The Body Farm novels have made Helen Taylor a bit of a local celebrity. Recently, a widow arriving at the East Tennessee Cremation Company for her husband’s cremation asked Helen to autograph a Jefferson Bass book before the cremation began. Helen much prefers the recognition she gets nowadays as opposed to when she was quoted in a 1997 Time Magazine article about a corpse injured beyond recognition in a suspicious accident.
At the Bone Zones pizza party last Sunday, Susan Seals and Mary Jo Tarvin asked if I wanted to accompany them on a tour of the crematory run by Helen Taylor. Of course I accepted. An invitation like that doesn’t come along every day. Although I have seen Dr. Bill Bass’s slide show on cremations, I thought that seeing the equipment in person would give me a better understanding of the process.
Our tour began in the room where family members can gather during their loved one’s cremation. The room has a window, through which they can view the container being put into the retort. The room also has a button for those whose tradition dictates that a family member ignite the flames.
Helen recently bought a new cremator designed for large human remains. It has been delivered but is not yet fully installed. People who weigh more than 300 pounds present a challenge. In standard-sized cremators, it is recommended that they be cremated at the beginning of the day. The chamber should be cold so its walls can absorb the extra heat generated by the bigger bodies. All the cremations that were underway during our visit were of larger people. Helen told us she has cremated several people who died shortly after gastric bypass surgery. I felt a great sadness for those who died from obesity-related causes, especially those who were younger than me.
The body is reduced to a brittle skeleton during the cremation process. The bones are raked into a collection tray and pulverized into a powder. Before pulverization can occur, a magnet is used to separate any metal from the remains, including staples from the cardboard casket and any implanted medical hardware. Sometimes the family members ask to keep artificial joints, sometimes they don’t. Pacemakers should be removed before cremation because they explode. Helen told us about a close call she had with a pacemaker that exploded just as she was opening the cremator door.