The Neptune Society was founded in 1973 to provide low cost, no-frills cremations in Northern California. They’ve expanded their mission to include the sale of coffins, embalming if requested, open or closed casket funerals in small private chapels, and scattering of ashes at sea. The flat rate they quoted at the time of my tour seemed very reasonable to me. It included the initial arrangement fee, administrative fees, removal of the body from the place of death, a minimum of three days’ refrigeration, cremation, and release of the ashes to the survivors in a plain cardboard container.
One of the Neptune Society’s crematoriums used to be located amidst a tangle of buildings in the warehouse district of Emeryville, California. No sign identified the building, other than a nondescript door which said “Family Entrance” beside the truck bay. My husband Mason pointed out two brown smokestacks on the roof. They were resting when we entered the building.
Inside the warehouse stood a small funereal room with cream-colored walls and muted lights in round plastic fixtures. Two wing chairs with green upholstery awaited family members. The waiting room appeared to have been an afterthought, built of prefabricated walls inside the warehouse, to provide token comfort to the survivors who came either to view the body one last time or to claim to the ashes.
At the narrow end of the room, behind a creamy drape, waited a plate glass window. I personally hoped one might actually watch the flames consume “Aunt Maude,” but there was no corresponding window into the cremator. I guess watching the body slide into the oven would be enough for most people. The waiting room was warm and stuffy. I thought it needed a water cooler and I was only there for a tour, not for a cremation.
Our guide was Steve Gilbert, Director of Compliance and Training for three “linked” cremation societies. He said the most important issue in the crematory’s job was the proper identification of the body. The Society would be called in either by the family, the family doctor, or by a nurse at the hospital or nursing home where a death occurred. The Society was available around the clock to remove the deceased from the place of death. Good to know 24-hour service is available if you’re squeamish about sleeping under the same roof — or in the same bed — with a corpse.
When they arrived to “take custody of the remains,” the Society immediately established the deceased’s identity. They would change the deceased’s clothing, if requested. Sometimes the society was asked to add a teddy bear or another memento to the shroud before transportation.
The Neptune Society preferred that jewelry and other valuables be removed from the body before they wrapped it in its shroud. If the family wished jewelry to be cremated with the body, they needed to sign a release. Good jewelry doesn’t melt, because it requires a much higher temperature than a human being to dissolve it. Still, at 1800 degrees, gold may discolor or crack. You can’t fish wearable jewelry out of grandma’s cremains.
Dressed or not, the body was wrapped in a plastic “liner,” then covered in a muslin shroud. Steve explained, “The dignity of the deceased is protected” by the covering. The plastic also prevented the leakage of fluid, per OSHA regulations.
A heavy stainless steel tag with an alphanumeric identification was strapped around both ankles with a heavy plastic cord. This tag accompanied the body into the cremator and was placed into the ashes before the Society returned them to the family.
Neptune Society transported the body in one of their vehicles, generally a van. A hearse was available for a slight fee. When we didn’t see one waiting in the garage, I wondered if it it was out on a run.
Once the deceased arrived at the warehouse, company policy required 72 hours refrigeration. One of the reasons for this was to give the family time to change its mind about cremation. As Steve pointed out, “You can’t just add water and get Uncle Frank back after the cremation is over.”
If the family desired it, the Neptune Society provided one final glimpse of the deceased, free of charge. Up to two family members were allowed to witness the insertion into the cremator. Hence, the little window in the waiting room.
California did not require a cardboard coffin for cremation, although some crematories in the state used them. At the Neptune Society, bodies were cremated in their shrouds and liners, without any coffin, box, or cremation container. However, those other options were available from the Neptune Society, at an additional cost. The shroud and liner ($10 at that time) were included in the basic cremation fee.
Steve made sure we knew that the shroud and plastic liner were both chlorine-free, so that they didn’t release toxic fumes when burned.
A roll of muslin the size of a Toyota stood on a spool in the warehouse garage. Several coffins in quilted wrappers waited like loaves of bread on a rack. Flattened brown cardboard coffins were stacked against the wall.
A door marked “BIOHAZARD” sealed the freezer. This walk-in model could hold up to 110 bodies at once. Steve promised that there was no danger of cremating a live person by accident: death was pretty much guaranteed after the requisite three days of refrigeration.
At the back of the warehouse — in by far the largest area of the place — stood the cremator itself. The Neptune Society used British equipment, acclaimed as top of the line. A computer controlled the temperature and length of burning time. The cremator had four doors, two above and two below, so that two bodies could be cremated simultaneously and their ashes commingled. Before anyone could ask, Steve assured us that California state law prohibited cremation of more than one body at once, so that ashes couldn’t get mixed by accident.
The “ovens” themselves were built of fire-resistant brick. Before a body was inserted, the cremator was preheated to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, using natural gas. As we toured the building, the ambient temperature rapidly became torrid as the ovens warmed up. At 1800 degrees, the inside of the oven apparently glows red-hot.
A human body provides its own fuel and will burn on its own at a high enough temperature, so the cremator was preheated, the body placed slid inside on a rack, and the gas switched off to prevent overheating. The body would burst into flame. At the end of the cremation, the gas was turned on again until the bones became calcined and brittle.
Someone asked Steve how they knew when a body was done. He recommended sticking it with a fork. Sobering up, he said that, on average, it took between one and two hours for a cremation at the Neptune Society, with an additional half hour for the oven to cool down enough to remove the cremains. All bodies burned differently, due to their levels of fat or moisture. Both cancer and AIDS deplete the body’s fat reserves, so victims of those diseases had less fuel to burn. Those bodies required more gas and a higher heat, so they might take longer to reduce to ash.
The different compositions of people also produced a variety of different colors as the body vaporized. Sometimes the flames burned green or blue, but generally they were orange or red.
Pacemakers had to be removed before cremation. The heat could cause their batteries to explode, endangering the operators and damaging the cremation apparatus.
While the family may donate usable external prostheses — artificial limbs — to hospitals, internal prostheses were usually removed from the body after cremation. Rather than returning the rather horrifyingly charred ball-and-socket joints to the family, the Neptune Society gathered them in a five-gallon bucket for eventual burial in a mass grave in the Society’s cemetery in Santa Rosa, California. Dental gold was also buried, unless the survivors specifically requested its return.
At cremation’s end, human remains are white and very brittle. Any other discoloration implied that the cremation was unfinished. The bones might have shrunk or twisted, but they were still quite recognizable. The “cremains” were scooped out of the retort with a tool like a hoe, then placed in a machine with a drum like a clothes dryer, which pulverized the remaining bones with heavy iron balls. When the remains could fit through a sieve, the process was complete.
I asked if I could see real human ashes. With a shrug, Steve found a beige cardboard box that was maybe five inches on a side. Inside a plastic wrapper, the cremains looked like Quaker Oats and weighed as much as an old-fashioned solid-body telephone. Everyone else in the tour took a step back when I offered the box for them to hold.
The Neptune Society performed 4000 cremations a year, which Steve believed was the highest volume of any funeral service in the United States. Summer was the slow season, but during the winter, he said, the machines stayed hot around the clock, cremating 20 to 30 people each day.
If numbers like that bring a gleam to your eye, franchises are available.
After touring the facility, I was completely sold on cremation. What a relief to avoid the whole obsequious, expensive, religious nightmare that surrounds the funeral home scene. I appreciated Steve’s lighthearted, matter-of-fact attitude. The Neptune Society provides an inescapable service (sooner or later, someone will have to dispose of my body) without all that weepy sentiment and Old Rugged Cross muzak. If I can’t stand those trappings in my life, thank goodness there’s an alternative for my death.