Not every culture prefers to avoid the bones. In the first century AD, the Romans built tall cremation pyres from pine logs. The uncoffined corpse was laid atop the pyre and set ablaze. After the cremation ended, the mouriners collected the bones, hand-washed them in milk, and placed them in urns.
Lest you think bone washing hails only from the ancient bacchanalian past, bones also play a role in the death rituals of the contemporary Japan. During kotsuage ("the gathering of the bones") the mourners gather around the cremation machine when the bones are pulled out of the chamber. The bones are laid on a table and the family members come forward with long chopsticks to pick them up and transfer them into the urn. The family first plucks the bones of the feet, working their way up towards the head, so that the deceased person can walk into eternity upright.
At Westwind there was no family: only Mr. Martinez and me. In a famouse treatise called "The Pornography of Death", the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote, "in many cases, it would appear, cremation is chosen because it is felt to get rid of the dead more completely and finally than does buria". I was not Mr. Martinez's family; I did not know him, and yet there I was, the bearer of all ritual and all actions sorrounding his death. I was his one-woman kotsuage. In times past and in cultures all over the world, the ritual following a death has been a delicate dance performed by the proper practitioners at the proper time. For me to be in charge of this man's final moments, with no training other than a few weeks operating a cremation machine, did not seem right.
After whirling Mr. Martinez to ash in the Cremator, I poured him into a plastic bag and sealed it with a bread-bag twist tie. The plastic bag containing Mr. Martinez went into a brown plastic urn. We sold more expensive urns than this one in the arrengement room out front, gilded and decorated with mother-of-pearl doves on the side, but Mr. Martinez's family, like most families, chose no to buy one.
I punched his name into the label maker, which hummed and spat out the identity that would be stuck on the front of his eternal holding chamber. In my last act for Mr. Martinez, I placed him on a shelf above the cremation desk, where he joined the line of brown plastic soldiers, dutifully waiting for someone to come to claim them. Satisfied at having done my job and taken a man from corpse to ash, I left the crematorium at five p.m., covered in my fine layer of people dust.