That Time My Job Involved Tossing Dead Babies Into a Crematory

That Time My Job Involved Tossing Dead Babies Into a Crematory

The nightmare revealer of madness unknown,
Of fetuses cooked for the Satanists’ feast,
Old witches look on as a baby reveals,
A stretch of her leg to the lust of the Beast.

Charles Baudelaire
Beacon Lights

When you graduate from college with a degree in medieval history, shockingly few employers come knocking at your door. Type “medieval” and “historian” into Craigslist, and the best career option you’ll find is mead wench at Medieval Times. Really, your only choice is to go to graduate school and spend another seven years toiling away among dusty piles of illuminated manuscripts from thirteenth century France.You squint at the faded Latin and develop a hunched back and pray that you can trick a university into letting you teach.

A career in academia had occurred to me, but I had neither the intellect nor the stamina for it. It was a cold, harsh world outside the confines of the ivory tower, and all I had to show for my years of college was a fifty page bachelor’s thesis titled: “In Our Image: The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory.”

My thesis—which at the time I considered to be my life’s great masterwork—centered on the late medieval witch trials. When I speak of witches, I don’t mean greeting card Halloween witches with warts and black pointy hats. I mean women (and men) who were accused of sorcery in the late Middle Ages and then burnt at the stake. Those witches. The numbers are fuzzy, but lowball historical estimates have well over 50,000 people executed in western Europe for crimes of maleficium, the practice of harmful magic. And those 50,000 were just the people who were actually executed for witchcraft: burned, hanged, drowned, tortured, and so on. Countless more were accused of witchcraft and put on trial for their supposed crimes.

These people—the majority of whom were women—were not accused of simple, entry level sorcery like lucky rabbits’ feet or love potions. They were accused of nothing less than making a pact with Satan to spread death and destruction. Since Europe was largely illiterate, the only way an aspiring witch could seal a deal with the devil was through a sexual act—an erotic signature, of sorts.

Beyond wantonly giving themselves to Satan at a black Mass, accused witches were thought to raise storms, kill crops, make men impotent, and take the lives of infants. Any uncontrollable event in medieval and Reformation era Europe might very well have been a witch’s doing.

It is easy for someone in the twenty-first century to be dismissive and declare, “Dang, those medieval folk are so crazy with their flying demonic minions and sex pacts.” Yet witchcraft was as real to medieval men or women as the Earth being round or smoking causing cancer is real to us. It didn’t matter whether they lived in a city or a small village, whether they were a lowly peasant farmer or the pope himself. They knew that there were witches and the witches were killing babies and crops and having lewd sex with the devil.

One of the best known books of the 1500s was a witchhunting manual by an inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer. The Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, was the go-to guide for finding and getting rid of witches in your town. It is in this book that we learn, supposedly from a firsthand account of a witch in Switzerland, what witches did with the newborn infants:

This is the manner of it. We set our snares chiefly for unbaptized infants . . . and with our spells we kill them in their cradles or even when they are sleeping by their parents’ side, in such a way that afterwards [they] are thought to have been overlain or to have died some other natural death. Then we secretly take them from their graves, and cook them in a cauldron, until the whole flesh comes away from the bones to make a soup which may easily be drunk. Of the more solid matter we make an unguent which is of virtue to help us in our arts and pleasures and in transportation.

According to the confessions of accused witches—most of which were obtained through extensive torture—the malefactors did all manner of things with their murdered infants. A little boiling, a little roasting, a little drinking of their blood. Most popular was grinding their leftover bones into salves to rub on their broomsticks in order to make them fly.

I bring up the history of witches killing babies to illustrate that I was writing about dead babies before I had ever really seen one. When you begin a new part of your life, you think you’re leaving the older part behind. “To hell with you, medieval witchy academic theory; to hell with your death philosophy, you wonky pedantic bastards! No more writing things that no one will ever read; I live in practice now! I sweat and ache and burn bodies and reveal tangible results!” Really though, there is never a way to leave the past behind. My poor dead witch babies came right along with me.

As I mentioned, the first thing you notice when walking into the refrigeration unit at Westwind Cremation were the orderly stacks of brown cardboard boxes, each one labeled and filled with a recently (or not so recently) dead human. What you might not see at first are the adults’ tragic little doppelgängers, the babies. They are spread out on a separate metal shelf in the back corner, a little garden of sadness. The older babies are wrapped in thick blue plastic. When you remove the plastic, they often looked just as babies should—little stocking caps and heart pendants and mittens. “Just sleeping” . . . if they weren’t so cold.

The younger babies—fetuses, if we’re being more accurate—were no bigger than your hand. Too small for the blue plastic wrap, they float in plastic containers of brown formaldehyde like a middle school science experiment. In English, with our plentiful euphemisms for difficult subjects, we say a child like this is stillborn, but speakers of other languages are rather more blunt: nacido muerto, totgeboren, mortné—”born dead.”

These babies arrived at the crematory from the largest hospitals in Berkeley and Oakland. The hospitals would offer parents a free cremation if their baby died in utero or shortly after birth. It’s a generous offer on the hospitals’ part: cremations for babies, while often discounted by funeral homes, can still run several hundred dollars. Regardless, it is the absolute last thing a mother wants the hospital to give her for free.

We would pick the babies up and bring them to our little garden: sometimes only three or four a week, sometimes quite a few more. We would cremate on a per fetus basis and the hospitals would send us a check. Unlike the procedure for an adult, the hospitals would file the babies’ death certificates with the state of California before the bodies even arrived at our crematory. This kept us from having to ask a newly bereaved mother the required bureaucratic questions (“When was your last period? Did you smoke during your pregnancy? How many packs a day?”).

Once, when Chris was across the Bay in San Francisco picking up a body at the Coroner’s Office, Mike told me I was being sent to fetch the week’s babies. I asked Mike for very specific instructions. The job seemed horribly easy to mess up.

“You just pull the van up to the back loading dock and go into the nurses’ station and tell them you’re there for the babies. They should have the paperwork and stuff there; this one’s easy,” Mike promised.

Ten minutes later I pulled the van into the loading dock behind the hospital and removed my gurney. It was a bit of a farce to use a full-sized adult gurney for a few babies, but I didn’t think walking through the corridors with my arms filled with them was a particularly good plan either. I had an image of fumbling and dropping them, like a stressed out mom carrying too many grocery bags to avoid the extra trip in from the car.

Per Mike’s instructions, my first stop was the nurses’ station. At this point, addressing the topic of death was still a struggle for me. My natural inclination when meeting new people is a warm smile and a little small talk, but when the goal is to collect baby corpses, any smile seems gauche and out of place. “How are you today? I’m here for the baby corpses. By the way, girl, your earrings are fabulous.” On the other hand, if you keep your head bowed and your hands crossed and glumly state your reason for being there, you become the creepy girl from the funeral home. A delicate balance is required: happy but not too happy.

After the nurses conferred and decided I had the proper authority to abscond with the babies, I was escorted by security to the hospital morgue. The security guard was a stern woman who knew my dastardly purpose and would have none of it. After several botched attempts and small slams into the wall, I successfully wheeled my gurney into the elevator and we began our awkward descent to the morgue.

The guard’s first question was reasonable: “Why do you have that gurney?”

“Well,” I replied, “you know, um, for the babies—to get them out?”

Her reply was quick: “The other guy brings a little cardboard box. Where’s the other guy?”

A cardboard box. Bloody genius. A discreet, portable, and sensible multibaby conveyance. Why had Mike not mentioned this? I had failed already.

The security guard unlocked the morgue to let me in and stood there with her arms crossed, her distaste palpable. The rows of identical stainless steel coolers gave me no inkling of where the babies might be hiding. As much as it pained me, I was forced to inquire where they were.

“You don’t know?” came her response. She slowly raised a single finger, pointing to a cooler. She proceeded to watch as I removed the babies one by one and strapped them to the gurney in the most nonsensical way possible. I silently prayed my fairy deathmother would magically turn my gurney into a cardboard box or a milk crate or something so I wouldn’t have to roll these formaldehyde fetuses down the hall on a gurney made for a full sized adult.

I thought I was going to be able to slink away with my babies, head hung low but dignity intact. And then, she dealt the final blow: “Ma’am, you’re gonna need to sign for those.” Had I remembered to bring a pen? No, no I had not.

Noticing several pens hanging from the guard’s shirt pocket, I asked, “Well, could I borrow your pen?” Then came the look—perhaps the most derisive, scornful look that has ever been directed at me. As if I had personally taken the lives of each one of these infants with zero regret.

“Maybe when you take those gloves off,” she said, looking at my hand, still covered with baby transferring rubber gloves.

To be fair, I’m not sure I would want to hand over my pen (precious commodity in a bureaucracy like an American hospital) to a girl who had just been handling baby corpses. But the way she said it gave me palpable knowledge of this woman’s fear of death. It didn’t matter how many times I smiled at her, expressed my new on the job status with bumbling Hugh Grant–esque apologies. This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld. Her regular duties as a security guard didn’t faze her, but these trips to the morgue were too much. I removed the gloves, signed the release papers, and pushed the babies out to my van, a sad excuse for a final stroller ride.

Infant cremations were carried out in much the same way as adult cremations. We logged their names, if they even had names. Often they would be labeled only as “Baby Johnson” or “Baby Sanchez.” It was sadder when they had full names, even when they were something terrible, like Caitlin spelled KateLynne. Full names showed how ready their parents were for them to be born and become a part of the family.

There is no mechanical loading device to deposit babies neatly into the chamber’s fiery arms, as there is for adults. You, the crematory operator, had to perfect the toss: the baby leaving your hand and coming to rest right below the main flame as it shot down from the ceiling of the retort. You had to make sure the baby landed in the sweet spot. With practice, you came to be very good at it.

Baby cremations were done at the end of the workday. The bricks lining the chamber grew so hot by the end of the day that the tiny babies practically cremated themselves. It was not uncommon for Mike to ask me to forgo cremating another adult and “knock out a couple of babies” before the end of the day.

Adults could take hours to cremate, including the cremation itself and the cooldown process. Babies cremated in twenty minutes, tops. I found myself setting goals: All right, Caitlin, it’s what? Three fifteen p.m.? I bet you can do five babies before five o’clock. C’mon, girl, five before five. You get after that goal!

Appalling? Absolutely. But if I let myself be sucked into the sorrow surrounding each fetus—each wanted but wasted tiny life—I’d go crazy. I’d end up like the security guard from the hospital: humorless and afraid.

I was a big proponent of unwrapping the larger babies, the ones kept in the blue plastic. I opened them not to gawk or engage in macabre curiosity. It just seemed wrong to not look at them—to toss them in like they never existed, like it was easier to pretend they were medical waste, hardly worth a second thought.

More than once I opened the plastic and received the garish surprise of a deformity: an enlarged head, overlapping eyes, a twisted mouth. In Europe before the Enlightenment, deformities aroused all manner of colorful explanations, including the mother’s corrupt nature or the combination of the mother and father’s evil thoughts. The child’s monstrosity was a reflection of its parents’ sin.

Ambroise Parégave a long list of reasons for birth defects in his mid-sixteenth century treatise Des monstres et prodiges: the wrath of God, an excess of semen, problems of the womb, and immodest cravings of the mother. These reasons seem irrelevant today, unless you count serious drug abuse while pregnant as an “immodest craving”(which may indeed describe it perfectly).

Many such babies were clearly unwanted, their mere existence a burden. They were not all the precious apples of their parents’ eyes who happened to go wrong somewhere in the biological trip from fetus to baby. Oakland has a much higher poverty rate than California as a whole—there are drugs, there are gangs. The babies came to Westwind in all colors and races; nefarious behavior touches many communities in Oakland.

The deformed babies stared up with twisted features. I always wondered if they were the victims of the cruel caprices of biology or the products of mothers whose addictions and lifestyles were unstoppable even with a child growing inside them. It did no good to try to guess which was correct, though sometimes insight came months later when, after multiple phone calls, there was still no one willing to come pick up the baby’s ashes.

I only wept once. It was for an older infant. I went into the office one afternoon to ask Mike what I could do while I waited for my current victims to cremate. His reply was, “You know actually, you could maybe . . . yeah, you know what, never mind.”

“Wait, what do you mean, never mind?” I asked.

“I was gonna say you should go shave the hair off that baby, but don’t worry, I’m not gonna make you do that.”

“No, I can do it!” I said, still frantic to prove my death acceptance moxie.

The baby, a girl, was already eleven months old when she died of a heart defect. She was heavy, fully identifiable as a creature of the world. Her parents wanted her hair before she was cremated, hopefully to save and put in a locket or ring in the style of the Victorians. I admired the way people used to make beautiful jewelry and mementos out of the hair of the dead. We’ve lost that tradition somewhere along the way, and it is now considered gross to keep any part of the dead, even something as harmless as hair.

I had to cradle this infant’s little body in my arms by logistical necessity, it being the best angle to clip and shave the tiny blond curls from her head. I put the locks in an envelope and walked the baby into the crematory. As I stood before the cremation machine, about to place her in, all of a sudden I started to cry—a rarity in this industrial work environment where efficiency is essential.

Why did this particular baby fill me with such woe?

Maybe it was because I had just shaved her head and wrapped her in a blanket and was about to consign her to the cremation flames, performing a hallowed ritual from some imaginary place. A place where a young woman is chosen to collect dead babies, shave their heads, and then burn them for the good of society.

Maybe it was because she was beautiful. With little bow lips and chubby cheeks, she looked like a 1950s Gerber baby in every way it is possible to look like the Gerber baby while also being dead.

Maybe she acted as a symbol for every other baby I didn’t cry for. Those I didn’t have time to cry for if I wanted to do my job and cremate five before five.

Or maybe it was because her blue eyes reminded me in some primal, narcissistic way of myself, and the fact that I somehow lived not to be cremated but to cremate. My heart beat and hers did not.

I could see why Mike wanted to delegate the baby hair shaving to me, even if he hesitated to make the request. Mike had a son of his own, an angelic five-year-old boy. The process of cremating children was hard enough for a childless twenty-three-year-old, but it had to be torture for a loving father. He never said it, but there were times when his veneer would crack ever so slightly, when you could see that it affected him.

Months had passed with me believing Mike was pure hardass. But the ogre Mike I had created in my head wasn’t anything close to the actual Mike. Actual Mike had a New Agey wife named Gwaedlys, an adorable young child, and an organic garden in his backyard. He had taken the job at the crematory after years of working to secure amnesty for refugees. I viewed him as an ogre because no matter how hard I worked he remained stern, unimpressed by my efforts. It wasn’t that Mike gave me negative feedback, but the absence of feedback was just as crippling for an insecure millennial. I projected onto him the fear that a weakling like me couldn’t handle the work, couldn’t handle the real death I had been so desperate to be in the presence of.

I asked Bruce about Mike not wanting to handle the babies. He looked at me like I was crazy for even asking. “Well, yeah, duh Mike wants you to do it; he’s got a kid. You don’t have a kid. You see your baby in that baby. When you get older your own mortality starts to creep in on you. Watch out, children are going to bother you the older you get,” he said, as if in warning.

When my Gerber baby was done cremating, all that was left of her—all that was left of any of the babies we cremated—was a tiny pile of ash and bone fragments. The bones of a baby are too small to be reduced to powder in the same Cremulator (bone grinder) used for adults. But cultural expectations (and again, the law) dictated that we couldn’t return a tiny sack of identifiable, obvious bones to the parents either. So after the bones cooled down, each baby had to be “processed” by hand. Using a small piece of metal like a wee pestle, I ground their little femurs and skull fragments until they were uniform. The bones produced maybe an eighth of a cup of cremated remains, but the parents could bury them, put them in a mini urn, scatter them, hold them in their hands.

I had written my thesis on medieval witches accused of roasting dead infants and grinding their bones. A year later I found myself literally roasting dead infants and grinding their bones. The tragedy of the women who were accused of witchcraft was that they never actually ground the bones of babies to help them fly to a midnight devil’s Sabbath. But they were unjustly killed for it anyway, burned alive at the stake. I, on the other hand, did grind the bones of babies. Often I was thanked by their poor parents for my care and concern.

Things change.

This post is excerpted from the memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Copyright © 2014 by Caitlin Doughty. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and the host and creator of the “Ask a Mortician” web series. She founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death and cofounded Death Salon. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow Caitlin on Twitter: @TheGoodDeath.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

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