The dog walkers, bikers, and commuters who pass Bleitz every day have no idea what transpires inside. There are no signs warning of falling ash or explaining strange odors, because there are no ashes or odors. The sky above the home is only as cloudy as the rest of the sky. The grass is green and shiny. This is a point of pride for those who work at Bleitz: During a recent tour, the home's manager, Gary Webster, pointed to a chimney, tucked neatly and diminutively in the back of the building. "There's no smoke," he boasted. "If you're lucky, you'll see some heat waves, but that's about it."
The crematorium is an astounding and laudable feat, if viewed through the eyes of Seattle's founders. Since 1908, the city has been trying to rid itself of its most unproductive citizens. They gave the dead an official eviction notice, writing into the charter long ago a law declaring that no new cemeteries could be built and that no old cemeteries could be expanded. If things had gone as expected, Seattle's cemeteries would have filled up by the mid-'90s, and those who died after that would have been forced to look elsewhere for eternal resting places.
But before the graveyards could fill up, a new, more aggressive eradication plan came into play: cremation. Today, almost 56 percent of Washington's dead are burned instead of buried, double the percentage of 20 years ago. For the most part, the Midwest, the Northeast, and especially the South still prefer burial. But the closer you get to the western edge of Western civilization, the more people choose cremation. In fact, the two counties that claim the highest percentage of cremations in the state, San Juan and Clallam, border the Pacific.
Over the past two decades, we in the West have desanctified the body, stripping the flesh of its significance as a serious player in the struggle for post-life peace. Years ago, our religious-minded grandparents fearfully clung to the notion that God would one day restore our bodies and reunite them with our spirits in the hereafter. They thought the body had to be preserved and buried whole for that purpose. But now, without any supporting evidence from divine sources, we have convinced ourselves that things have changed. According to Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor who recently wrote Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, most of us in the U.S. now believe the physical form is nothing more than a sullied receptacle for the elusive "soul," barely worth the Edenic dirt God used to mold us.
Also pushing the cremation craze is a variety of special interests. Atheists are happy to be burned--they never had much enthusiasm for the burial tradition in the first place. New Age environmentalists prefer cremation for environmental reasons, arguing the importance of keeping heavy metal caskets out of the earth. Financial tightwads like cremation, because it's cheaper to put Uncle Joe in a Mason jar than it is to put him in a "Laurentian maple casket with an early Colonial candle-glow finish." And let's not forget the government: To save a buck, King County cremates dead homeless people who have no known relatives, regardless of their preferences.
If we did it right, of course, even cremation could hold spiritual significance as it does in older cultures. Indian Hindus, for example, use cremation to publicly display their grief. A large pyre is built out in the open, with the deceased at the center. The closest surviving relative, usually the eldest son, takes charge of the funeral rite by lighting the fire. The deceased, whom everyone can see, often bolts upright while burning due to the effect of immense heat on inert muscles. The pyre burns for three days, and even after that, large chunks of bone are recognizable among the ashes. The cremated remains are ultimately cast into a holy river like the Ganges.
Seattle's "tradition" of cremation is not about burning dead people--it's about vaporizing them. I learned this while visiting Bleitz Funeral Home. The crematorium is hidden in the home's basement: You cannot go there without being accompanied by a starched-shirted employee. Once you get to the ovens, you are nettled by the faint smell of death being repressed. (Is that sulfur or burnt toast? The manager doesn't smell anything.) You are also overcome by the noise. The crematorium literally sucks in 4,000 cubic feet of air every minute, and the vulgar sound generated by this act discourages both silent contemplation and thoughtful conversation.
The crematorium is huge, rising up to the ceiling and beyond (the chimney flue serves as the last possible exit for the fleeing soul). The machine has two entrances, so two bodies can be burned simultaneously, as was happening during my visit. Rows and rows of lighted buttons control the temperature and flow of gases into the contraption and ensure that the burning takes place without human participation. A thermometer reads 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, scientific proof that loved ones will be reduced to granules of black flour in just two hours. "Touch the side," urges Webster. I comply and find that the surface is cool. Layers of brick insulation and a façade of polished aluminum have ensured that the business of vaporizing the dead is carried out in a neat and orderly fashion.
The modern-day crematorium embodies the very essence of Western-style efficiency. "The pioneering cremationists wanted it to be scientific and modern," asserts Prothero. "They wanted to imitate India, but they wanted to do it better. So they brought it indoors. It's a very American thing." But it's also a very American thing to relinquish the emotional for the technical. Perhaps we will next try to launch the ashes of multimillionaires and billionaires into outer space.
Behind Bleitz's basement crematorium is a small row of chairs. These are for grieving relatives, Webster tells me, and they are often empty. During those rare moments when the chairs are occupied, they are usually filled by Asian immigrants who are trying to stay true to their cultural heritage by witnessing the cremation. When this happens, the funeral home allows the grieving family to watch as the body is mechanically rolled into the crematorium on a simple wooden palette. They stay seated as the vault is slammed and locked tight.
Sometimes, the eldest son is allowed to push the button that will set the inside of the machine ablaze. It's a small gesture, but some people take comfort in it. It is, after all, the best we can offer.