When I tackle a project, no matter what it is, I always try to remember to anticipate problems that could occur in the hopes of avoiding them. “Anticipate” is sort of a mantra for me. Those of you who know me personally know I can be a bit obsessive at times. But being obsessive with performing cremations can avoid a litany of issues. Performing a pre-operation checklist before each and every case is a surefire way to anticipate any potential hiccups in the process and correct them before it’s too late.
Even before you start the process of retrieving the decedent and checking paperwork, open the loading door to your cremator and make sure there is no one still in there. Yes, it sounds absurd, but I’ve heard stories of operators that have left a cremation to complete overnight, and the morning shift operator inserts a new case before removing the cremated remains from the night before. Not only is this co-mingling of remains illegal, but it is also something that should be disclosed to the families of the deceased. You do not want to be the person that has to have that conversation.
Also always make sure there is a cremated remains tray in place before you begin a cremation. There is nothing dignified or respectful in sweeping someone onto the floor after a cremation. This happens more often than you would think.
There is also value in taking a few seconds to inspect the general condition of the refractory materials prior to beginning a new cremation. Many things could have happened during the previous case that caused damage to the refractory. It is always better to check than to discover halfway through the next case that a wall or other structure has collapsed. Now you will have to interrupt the cycle and remove a half cremated body along with bricks. Yes, this is possibly a worst-case scenario, but it has happened. A quick look can avoid a potential disaster.
It’s now time to retrieve the next case and begin the actual cremation process. The most important thing to keep in mind here is to make sure you are cremating the correct body. Identification is just as much the responsibility of the crematory operator as it is the funeral director. The operator is the last line of defense and the last chance to get it right. Remember, cremation is irreversible and if you cremate the wrong body, you could be committing an error that could affect the grieving family adversely for years. Not to mention you will likely lose your job and even get up close and intimate with a bevy of high-priced lawyers.
Obviously, the crematory operator is not likely to know what the decedents are supposed to look like or be able to tell the difference between similar cases, but if the paperwork states the decedent is one Gladys R. Jones, Caucasian, 98 years old, 105 pounds, that died of natural causes and you have a very old, thin white lady in the container, you can be as confident as you can be. But if something does not match, you must stop and confirm. (note that if it is not allowed at your facility or by law in your area for you to open the container to inspect the remains for cremation, you must follow the rules) If everything matches scrutinize the container for any items that can’t be cremated, remove them, and proceed with the next step, purge.
A purge cycle is built into all modern equipment manufactured in the last 30+ years or so. This cycle simply re-circulates the air in the interior chambers of the cremator with fresh outside air to assure that there is no residual gas present before you or the system ignites the secondary burner. This cycle runs approximately 3 minutes (and while waiting for it to finish can seem like 3 hours!) but it is important not to bypass it. We all know what happens when we take too long to light the gas grille with the gas building up. Multiply that by thousands and you get the idea. This feature may seem redundant with all of the safety features built-in with the modern cremator design, but nothing is foolproof. Three minutes is not that long to wait to assure your safety.
After the purge cycle is completed, the system will allow you to ignite the secondary burner (or the system will ignite it automatically depending on your control system). Preheating the secondary chamber before igniting the case in the main chamber is necessary for pollution control. The secondary chamber will, through heat and combustion, destroy the pollution produced in the main chamber. (Think smoke, flame, and odor) This re-combustion and destruction cannot happen without the proper temperature in the secondary chamber and the result will be smoke and pollution exiting the stack of the unit. As you can guess, the secondary chamber is where all of the magic happens in modern cremation equipment to assure clean emissions.
These “pre-cremation” steps, when completed prior to every cremation, can reduce the chance of something bad happening. Thankfully, the chances are small to begin with but a responsible cremationist always goes one step further to anticipate and mitigate risks to personal safety, the environment, and the dignity of the deceased in their care.