Keeper of the Flame A day in the life of a cremationist

It’s not

dying that Richard Rapp

is worried about. It’s what happens

afterward.

Richard Rapp stands alongside a waist-high gurney and examines its cargo: a human body zipped snugly into a white plastic bag and lying on a thin slab of plywood. The gurney stands next to a 3-foot-square stainless steel door. The door is set in the wall of an otherwise empty classroom-size room. The room is painted yellow and bathed in fluorescent light.

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Rapp unzips the bag several inches and looks at the body. It is a wizened, old white man. Rapp rezips the bag. Then he turns to his nephew, Robert Rapp, who wears a white lab coat and heavy-duty suede gloves that come halfway up his forearms.

“Is the paperwork done?” Rapp asks.

“Yeah,” Robert responds.

“OK, then.”

Rapp steps around the gurney and punches a button on the control panel by the door. The steel hatch rises at the head of the gurney. There is a quiet roar, and a wave of heat washes over the Rapps and their charge. The open door reveals a deep, narrow hearth that glows bright orange through the heat-smeared air.

“Ready?” Rapp asks his nephew.

Robert nods, places his hand on the edge of the plywood at the foot of the body, and shoves. The sheet of wood carries its load off the gurney and into the chamber. Rapp shuts the door with another punch of a button. He glances at the gauges beside the door and walks away. Robert wheels the gurney toward a door leading to the back room, where yet another corpse awaits its final disposition.

So begins another burn-to-urn cycle in the sacred commerce conducted by Chesapeake Crematory Inc. (CCI) of Beltsville, one of the Washington area’s largest cremation facilities. Here, in a dreary landscape of warehouses and distributorships, Rapp and his nephew performed some 900 cremations in 1995. This year they will do even more. On this bright, bitter-cold February day alone, CCI incinerated five bodies.

Richard Rapp is more than an entrepreneur, more than a salesman pitching the services of his state-of-the-art crematory oven. Like most cremationists before him, Rapp is a proselytizer for the process; an educator who believes that ignorance of cremation prevents many people from taking advantage of what might be the best option for sending a loved one from this world to the next.

“I really think this is more than a job,” says Rapp, an affable, gray-bearded fellow, who looks like a minister from some liberal Protestant denomination. “It’s really more like a calling. It’s the biggest trust someone can give you.”

Whatever it is, it’s one hell of a challenge. While cremation has grown more popular over the past 25 years, the vast majority of Americans still opt for a hole in the cold, cold ground. An awful lot of folks view cremation as the human equivalent of flushing a dead goldfish: quick, effective, and utterly disrespectful.

Rapp battles this suspicion with a commitment to cremation education. He has lectured to death-education classes at the University of Maryland, given tours of the crematory to high-school students and clergy, and established a cremation Web site. He is trying to demystify cremation and explain its advantages. Most importantly, he’s hoping to demonstrate that cremation is sanctified: It affords the deceased all the dignity of burial.

“I think people need to make up their own minds about [cremation versus burial],” says Rapp. “But cremation is not a cold, ugly, uncaring process. Just because you choose to cremate doesn’t mean you can’t have a casket and a funeral. Cremation just replaces the grave, nothing else.”

Cremation, he emphasizes, is both simple and open-ended. “With cremation you can do a lot more things,” he says, swinging into his low-key pitch. “You can scatter [the ashes], or bury them, or keep them. Or you can split them—scatter some and keep the rest. With cremation, you can also take the remains with you if you move away. With burial, you’re tied to that grave.”

Rapp’s dedication to spreading the word no doubt accounts for his quick and easy agreement to give me the Cook’s tour of the crematory. He’s got bodies in the back room and skeletons just about everywhere, but Richard Rapp has nothing to hide. His only admonishment: The privacy of those entrusted to his care must be protected. For that reason, Rapp insists that the body being cremated during the visit not be identified. Thus, I shall refer to it as “Mr. James.”

The centerpiece of any crematory is, of course, the cremation oven, or “retort.” CCI’s retort is a Phoenix II, the 17-ton state-of-the-art product from B&L Cremation Systems Inc. of Clearwater, Fla., one of a half-dozen U.S. crematory oven manufacturers. The Phoenix II runs about $85,000.

The retort’s primary chamber, currently occupied by Mr. James’ body, is 96 inches long, 38 inches wide, and 29 inches high. That is more than ample to accommodate a very large person and casket. The chamber’s walls and ceiling are lined with heat-reflecting ceramic tiles. The floor, or hearth, is constructed from alumina silica that can withstand temperatures up to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Embedded in the ceiling, right above where the average corpse’s chest comes to rest, is a giant blowtorch nozzle. It is known in the trade as the “flame port.”

As he once again checks the gauges on the retort, Rapp observes that this third cremation of the day is far different from the first. Human flesh requires extended exposure to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit in order to ignite. For the first cremation of the day, when the retort is just warming up, Rapp needs to use the flame port. It blasts the body with a 2,800-degree gush of fire.

But by the time Mr. James’ body enters the retort, the air in the primary chamber is roiling well above 1,400 degrees. Shortly after the door comes down, his body is aflame.

Here is how it happens: The human body, which is 85 percent water, burns outside to inside in a rapid cycle of layer-by-layer dehydration and ignition. The heat dries out the skin; the dry skin ignites. That fire dries out the next layer of muscle and fat, which then ignites. And so on, until the internal organs are consumed.

According to B&L President Steve Looker, who designed the Phoenix II, the average body gives off a modest 1,000 Btu per pound of meat (burning wood, by comparison, gives off 6,000 Btu). But an extremely obese corpse—like the one Rapp recently had to burn in its casket because it was wedged in so tightly—can run to 17,000 Btu. “That’s like burning kerosene,” says Looker. The Phoenix II takes these differences into account and carefully regulates the amount of oxygen entering the retort to ensure a controlled, efficient burn.

As anyone who has smelled singed hair can believe, cremation produces some noxious byproducts. Modern retorts handle that problem by burning not just the corpse, but the byproducts as well. As the corpse incinerates, it releases gases—mostly hydrocarbons—which are pulled into a series of chambers below the primary chamber. There the gases are exposed to molecule-shattering temperatures of more than 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The newly free hydrogen atoms burn instantly, adding heat to the primary chamber above. The carbon atoms bond with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. That CO2, along with some water vapor and nitrogen, is sucked up a heat stack, past one last, sensor-activated burner that stands ready to incinerate any lingering impurities. Then it is vented into the atmosphere as a gentle breeze of nontoxic greenhouse gases.

To supply the oxygen necessary for this process, the retort devours 2,500 cubic feet of air per minute through a large opening in the exterior wall. This accounts for the dull roar that is the soundtrack of Rapp’s professional life.

The CCI cremation represents the culmination of 5,000 years of technological evolution in the burning of bodies. Archaeologists say human cremation dates to the Stone Age, and it was all the rage in prehistoric Europe. Cremation cemeteries—fields of buried ash urns—dating from Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age have been discovered from Ireland to northern Italy to western Asia Minor. The practice was popular with the ancient Greeks, who viewed cremation as the perfect symbol of the purification and release of the soul. (Suicides, infants too young to have teeth, and those struck by lightning were denied the rite.) The Romans also practiced cremation. But as with the Greeks, only members of the wealthier classes could afford a private cremation. Indeed, calling a fellow Roman’s ancestors “half-burned” was a grievous insult that implied that those forebears had been cremated on one of the public mass pyres used to dispose of the poor.

The rise of Christianity sent cremation out of style for over a millennium. For reasons not quite clear, the church disapproved of the practice and discouraged it. Scholars have speculated that the opposition may have risen from the Jewish prohibition on cremation or from the belief that burial was preferable because it mirrored Christ’s entombment. Others have theorized that Christians feared that a burned body could not be resurrected at the Second Coming.

In any case, cremation only regained its popularity in Christian lands in the mid-19th century. The practice rode back into favor on three of that period’s dominant trends: technology, urbanization, and liberalism. In the mid-1870s, the Italian inventor Brunetti and the German industrial firm Siemens debuted practical, affordable crematory ovens. Their work caught the attention of municipal health officials in Europe and the U.S., who were worried about the threats posed by overcrowded, undersupervised urban cemeteries. The crematories also captured the imagination of a populace haunted by stories of live burials and grave robbers who supplied medical students and researchers with corpses.

The health experts and their educated, upper-class allies—many of them political liberals, socialists, and atheists—began campaigning for the legalization of cremation. The crusade was marked by numerous incidents that evoke Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s current crusade for assisted suicide. In 1883, for example, an English doctor was arrested for publicly cremating the body of his infant son in a field. His acquittal, along with the British government’s failure to prosecute others who performed unauthorized cremations, helped establish the legality of the process in the U.K. By the turn of the century, cremation was fully legal in Europe and the U.S.

Though permissible, cremation lagged in the land-rich, socially conservative U.S. The first modern American crematory was built in 1876 in Washington, Pa. But as late as 1968, fewer than 4 percent of American corpses were cremated, compared with 47 percent in Britain.

Over the past 25 years, however, the U.S. cremation rate has soared, bolstered by religious liberalization, lengthening life expectancy, and an increasingly mobile population. In 1994, there were 470,915 cremations in the U.S., which accounted for 20.6 percent of deaths.

States with large retiree populations have some of the highest cremation rates. Floridians cremated 40 percent of their dead in 1994, while Arizona burned 39 percent of its bodies. The reason: Many retirees have no family or other ties to their retirement locale and thus have little desire to be buried there. The state with the highest 1994 cremation rate was Hawaii (60.5 percent), which is both land-starved and heavily influenced by Asian cultures that favor cremation. States with strong liberal traditions, such as California (41 percent) and Oregon (43 percent) also have high cremation rates. Conversely, the lowest cremation rates are found in such bastions of social conservatism as Alabama (3.6 percent) and Mississippi (2.9 percent). The Maryland (16 percent) and Virginia (14.5 percent) rates are at the low end of average. The District isn’t ranked because it has no crematories of its own.

Ninety minutes into the burn cycle, Rapp checks on the corpse’s progress. He raises the retort’s door about 10 inches and peers into the hearth. It looks like a giant fireplace at the end of a cozy night. There are no flames, but the chamber bed glows orange. Small chunks of whitish-gray debris lie in the oven. A particularly large clump sits about halfway back, just about where the hip was. Rapp closes the door and heads into the storeroom to take care of a couple of things while the retort finishes the job. (According to Looker, much of the burn time is devoted to breaking down and whitening the bones, because “people expect nice white remains.”)

Rapp’s storage area contains a small workbench, a stack of caskets, and two bodies awaiting cremation. One of these is a 60-ish woman who lies peacefully in a coffin, her face radiant with living color but her arms a dirty yellow. The other corpse lies on a gurney wrapped in what Rapp calls a “light-duty pouch.” Is that the same as a body bag, I ask. “‘Body bag’ is an ugly term,” Rapp curtly replies. “We prefer ‘light-duty pouch.’”

(Rapp similarly frowns on any use of the word “burn” in association with his work. “When you say, ‘burn the body,’ it’s like you’re talking about burning trash,” he says.)

While it would be perfectly legal and professional to leave these bodies for tomorrow, Rapp doesn’t like the idea of somebody’s loved one lying around a warehouse through a subzero night. The bodies will be cremated before he goes home.

He is, after all, a professional. Caring for the dead has been his life’s work.

A Silver Spring, Md., native, Rapp graduated from Blair High School in 1968. After a couple of years of training guard dogs in Puerto Rico and a two-year hitch in the army, Rapp enrolled in Catonsville Community College’s then-new associate degree program in mortuary science.

Mortuary science? Rapp shrugs. Funeral work seemed like a solid career, and it jibed with his desire to help people. Yeah, he knows people think morticians are weird, but, Rapp says, there’s something to dislike about all jobs. “I could never be an emergency-room doctor,” he says. “And there’s no way I could be a vet and put animals to sleep.”

After earning his degree, Rapp joined Gawler’s Funeral Home, the tony upper Wisconsin Avenue outfit whose résumé includes John Kennedy and Vince Lombardi. He worked there for 10 years. Along the way he married another mortician, Ellen Hopkins. But by the early ’80s Rapp was getting restless. Uncertain about his career path and uneasy about the amount of money he saw people paying for even the simplest funeral, Rapp thought seriously about quitting the profession. But then he had an inspiration: discount funeral services, made possible by low-overhead and highlighted by inexpensive direct cremations. Thus was born Rapp Alternative Funerals.

Rapp is quick to note that he does not believe traditional funeral homes are a rip-off. Yes, those outfits may be pricey, he says, but that’s because it’s expensive to maintain all the facilities that people might wish to use: viewing rooms, limousines, a mortuary, a crematory.

“My idea was, if you need the two acres of parking and the 14 rooms, go to a traditional funeral home,” Rapp explains. “But if you don’t need that stuff, you shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

In 1983, Rapp hung out his shingle at 18th and T Streets NW. Five years later, he moved the operation to Silver Spring so he could operate his own crematory. But shortly after he opened the new location, a neighbor began an aggressive campaign to shut him down. In his drumbeat of complaints to Montgomery County officials, the man claimed that Rapp’s oven was emitting nauseating smells and billows of black smoke. County inspectors found no evidence to support those allegations. In fact, the crematory was never cited for any sort of operating violation. Nevertheless, after spending $100,000 on legal fees without resolving the feud, Rapp agreed in 1994 to relocate the crematory.

The bitterness still lingers in Rapp. Despite his personal feelings about the importance of openness, he says he understands why many crematories prefer a low profile. And when the topic of complaints about “the smell” comes up, an uncharacteristic harshness creeps into his voice. Such smells, he says, are in people’s minds, not their noses. “This is 1996, not the turn of the century,” he says, almost sneeringly. “With today’s technology, there really isn’t much odor.” To make his case, he points out that Arlington Funeral Home, located within sight of my house, has an on-site crematory. And he correctly notes, “You probably never knew it was there.”

Rapp’s funeral home, which remains in Silver Spring, offers the full range of funeral

services, but his signature offering is the $925 direct cremation. For that fee, Rapp will collect the body from the place of death, allow the family to spend time with the deceased at his funeral home, transport the body to the Beltsville crematory, cremate it, and return the remains to the funeral home. The price also includes all paperwork, including filing the death certificate and obtaining cremation authorization. (Most jurisdictions require legal clearance for cremation, to prevent the destruction of possible criminal evidence. The medical examiners in D.C. and suburban Virginia charge $50 for cremation authorization. Maryland simply requires certification that 12 hours passed between death and cremation.)

In addition to handling its own customers, CCI provides cremation services for many local funeral homes that lack their own facilities.

Rapp says he earns about $50,000 a year from his two businesses, modest compensation, he says, for the long hours and stress his profession imposes. “I’d like to be able to tell my customers, ‘OK, see you next Thursday afternoon,’” says Rapp. “But it doesn’t work that way. When somebody dies at three in the morning, we gotta go. Obviously, we don’t do this for the money, our satisfaction comes from helping families through very difficult times.”

When the burn cycle is complete, Rapp switches off the retort, walks through the storeroom, and turns into the area that houses the back end of the retort. His nephew stands ready with a long-handled tool that looks like a metal squeegee. At Rapp’s signal, Robert opens the back door of the retort and vigorously rakes the silvery debris into a chute that leads down to a stainless steel bin. The material makes a chinking sound as it moves—like embers being stirred in a fireplace. After two hours, this is what is left of a human body: five to seven pounds of remains, depending on bone structure.

Robert closes the door, removes the bin from its rack, and sets it in the middle of the floor for inspection. Expecting an innocuous heap of cigarlike ash, I am somewhat shocked. It’s immediately obvious that these are skeletal remains.

“I like to call them ‘cremains,’ ” says Rapp. “A lot of people talk about ‘the ashes,’ but you can see, these are nothing like ashes.”

Rapp points out several clearly identifiable bones among the cooling chips and chunks. A piece of hip. An 8-inch strip—probably a radius or ulna. A ball that once fit a hip or shoulder. In fact, the entire skeleton is there. Bones are largely calcium, which burns only after lengthy exposure to temperatures much higher than those in the Phoenix II.

The container holds nothing but human leavings. Anything else that goes into the oven—a light-duty pouch, a wooden casket—is totally incinerated. While some crematories will burn a body bearing a wedding ring or other jewelry, Rapp refuses to do so. His reason: avoiding allegations of loss or theft. “If you agree to burn a piece of jewelry, the [bereaved] don’t really know whether it was actually burned or not.” Instead, he offers to mix the special item in with the remains before they are placed in their final container.

You can’t give mourners bone fragments, so Robert hoists the bin and gently pours its contents into the pulverizer. The pulverizer resembles a small, battered lift-top freezer. A metal-screen drum slightly larger than a paint can sits inside. Robert lowers the lid and hits a switch. The pulverizer will reduce the chunky remains into a pile of matter with the look and consistency of ground oyster shells.

“We’ve got another [pulverizer] that will take the [remains] down to something with the texture of sand, if that’s what people want,” says Rapp.

It is a remarkably efficient system: a 200-pound body reduced to an easily handled heap of base elements in just over two hours. For many people, that’s exactly why cremation is scary: It’s too efficient, too destructive, too fast. To this concern, Rapp and other cremationists offer one accurate if less-than-comforting reply: Burial has the same effect on a body as cremation; burial just takes longer to finish the job.

Rapp says he often encounters customers who fret that they’ve shortchanged loved ones by cremating them instead of spending thousands of dollars on full-blown, in-ground burials. Some bereaved deal with this angst by springing for expensive coffins that are burned along with the deceased. (This can create extra work for Rapp and his nephew. If a casket isn’t specially designed for cremation, the duo must assess its suitability for burning under EPA rules. That means determining whether the coffin is coated with an EPA-acceptable finish and stripping off all of the box’s metal fixtures, which could release toxic fumes during the burn.)

Rapp sees a sad irony in the desire to spend huge amounts of money on a funeral. Quite often, he says, it’s folks who didn’t spend time with relatives when they were alive who want to drop large sums on elaborate burials. Those who were close to the deceased, he adds, are more likely to opt for a simple, inexpensive farewell.

Unlike many crematory owners, Rapp welcomes relatives and friends who want to view the cremation or simply be on hand when it takes place. CCI’s facility has two parlors for just that purpose. Attending the cremation, Rapp says, gives people a chance not only to come to terms with their loss, but also to see that their loved one’s body has indeed been treated with dignity and respect.

“I think if people have the opportunity to come and see that everything is on the up and up, they’ll feel better about things,” says Rapp. “Denying people a chance to see the cremation is like telling them they can’t go to the cemetery for the burial.”

But few of the bereaved actually show up. And that, Rapp says, is too bad. He believes Americans have become too disengaged from death—with unfortunate results.

“A hundred years ago, people took care of their own dead,” says Rapp. “They dug the grave, they stood vigils to keep rodents and flies off the body, and they buried it. They didn’t have grief therapists. Today, people come to the funeral home for a quick viewing and pop a few pills. They never come face-to-face with [the death] and get the grieving over.”

After the remains have been reduced to the client’s texture of choice, Rapp places them in a vessel. In cases where the remains are to be buried or shipped elsewhere for final disposition, Rapp pours them into a sealed plastic bag and slides them into a sturdy snap-lid vinyl container smaller than a box of cereal. He also offers a variety of decorative repositories: One popular model is the egg-shaped faux-marble container, which costs $200. All the models are displayed on a bookcase in the crematory’s conference room.

On a shelf just below the marble eggs sit several disturbingly small receptacles.

“They’re for children,” says Rapp. “We do a fair number of them; a lot of stillborns. It’s sad, yeah.”

Silence.

“But people mostly buy these small containers for pets.”

Ah, pets. The subhuman beloved. Shortly after he entered the cremation business, Rapp started receiving requests to burn dear departed dogs and cats. While he empathized with the grieving owners and wanted to help, he wasn’t sure how people would feel if word spread that he was incinerating animals in the same retort that handled their human loved ones’ bodies. So he refused canine and feline jobs.

When he opened the Beltsville facility, Rapp installed a second, smaller retort designed especially for pet work. But still wary of public anxiety, Rapp hews to a personal set of cremation laws that require strict separation of the human and pet operations. The animal retort stands right next to the Phoenix II, but is hidden by a large section of movable wall. Bereaved pet owners must phone ahead before bringing in a body; they are turned away if a family is at the facility to witness a human cremation or receive the remains. The animal side operates under its own name, Chesapeake Pet Crematory, complete with separate business cards and Yellow Pages listing. Prices range from $75 to $175, depending on the size of the animal. The company refuses mass animal incineration work, such as dead lab animals or pets who have been left with veterinarians for euthanasia. Rapp insists he makes no money from the dog and cat trade. “It’s really just a public service,” he says.

As the daylight begins to fade, Rapp drops into a chair in the crematory’s conference room. It’s been a fairly busy day. Three sets of remains, including Mr. James’ still-warm leavings, await consignment to receptacles. As he sits chatting about his work, Rapp keeps shooting glances at the front door, anticipating the arrival of a man who is scheduled to pick up the remains of his dog.

“Sorry,” he says, after once again interrupting our conversation to check the door. “I don’t like people to have to stand around alone when they come to pick up remains.”

There is still much for Rapp to do before he heads home. One body is in the retort and still another awaits cremation. And of course, there’s the usual ton of small business paperwork. He’ll be lucky to get out by 8 p.m.

As he walks me to the door, Rapp points out the 4-foot-high “CCI” letters on the front of his otherwise nondescript building. “I wanted to put the full name of the company, but one of the [neighboring businessmen] didn’t like that idea,” Rapp says. “He told me, ‘I don’t mind you being here, but I don’t need it to say “cremation” on the building.’”

Yes, indeed. There is still much for Rapp

to do.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.

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