It was in the winter of 1979 that I went to work at the Enfield Crematorium in north London. I was 30, divorced, and looking for a job. The ad in the newspaper said that a "chapel attendant" was needed. I called, thinking that some church official or secretary would answer, and that's when I found out that they were talking about a crematorium, I said OK. I understood the term, and that's about it.
So what they want, I told myself, is someone to put on a black suit and top-hat and pass out hankies to the mourners. One way to pass the bleak English winter and rake in a little dosh (make some money) as well. Anyway, I had always been good at pretending to be sad when I wasn't in the least, and faking happiness when I was looking for a rope.
It was a long bus ride, the dim-lit drizzle of afternoon narrowing toward dank, spittled evening when the bus stopped and the driver nodded. The bus churned away, leaving me at the gates of a large oblong building with a smokestack on top. Smoke was billowing out. In the field surrounding the edifice were many small cherry trees, mostly in their infancy and perhaps truncated by the cold -- and before me was a sign that read "The Gardens of Remembrance."
I felt like the Land Surveyor in Kafka's novel The Castle.
I was hired right away.
The next morning I was ushered, not to the chapel but to the fires below. I had two colleagues, Bill and Bob. (Really: Bill and Bob). Bill was the clever one, the "foreman", so to speak. That is, he planned out the schedule for the day. During the English winter a lot of elderly folks give up the ghost because of the "rising damp" in old ashen buldings.Their fragile lungs and hearts just cash out. And so Bill -- and Bob and I -- had a lot to do. Bill was a clean-shaven ex-WW ll vet who had suffered shellshock at the front. So sometimes he still went crazy. Otherwise, he was fine -- typical London working class wit-- sharp and cutting -- and he and his wife ran a DJ business on the side, catering to parties. The other guy was a fat comedian who looked a lot like Oliver Hardy from the classic old American comedy team known as Laurel and Hardy. Here was a geezer who had learned to take NOTHING seriously. Being in a crematorium actually fed his comic instincts.
For me, it started out different. During my life, I had tried to steer clear of dead people, and now they were going to start coming to me on a conveyor belt. Am I really able to do this, I wondered, as I put on my boiler suit that the first day?. It wasn't that I was particularly squeamish.. the sight of blood never bothered me...it just sort of felt the same as it had the first time I held a live boa constrictor in my hands. "Am I really...?" Like that.
Let me explain the routine. There were six ovens, long and cylindrical, and sealed by easily-manipulated metal doors on opposite sides. We would sit, bouncing balls against the walls, reading the papers, or just bullshitting, until the red light came on overhead. Then, like firemen, we would jump to our feet and run to the area where the coffins would be descending on a sort of dumbwaiter, as at a hotel when room service is arriving from the kitchen to the on-duty lackey who brings you your late-night order. We had a small gurney with us, and we would switch the coffin onto it while, up above, we could hear the melancholy organ piping out the appropriate strains, rather like Christmas carols for the deceased. Once on the gurney, the coffin would be dispatched to the designed oven. Bill or Bob would fling up the door and, like a rugby scrum, we would push it into the fire and slam the door back again. Then Bill and Bob, the senior members of the committee, would go sit down. My job was to expedite the buring process.
So I would go around to the other side and open that door. The coffins being as frail as their customers, they succumbed rapidly, their wood vanishing in a trice while dropping their nails between the rollars which had let us roll the box inside in the first place. The bodies thus exposed, I noticed that they seemed to rise almost into a sitting position, like someone trying to get out of bed. I had the use of a very long spatula. If you have ever been to a pizza parlor where you can actually see the guy making the pizza, you will know what I mean. He opens the oven and throws in the doughy pizza, then periodically pokes and prods it until it is done. That was what I did. Except that the idea wasn't to cook the cadaver but rather to get the body to burn faster (we were so very busy that time of year), so that as it was whittled down by the fire, the bits and chunks of elbows, knee-caps, etc., could escape between the gaps in the rollars into the chamber below. The chest and head always took the longest to burn, And if the person had died of cancer, you could always smell the sweetness of the roasting, hissing tumours.
That done, the heap of white-hot rubble could be raked forward and deposited into a square metal box. I would take a gadget that looked like a pricing gun in a supermarket, but which was actually a magnet and pull out the unburnt coffin nails. We had a machine that looked like a large tumble dryer in a laundromat, and in would go these fiery, glistening bits and bobs. Within the machine were about a dozen very heavy iron balls -- think of the Olympic shotput competition -- and, once the machine was sealed and turned on, going round and round, the massive balls would grind the jagged pieces of bone down into a fine gray-brown powder. That would go into a small container with a label. Fred Jones. Lucy Brown. And off they would trot to the pantry storage room until further notice.
Except that sometimes Fred wouldn't fit. If he had been a large fellow, sometimes his remains produced more ashes than could be squeezed into the regulation container. So, even though the laws were strict and vehemently fixed in force, the unfortunate fact was that the part of Fred which wouldn't fit in his new plastic coffin went straight into the rubbish bin.
By late February, the rubbish bin was half-full and getting heavier by the day. Since I was the "new kid on the block" it befell me to carry the bin out among the fields and scatter the ashes -- as a sign of compassion and to offset the fact that they had been in a garbage can. "Don't just sling them, scatter the bastards", Bill Lane instructed. "Show some f------ respect!" I put on my raincoat -- because it was pissing down --, donned my green wellies, and went forth. I scattered a bunch of those ashes, sure enough, but finally, I got tired and my hands were numb. I looked around and saw nobody was looking.and flung the ashes out into the storm. A gust of wind chose that moment to assert itself, and blew the ashes straight back in my face.
There was a pub nearby, and that evening after work I sat drinking and waiting for the bus. Every time I scratched my head a cloud of ashes flew out. People must have mistaken them for a bad case of dandruff.
On the long way home, I thought: this is what the guys at the concentration camps must have felt like after they had got over their initial shock at what they were doing and had become desensitized. It was just a job. You can get used to anything. I had gotten used to watching what used to be a man or a woman, someone's lover, change into a gasping, flaking, shrinking dot of flame, and then nothing but rough sand. What are you supposed to do???
Bill Lane had one streak of sentimentality in him. If it was a baby who had died, he would never let that infant enter the fires alone. He would wait until a dead woman came down and put them in together. The child in its little violin case, riding on the bigger box that held the Madonna. I liked Bill for that.
And every morning, part of my job was to go out among the grass and dig little holes for the ashes of the dead whose remains had not been claimed during the government-mandated waiting period of six months. If no one wanted them, if no one came with an urn to convey them back to a living room somewhere, then I, at the instruction of the fleshy, cold, gay Director in his starchy suit and reeking of pochuli, put them where they would be alone in death, as probably they had been alone in life..
And then my job was to plant a little cherry tree atop their ashes. That was why it was called The Gardens of Remembrance..
===Eric Richard Le Roy===