’t stop looking at the name – or the scrawl where a name should have gone – as I sat back at the computer. I filled out the rest of the admittance info, sticking with the John Doe ID.

Once that was done I got online and look up non-Romanic alphabets to see if this looked like anything real. Russian, Arabic, Farsi, nothing looked quite right.

I heard the distant hiss that meant the door to the crematory was open, and then the clang of the door slamming shut again, but that was basically white noise on this job. Just one body from county didn’t give either of us a hell of a lot to do, so I dealt with Snoopy puttering around, listening to his music fading in and out, while I searched the slow ass internet on the world’s worst computer.

As time went on, with nothing unusual coming from up front, I found myself getting apprehensive. Nervous. Like something was looming over my shoulder that I couldn’t see but couldn’t get away from, either. The air felt heavier, thicker, harder to breathe. It was strange, this anticipation.

It made me so tense that when I heard the hiss that meant the door was coming back up, I headed out there to check on things. This was the standard early check, when we make sure everything’s nearly done, we break up any stubborn large bones, that kind of thing.

Snoopy was at the door when I got there, wearing an aluminum apron and gloves and holding the repositioning tool we use to whack apart the bones. But he wasn’t moving, just peering in to the open door from a couple of feet back.

My footsteps made him jump, and he grinned back at me like he was excited. “Yo, look at this motherfucker.”

I wasn’t dressed to get too close, but I peered in from a few feet behind Snoopy. Inside was ash, as usual, from the coffin, the plastic sheeting, the thin cloth robe county dressed the indigent in. Skin, hair, all the usual.

Everything except bone. Because the skeleton inside looked fully intact, glowing red from the 1800 degrees that had incinerated everything else.

My heart was instantly in my throat, and that apprehensive feeling got so much heavier. I tried to ignore it, moving to check the crematory settings, assuming Snoopy had messed up somehow.

But no, everything was normal. Maybe all that plastic had slowed the process down? But even as I thought about that, I didn’t think it was the answer.

There was something in that oven. Something abnormal.

“I’m gonna turn up the heat,” I said, my hand on the button to close the door.

“Hang on.” Snoopy got closer to the door, the red glow inside making his eyes look wild. He lofted the repositioning tool in his hand – it’s like a solid metal rake, for those unfamiliar – and leaned in like he was going to start whacking at the bones. At the skull, probably. It would be closest one to him.

My entire body went cold all at once. “Don’t.”

Snoopy barely glanced at me. He had that grin on his face, that look in his eyes like it was playtime. “Since when are you squeamish?”

I backed away from the oven. “Fine, do whatever you want. I’m going back to the office.”

Because Snoopy was an asshole, he decided to get on the intercom and update me. “This guy don’t wanna break, Lulu. This a real G in here.” Luckily he couldn’t hold the button to talk and whack at the bones at the same time, so I only had to hear the too-loud deep clangs from a distance.

“I got everything but his head. This dude’s got a fucking concrete skull. You think I should cool it down and grind it up?”

I didn’t answer him, but I don’t think he cared.

I was stuck on Wiki, going through link after link of non-Roman based languages. I have no idea why it was driving me crazy, that scrawl on that tag, but if nothing else it was a distraction from the muffled sounds coming from the front. I shut the door to the office, but that wasn’t enough to block it out.

He shattered the skull at 2:57 AM. I know the exact time because I felt it, and I looked down at the clock on the monitor as if it would be important later. 2:56, everything normal, and the sounds from Snoopy were trailing off. 2:57 came and there was a…whoomp. I don’t even know how else to describe it. It was like this release of pressure, this influx of hot air that washed over everything and then dissipated. Like when you open a car door in August and feel the mass of heat spilling out at you.

I knew instantly. I have no idea how I knew, but I did: that body should have never come to us. I didn’t even think that whatever was dead wrapped up in that plastic should have been dead at all.

I went to the intercom and called for Snoopy.

No answer.

I sat back at the computer. My hands were shaking. I opened Paint and started to sketch out the curves and lines printed on the toe tag. Here. It’s crap.

All I knew was I didn’t want to go outside that office.

As I was working on recreating the tag, something moved in the monitor. Something dark and quick, like the reflection of someone behind me. The door was a creaking heavy thing that I would have heard open ordinarily, but this was no ordinary night.

I looked back. No one there, door still shut.

I was really scared by then. It’s a horrible feeling if you’re not used to it, this shivering coldness that makes you think about nothing else other than everything you should have done to not be in that place at that moment.

I should have left when Jimmy told me to. I should have known something was wrong. I should have never taken the job two years ago. I should have never left college.

Another shadow of movement in the monitor, as I finished the sketch of the tag. I hit save on the file, trying not to notice the shifts in the glass.

But soon enough I could feel it. That looming apprehension I mentioned a while ago? It was like that, only solid. Real. Something was behind me, close, filling the office. Watching me, maybe, or waiting for something.

After I saved the file, I swallowed down this lump of terror sticking in my throat, and I turned around.

I didn’t see anything there. But that didn’t fool me. I looked up and out at the open air, and something was looking back at me. Some presence was taking some kind of…measurement, or analysis. Something saw way more of me than I saw of it.

When I say that, I mean…something saw everything. Like it was peering through my eyes right into my brain, absorbing every thought and memory I’d ever had. I felt like my mind was fluttering, being rifled through by long, warm fingertips.

And then, after a moment, with just the slightest shift of air that made the skin on my arms prickle…it was gone. Dissolved away. Traveled, I think, somewhere else.

My fear dissolved away with it, gone just like that.

I left the office and went looking for Snoopy.

At the crematory I found him. The table set up, the fresh coffin folded neatly. And inside, when I lifted the lid, a body wrapped in layer after layer of plastic.

And the soft, tinny sounds of hip-hop music muffled inside.

I decided to write about this today, a week afterward because I think I found the language that the words scrawled on that tag are from. I think that instead of a monster or a demon, the thing we set loose that night was an actual angel. And if that’s the case I have no reason to feel guilty.

I don’t know how I managed to be a good enough person to escape judgment. I don’t know what Snoopy did that kept him from escaping it. I do know that he burned fast and well, and nobody ever checked the camera footage, even when he never showed up for work again. Everyone here said good riddance, and nobody from outside has called asking about him.

Whatever that thing was, angel or demon, it never should have come here. Never should have been trapped in a body to begin with. Whatever caused that – some curse, maybe, some evil soul trying to escape judgment and so cursing the one that was there to judge it – was undone when Snoopy broke open that solid skull. Whatever was trapped inside escaped, and is still out there. Maybe with no physical form at all.

This is why I don’t really fear death anymore. Because whatever is waiting for us after death, it’s already here. It’s already judging us. It’s a glint of movement in a mirror or a computer screen. And the feeling of someone behind you when you can see clearly that nobody is there.

It’s nothing to fear, though. Not unless you’ve done something that will bring judgment down on you. We’re all good people around here, so I’m not worried.

But hey, while we’re all waiting to get judged or whatever: if anyone out there is familiar with old Aramaic, hit me up. I’d kind of like to know what the rest of this tag says. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

LJ Hall is an aspiring author and a karaoke junkie, and this is all very new to her.

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