Back in August I took a summer school thanatology course at the Radboud University in Nijmegen: Death and Meaning Making in Europe. As part of the program we went on an excursion to a nearby crematorium to learn how the process of cremation actually works. I imagine you guys are just as curious as I was to see what goes on behind the curtains, so I will share my findings with you in this report.
As cremation has gained huge popularity over the past decades, a big percentage of us nowadays will end up in the flames. In America the cremation percentage was 45% in 2015. In the Netherlands this was 64% and in the UK 75%. Asian countries take the lead with a cremation rate of 85% in India, topped by 99,7% in Japan, which has one of the highest cremation rates in the entire world.
The crematorium we visited is located in Beuningen. By the look of our colourful collection of umbrellas you can probably tell it was a rainy day, perfectly suited for a morbid field trip.
I will start by taking you right to the crematory space. If you are interested in seeing more of the building you can view a video tour here, which will show you how modern and spacious this crematory is.
After the funeral service, a select group of people can enter the crematory room to witness the casket being loaded onto the machine. The casket is then inserted into the cremation chamber, the steel door closes, and the cremation process begins. I asked if family members are allowed to push the button that loads the casket into the oven, as I heard happens sometimes in other countries and adds to the symbolic value of the ritual, but was told that this is not the case in the Netherlands. Only a licensed crematory operator is allowed to control the machine.
This is what the cremation machine looks like on the other side of the wall. A digital screen displays the exact temperature of each part of the cremation chamber, the remaining time, and other information like the status of the exhaust filter that discharges the gases. The ashes are eventually collected through a door in the middle.
The black square above it can be shifted into a glass window that allows you too look inside. In case you wonder what a burning corpse looks like, here is a link to an image I grabbed from Wikipedia. It looks very similar to what I saw when I looked through the tiny window into the machine. Still, I have to admit that seeing it in real life had a different kind of impact on me than any photo could ever have.
The cremation chamber reduces the body to dry material. On average this process takes about 90 minutes to two hours to complete. Once the incineration process is completed, the cremains (= cremated remains, a combination of ashes and calcified bone fragments) are collected with rakes and brushes and put into a tray where they can cool down. All of the inorganic material is then retrieved from the cremains, like the screws from the casket and metal body parts like implants and surgical screws. Every metal item is collected and will eventually be recycled. Mechanical devices like pacemakers are removed before the incineration process, as they might explode and damage the crematory equipment.
Next, the cremains are inserted in a device that’s called a cremulator (the grey machine on the left in the picture below). Contrary to popular belief, the human body does not automatically fully turn to ashes after the cremation. Most people however do not like the thought of being able to recognize the shapes of bones in the ashes of their beloved one when they scatter them. The cremulator is here to help. It grinds up all the bone fragments into perfectly fine dust.
The bright red Dustmaster right next to the cremulator is an industrial machine that filters the air of the crematory room.
Lastly, the ashes are put into a uniform urn and stored until they will be returned to the family, placed into an urn vault or get scattered at the cemetery grounds.
The final part of the tour was through the impressive “engine room”, filled with pipes, meters and other types of industrial looking constructions, where the gases are discharged through an exhaust system.
At the end of this impressive day, the entire group of our course went out to dinner. We shared our thoughts and experiences with each other and to break the heaviness of the energies we picked up on during our field trip, a lot of jokes about ordering spare ribs were made. After a lovely meal (without meat) I returned to my temporary residence, which I will share with you to end this piece with.
On the outskirts of Nijmegen in a small town named Ubbergen stands a beautiful Neo-Gothic building that resembles nothing less than a castle, named De Refter. At the end of the 19th century this property was in use as a nunnery, led by French sisters who named their institution Notre Dame des Agnes. Today the building houses over 100 inhabitants (including a cute cat who curiously greets each visitor) in its eco-friendly living community.
My dear friend Aisha is one of the lucky people who can call this castle their home. She has told me a lot about the history of this place, especially of the days in which the nuns lived here. A beautiful forest surrounds the property and hidden amidst the trees is a tiny cemetery. Here, in a serene part of the gardens, the nuns who used to be in charge here up until the 1970s have found their final resting place.
I felt honoured to spend this incredibly inspiring week here. At the end of the day I often walked through the gardens and forest, to clear my mind of all the input it had gotten throughout the day. Connecting with the energies of times past, I had this humbling realization of being alive and therefore automatically being part of the great mystery of the unknown that awaits us.
In another post I will tell you more about the thoughts and insights I had this week. For now, I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about the options of what can happen to our bodies after we die, and how these processes are executed in gracefully professional ways.
Thanks to everyone at the Centre for Thanatolgy who shared their knowledge and helped making this week an unforgettable experience.
Photo credits: Claudia Crobatia