Cremation Society of Kentucky

A life in burned flesh

Raymond Abbott
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

This week I went to a key shop a few miles from my home. I wanted only one key made, but I’ve learned when you go to a hardware store, for example, sometimes your new key does not work. This is frustrating and annoying. So I travel a few more miles and go to a lock shop I know and trust to make my new keys.

The shop is about six miles from my house, and I pass along the route, while on Shelbyville Road, the offices of the Cremation Society of Kentucky. I’ve gone by this establishment over the years many times. It looks much like a converted home, which it may well be, and sits back well away from Shelbyville Road. I’ve often wondered about its services. How things work. Its name tells you quite a lot. It has the look of a museum, although I just know it has to be more than that. In the past, I had considered stopping in, but until today I had not. So after my business at the lock shop, I pulled into the mostly empty parking lot of the Cremation Society of Kentucky, its headquarters. It may well be its only quarters; I did not remember to ask.

Now let me say a couple of things about myself. I am seventy-three years of age, galloping up on seventy-four, and at a quick pace. I feel pretty well overall, but not great, though what more should I expect at this age?

I have long made it known that when my time comes, my preference is for cremation. As a kid still in high school, I worked in a cemetery in Massachusetts, where I am from. I mowed grass, but also I dug a lot of graves. I saw the process close up and was never much impressed. I felt no longing for that sort of final ending.

While I prefer cremation, I have made no arrangements beforehand. Perhaps it was time to do so, I thought, and what better place to begin than at the Cremation Society of Kentucky?

I recall as a lad my father saying more than once that he wished to be cremated, but it didn’t happen for him. He was living apart from my mother by then and had a younger live-in girlfriend. She told me later she just could not burn up “Mike,” his nickname for Myron. Turned out this woman who lived with my dad in New Hampshire also babysat regularly for the owner of the one funeral home in the southern New Hampshire town where they lived. He surely advised her she could not legally cremate him because of the circumstances of his death.

I have long made it known that when my time comes, my preference is for cremation.

The way he died was not so unusual, but the secret burial that followed his death was, and it eventually attracted some attention. He dropped dead after mowing the lawn one hot May day, and his girlfriend went about burying him without notifying his large nearby family. I believe she would have cremated him had there not been a law. His family learned of the event only by chance more than a week later. All of this happened many years ago, and as his son I had the task of dealing with his modest estate and his very unfriendly lady friend. So you can see my father did not get cremated.

I’ve told my only daughter Carolyn, married and living in St. Louis, of my final wishes, which are quite simple. Cremate my remains, and do it right away. No religious services, no services whatsoever. No newspaper notice, either. I dislike and do not respect local newspapers and would not wish to know they profited by my passing. I figure I came into this world with no announcement and I will leave in the same simple way. Carolyn knows of my wishes, yet I figure others could get involved, such as my ex-wife, and then Carolyn might be persuaded to act differently. So maybe I should plan ahead, I think, make plans now. Beforehand.

As I entered the Cremation Society offices, I was greeted by a tall, thin, dark-haired young woman. Dressed in beige slacks, which were so long she was stepping on them, she approached me with a welcoming smile. I asked her if one could make prior arrangement for a cremation and her answer was one word, “Indeed.” After that, I expected her to say, “You’ve come to the right place, sir,” but she did not. She led me to a small room that was simply furnished and pleasantly lighted. On the shelves lay an assortment of urns, large and small, ornate and simple, colorful and not so. I was grateful that there were no brochures on the table with pictures of cremation ovens and the like. Nobody needed that much specificity.

Soon a tall, well-dressed man entered the room. He was slightly stout, as men get in their fifties (or often before then), and younger than me, maybe fifty-five. I still have not gotten used to the idea that persons I meet who look old to me often are in fact my junior. He was dressed in a conservative gray suit with the jacket open at the front, revealing a vest with some red in it. His abundant hair was gray and neatly trimmed. Around his chin and lips there was a bit of moisture, as if he had just been eating or drinking something or other and was taken away by my arrival. He was a pleasant, personable fellow.

Of course, the purpose of my visit was already clear, to set up beforehand my cremation.

Mr. Roby introduced himself and I then informed him,

“I have been by this establishment many times and often meant to drop in. And today I have.”

“Glad you have, Mr. Abbott,” was his cheerful reply. He struck me as a very nice man. No reason to be otherwise, obviously. I was a potential customer.

“I’m seventy-three, live alone,” I continued. “I have one daughter in St. Louis and wish to consider prepaying for my cremation.” I didn’t think of telling him of my father’s experience.

“The process is pretty simple,” he said. “The cost is $1100 and the price cannot be increased in the future. If you live another twenty years or more, the cost does not go up, no matter how long you live. After the cremation, the ashes come back here and are put in a simple container like this one.” He pointed to a narrow metal-colored box next to my right hand. I picked it up and examined it. “Of course more elaborate holders are available.” He looked toward the shelves of urns I had already noticed.

“Some persons prefer a wallet-type holder,” he offered, “which is made to hold your ashes and is designed in a short time span to decompose, so one’s ashes go back to the soil.” I am not certain he used the word ‘wallet,’ but that was how it sounded to me.

He continued, “For an additional $100 your ashes can be mailed to someone, a loved one, I suppose.” He didn’t specify beyond that, and I commented that I could not imagine sending “dear old dad” in a padded envelope, as I was then imagining it, to my daughter in St. Louis.

“Could be kind of creepy to send your remains in this way,” I noted.

“Sometimes it’s necessary. Of course most survivors come by here and collect the remains in person. Identify themselves, sign a paper, and that is it. You would have beforehand signed all the necessary paperwork for your survivors’ convenience. Some persons have the ashes put in a cemetery, others deposit [he didn’t say “dump”] them in the sea or a river or a lake.”

“I have a cabin on a Kentucky lake,” I offered. “It is a Corps of Engineers lake, carefully regulated and policed by them. They would not like to know my ashes got dumped in their lake.” He smiled at that.

Eleven hundred bucks would be my total expense, unless I opted for the $100 mailing service. It would remove the chore from my daughter, who is very busy these days, and might guarantee that my cremation wishes were honored. I wondered what portion of the fee went to Mr. Roby. Not a lot, was my guess.

I repeated that I would have to think about his offer, the eleven hundred bucks.

“Of course, of course,” he replied quickly. “Take my card and call me to make an appointment when you’re ready.”

I don’t know why I had the thought just now, but I did, not that I acted upon my thinking. I once had a collie dog, and she got old and sick as all dogs must, and had to be put down. And when her remains were cremated, I was given this option: a single dog cremation, for a higher price, or a multi-dog cremation, cheaper by far. I believe I chose the higher-priced option, but I wondered later how I would know if I got my choice. Could well be all dog cremations are multiple.

You can see where I am going with this sort of reasoning. The man, Mr. Roby, had told me all cremations in Jefferson County are done in one location, out in the county someplace. He said all funeral homes used the same service. I hadn’t known this. I wish to believe the facility is well run and carefully regulated, but what if it isn’t, and what if multi-cremation events are a regular fare? How would I know beforehand?

I mean the technicians could get very backed up in their work and cheat a little or a lot. I could deal with that outcome, I suppose, but I’d like an adjustment in price up front if I have to. Not likely to happen, I suppose. Besides, who would admit to such practices? But I am a pretty reasonable individual, not terribly biased about many matters, well, a few maybe, but it might bother me or my survivors if I were cremated with a murderer or a child molester or a wife beater.

I was very grateful to learn the cremations themselves were not performed in the basement of Cremation Society of Kentucky’s office where I had been sitting. I would not like to learn such activities were going on below me as I sat chatting so amicably with Mr. Roby.

Soon thereafter, I left. I had a lot to consider. The most obvious concern was this: What if I was out of town when the time came? What if I were in, say, Athens, Ohio visiting my friend Emily? How would my remains get back to Kentucky, to the Cremation Society of Kentucky? And who would foot the bill for transport (shipping)? Not poor Emily, I hoped.

Or if I was in Massachusetts seeing family, there the same problem develops. Could be very costly to get me back to Kentucky, and again, who would guarantee the freight? Forget it if I were in Europe. This cremation system works pretty well if you can be sure you are at home at the time you die. You’d almost feel the need to stay nearby to get your money’s worth. And if you’re like me and prefer no religious services, no clamor at your leaving this world, it seems crazy to spend another thousand bucks or so shipping your sorry ass back to Kentucky when the job can be done on the spot, the place where you dropped.

And I began to wonder too how one’s body got shipped to the ovens in rural Jefferson County. I didn’t notice any vehicles designed for that purpose in the parking lot of the Cremation Society of Kentucky. Obviously, many questions I’ve not yet asked, but one thing sustains my interest in this cremation service, and it is this – I can beforehand designate where my ashes get sent, if I pay the hundred bucks for postage. And, as I understand the man, Mr. Roby, my remains do not have to go to a relative or even a friend. I have been a writer much of my adult life, a social worker also, and back in the ‘70s, I dealt with a well-known editor (‘celebrated’ may be the word I want) in New York concerning a novel I wrote. He kept expressing an interest in my work, and this went on for over a year. Finally, I lost hope and had to ask him to return the manuscript, which took him weeks to do. I was pissed.

So I sent him in the mail a manuscript bag full of cow shit. I am not a long-term hater, so I would not send him my ashes. Besides, he is dead. But there are other possibilities. For example, a fiction editor at The New Yorker used to send me rejection notes quite regularly for my short stories on which she penned, “A good story, but not right for the New Yorker, but we would like to see more.” She is much younger than me, so she could be a candidate to receive my ashes.

There are just so many possibilities, truth be told, and it is kind of fun to consider how such a package might be received. Perhaps fun is not the word I should chose. I mean considering the subject at hand, my demise.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker in Louisville, Kentucky. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council.
Originally published:
April 8, 2019


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