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Inside a crematorium

Published Sep. 26, 2005

The National Cremation Society's office here looks like a typical funeral home.

A peaceful, homey facade. Pale blue wallpaper inside. Softly colored paintings and piped-in classical music greet somber visitors as they enter. The memorial chapel is to the left; a tiny business office to the right and, just down a corridor, a room for viewing and pricing dozens of sample caskets and cremation urns.

Hidden from view behind a wall in the back is what makes the site different and fuels the growth of the company _ a seven-day-a-week crematorium handling about 4,000 cases a year, most of them on contract from other NCS offices and funeral homes.

Here, crematory manager Mike Regar oversees the task of cremating nine to 12 bodies a day. Shifts work round-the-clock Monday through Friday plus 16 hours each on Saturdays and Sundays.

Regar's place of business looks like an oversize garage, down to the largely barren walls and concrete floor. At a workbench he keeps track of paperwork and the schedule of drivers on contract to transport corpses to the crematory.

A sign urges employees to treat bodies "reverently" for the sake of the deceased's family. Yet a few feet away, a chalkboard bears a handwritten note in Magic Marker that bluntly directs drivers how to pick up bodies for transport: "If a body weighs 190 lbs. and above, put on a fat rack."

A walk-in cooler that can hold up to 100 bodies is kept chilled to 40 degrees. Today there are nearly 60 bodies awaiting cremation.

"This is the season for us," Regar said, shouting to be heard above the blowers for the crematory furnace that dominates the room.

The Ener-Tek II model furnace, made in Orlando, has been rebuilt many times over its 12 years of use but it is still extremely reliable, Regar says with assurance, as if talking about a favorite car.

Run on natural gas, the furnace has a dual chamber system that recycles emissions to be burned off, cutting down on pollution. Its interior resembles a pottery kiln.

The law gives funeral homes and crematories up to 24 hours to refrigerate, bury or embalm a body. Bodies in the cooler are in containers with markings for "name," "F.H." (funeral home or crematory), "D.O.D." (Date of Death) and "T.O.D" (Time of Death).

Bodies are tagged with a metal disc bearing an identification number.

The cremation process is straightforward. A casket is raised by a hydraulic lift and, with the push of a button, rolls along a conveyor belt into a furnace that has been preheated to about 1,600 degrees.

The crematory operator adjusts the temperature each time. "If you put a very large person in a very hot chamber, it will flare up." Regar said. Each cremation takes 1{ to two hours.

Regar or one of his workers use a vacuum, a rake and a broom to make sure all skeletal remains are cleared from the chamber. The bone fragments, weighing 6 to 8 pounds, are temporarily put in a metal box along with the scorched metal identification tag.

In a final step, the bone fragments are pulverized into a finer ash-like consistency before being placed in a lined urn or other receptacle.

The job can be a lonely one, with employees working in a two-person shift or by themselves.

That hasn't dimmed Regar's enthusiasm. He relishes being in a fast-growth industry. In the funeral-home trade since 1978, Regard joined the National Cremation Society in 1987 and has marveled at its growth. "I thought it was big when I got here," he said.

Statewide, NCS offices handled about 7,800 cremations _ a small slice of cremations in Florida but more than half of those done by "direct disposer" establishments, those businesses that are allowed to dispose of bodies but do not have a funeral home license.

The Clearwater office is an anomaly, one of only two NCS offices in the state that double as funeral homes. Most of NCS' 24 offices are storefront operations in strip centers that have only a direct disposer license.

As Regar prepares for a cremation one recent afternoon, a memorial service proceeds in the front of the building for Kenny Brown, a 35-year-old man who died after a long illness.

B.J. Evanish, his legal guardian, has no qualms about cremating Brown, who had used a wheelchair since he was 21.

Buried, his body would have been confined in a casket under the ground, Evanish reasons. With cremation, "He'll be free."