What It’s Like to be a Cremation Operator in Vancouver
"I was dealing with a whole lot of death, without grief involved. It made it easy to really understand."
January 20, 2017
Richard Templeton (name changed) is friendly and funny—so it’s a surprise to learn that not so long ago, he was working as a cremation operator at a local funeral parlour. For four years, he worked alongside corpses daily…but managed to emerge from the experience with some fascinating perspective.
What exactly did you do there?
Everything. When I was there, I’d be working alone. You would be in a morgue, receiving dead bodies, writing up the paperwork and cremating them.
How did you get into this?
I was between jobs and I had a friend who worked for the same company. It worked with my schedule, and you didn’t need a lot of education for it.
Did you find your work… spooky, or creepy at all?
In North America, we’re really kept away from death. I don’t even know if I’d ever seen a dead body in real life until I worked there. I went for my interview and there were caskets sitting out—they were closed, but it made me shiver. I trained for three weeks, then I was on my own. It’s definitely shocking the first time you see a body. It’s a little eerie being there by yourself, but after a couple months it’s really the same thing every day and you get used to it. Sometimes there would be a hundred bodies in the morgue with me. I would see corpses on fire all the time. It’s surreal.
If you’re rational, you know none of the bodies are going to come to life and aren’t going to see a ghost. Still, for the first few years it freaked me out to be in the dark when I turned off the lights at the end of the shift. I did not like that. Sometimes a hundred, a hundred and fifty bodies there in the morgue. It was creepy but you get used to it.
What happens when something goes wrong?
One night on Halloween I was working, and I opened up one of the chambers and there were flames shooting through someone’s eyeball holes. I thought, “Wow, this is a really authentic Halloween night.” Other than that… there were some times there where the casket wouldn’t go all the way in because it was super heavy, and it would start on fire and smoke would go everywhere. Or even if you got it all the way in, sometimes the chambers couldn’t handle how much smoke was coming off. It would be like a panic, you’d have to open the doors and not be in there.
It sounds terrifying, but also like there were maybe lonely or mundane moments, too. How did you keep yourself distracted?
I listened to music all day. I was on the internet a lot. I listened to the WTF podcast a lot, sometimes for eight hours. Once you get a couple bodies in [the furnace], you can kind of chill.
What do you think people don’t know about this job?
The first thing is, you get used to it. The other thing is that it’s a nice job to give you perspective about life. I would see people in there who were younger than me, and it made it really clear to me that anyone could die at any time. It made me really clear for me what I wanted to do with my life and things I wanted to pursue. It’s the only experience you can really get of death, short of someone you know dying. But you’re dealing with a whole lot of death without grief involved. It made it easy to really understand.
What’s the cremation process actually like?
You take the body out of the morgue and write the paperwork, then put them in the chamber. It takes anywhere from an hour and a half to four hours. There’s a flame that hits you in the chest, and a flame at the end, just past your feet. It’s…I forget how hot, 800, 1,600 degrees? It’s hard to stand in front of it when the door is open, it’s so hot. But if the body’s not in the right position, you take a pole with a T-bar on the end and put it between their legs and pull them closer to the flame. Then you push all the bones to the back of the chamber where another flame would hit them directly, to burn all the carbon out of the bones. After that, you put all the bones in a canister and then go over them with a magnet to get anything metal—hips, staples, screws. The bones go into a grinder, and then the ashes are put into an urn. You have to wear a particle mask pretty much the whole time you’re working, otherwise the dust could stay in your lungs forever.
This might sound morbid, but…is there a smell?
It’s often quite a putrid burning smell. But every now and then it smelled like a steak on a barbecue. And then you smell it and your brain’s like “that’s a good smell” but you know it’s not right and breathe through your mouth.
What was it like to quit?
There was actually a lot of pressure to do everything correctly, because of the sensitive nature of that job. For me, I really had to do everything so accurately so I could sleep at night and feel like I was doing a job well. The biggest weight off my shoulder was to get to let go the pressure of doing that job.