Some start their work day with a cup of coffee. Joe Bancewicz, crematory manager at Mount Auburn Cemetery, begins his day firing up the retorts to about 1,500 degrees fahrenheit. That’s the temperature needed to burn a body down to the bones.With the new state-of-the-art, environmentally sensitive crematory facility which opened in October at the famed burying grounds, Bancewicz can now use an app to start the crematory chambers so they’re ready to go when he arrives at 7 a.m. He checks to see if any bodies were delivered overnight and makes sure paperwork is in order for the medical examiner. He loads his first case of the day, choosing the heaviest first because the ovens are initially cooler and don’t burn as fast and create too much smoke.
Now that the old crematory and its aging gas-fired units are demolished, everything is computerized, and Bancewicz doesn’t have to adjust air flow to make burners go faster or slower. Bancewicz has done so many cremations – Mount Auburn does as many as 1,200 a year– that any morbidity, angst, or horror he might have about the process is long gone. He considers himself a facilitator, helping families honor their loved ones in one of the very few cemeteries with an on-site crematory. “Some people don’t like or understand fire and what cremation is doing,” says Bancewicz. “I tell people that it’s speeding up the process of decomposition, burning things off and leaving bone.” Bancewicz started at Mount Auburn on the gardening crew, sweeping sand off the grass, and for many years, went around killing dandelions around storied burial ground where the bodies of more than 100,000 souls rest, including such luminaries as Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mary Baker Eddy, Fanny Farmer, Arthur Schlesinger, and B.F. Skinner. He decided to get his backhoe license to help dig graves, and then started filling in whenever the crematory operator needed it. When the crematory manager retired, Bancewicz asked for the position. It’s a job he admits that he never expected to have, but he finds Mount Auburn Cemetary a very peaceful place to work. When he has a free moment, he likes walking around and reading the headstones. And he’s not without a little jocularity about death. He likes to joke that his headstone inscription would say, “I told you I was sick.” The Globe spoke to Bancewicz about working with the dead for a living.
“The cemetery has been very good to me. In 40 years, I’ve been here, I’ve never thought about doing anything else. I fell into this job, no pun intended. I was a truck driver not making much money, and also worked as a junk man for a while. I was looking for something more permanent and steady, and a friend went to work for a cemetery so I thought I’d give it a try. I was always willing to learn something new and started here with a seasonal job. After working with the grounds crew, I spent some time at the crematory manager. He walked me though the procedures and paperwork – back then, it was much different than it is now. I was here at Mount Auburn just a year when my mother passed away, and all of a sudden, death was very personal. It was difficult to come back and work in a cemetery, but now I had more empathy and understanding. I feel for the family’s loss but I understand that burial or cremation isn’t final – the person they love lives on in their hearts and memories. The body is just a shell that they have left behind. That helps with my day-to-day work. With the new crematory, we have a viewing area where families can gather to watch as the casket as it enters the crematory retort and can even press a button starting the actual cremation. With our new retorts, a door opens and an automatic loader loads the deceased. There is a rear unload rack, where the remains can be dropped into a secondary chamber with cooler and fans. Any metals are removed then the bones are pulverized and put into a container. We have two retorts so we can do eight bodies in an eight hour day, with 90 minutes to two hours for each cremation. Death is a part of life and it’s my job to do the cremations. There are a few, though, that I will remember for the rest of my life. Children are difficult, and when my kids were younger, I had to do a young girl the same age as my son. It’s so sad that it’s truly unforgettable. And when I started, I was in my 20s and 30s, but now I’m 62. I look at a body and think, ‘Hmm, you’re getting closer.’ But my wife says that as long as she is alive, I will never be cremated. She doesn’t like cremation. I said, ‘I won’t feel it, I don’t care.’ It doesn’t matter to me. Once I’m gone, I’m gone.”