What happens in a Crematory? Joe Smolenski and Heather Hill have answers

Today we’re going to dig deeper into the industry of death because there are many questions that most of us are afraid to ask but we’ve always been at least a little curious about. Joe Smolenski, Vice President of Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh North Carolina and Renaissance funeral director Heather Hill come on to answer your questions about what life is like at the funeral home, and what exactly happens in a crematory.

Beyond the Obituary Crematory

Jason Gillikin: You’re listening to the Beyond the Obituary Podcast from Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh North Carolina. I’m your host Jason Gillikin. On season 1, we brought you stories of people who have passed on, as told by their loved ones because a life is so much more than a one page obituary. On this season, we’re going to do something a little different. Joe Smolenski, funeral director and vice president of Renaissance will be the host most of the time, and we’re going to dig deeper into the industry of death because there are many questions that most of us are afraid to ask but we’ve always been at least a little curious about.

So on this episode, Joe Smolenski and Renaissance funeral director Heather Hill come on to answer your questions about what life is like at the funeral home, and what exactly happens in a crematory.

For Joe, he is a 4th generation funeral director dating back to the Smolenski Funeral Home in Brooklyn New York back in 1920. Joe’s dad opened up Renaissance in Raleigh in 2003, and they wanted to build a community funeral home that had the knowledge and experience in many types of ceremonies and rituals – a place where everyone is welcome. Over the past 17 years, they’ve done exactly that.


Now growing up in a family of funeral directors, Joe had a different childhood experience.


So it is interesting, but my experience starts from maybe about 10 years old when I would visit the funeral home and be exposed to an embalming or a viewing or visitation.

And It was shocking, you know, just like anybody that can imagine themselves for the first time going to see a body, especially embalming. I remember that was probably the most traumatic for me, witnessing that. And I remember, I tell people I couldn’t eat dinner that night or – I didn’t have trouble sleeping, but I remember I couldn’t eat dinner that night.

I was just so, it was just, it turned me off, but – which is interesting. But, you know, my father has funny stories about growing up in the funeral home and actually being so busy in the family funeral home – and it wasn’t a big home. I mean, this is a city home, probably 1,400 square foot home – and they actually had to lay bodies on the floor at busy times and he vividly remembers jumping over a body or two in the living room just to get to the kitchen.

Jason Gillikin: Oh my gosh.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting. But, you know, those are some of the interesting stories that reside in the family. But I did everything else, you know, like kids my age, and I got exposed at 10 years old, but slowly got used to the experience and I became involved more and more.

And then in 2003, when we opened Renaissance Funeral Home, that’s when it all began.

Jason Gillikin: Okay. Well, so have you been involved with like day to day? Like have you been in charge of day to day the whole time?

Joe Smolenski: No. So, with licensing that’s imperative. For the funeral industry, many people don’t understand that it’s quite regulated, at least in North Carolina it is. You have to become licensed, you have to be licensed to be a manager of a funeral home. So the day to day operations, managing the day to day operations for me, didn’t begin until after I got my license, which might’ve been 2006. Once I got my license, I had a little bit more experience and the late two thousands is when I – 2009 or 10 – is when I became a manager and started to get more involved with the day to day operations.

Jason Gillikin: Gotcha, OK. And now you’re a certified, licensed crematory operator, which will

Joe Smolenski: Last year, yeah.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, which we’ll get to in just a second here. But Heather, let’s get to you. So you are one of the funeral directors here, you also run Death Cafe here. I’ve seen you in action, you’re very good at what you do because you’re so warm, caring, empathetic. If you had to picture a perfect funeral director, it would be what you do, basically. But how did you get into it? Like why, why the funeral home?

Heather Hill: Well, thank you for saying such kind things, Jason. I appreciate that. That’s hard to, hard to roll off of that one, but thank you. I came into funeral directing kind of late in my career life. I’ve had a lot of other careers, and I most recently was working from home doing web design and marketing.

And I, I didn’t enjoy doing that, but I had kids at home and I was able to stay at home. Once they got older, I was seeking another career choice, and I was actually – I like this story – I was online at three o’clock in the morning and did one of those career builder quizzes online and funeral director popped up and I knew right away that, that was something that I wanted to do. When I – one of my first jobs was at a bank teller, and across the street from bank was the funeral home that my family used to use, and I used to just look over there and just wonder how things worked inside and how fascinating the whole death and dying ritual part of, of funeral service was. So I’ve always been interested in it. I was also a flight attendant and when I would go to different places and different countries, I was always drawn to walking through the cemeteries. And I’m just fascinated with how communities grieve the different rituals, different religions and how it affects – how, how humans react to death and dying.

So that was what my fascination was with the business, and –

Jason Gillikin: Wait, so flight attendant, to finance, to web design, to funeral homes?

Heather Hill: I was an X-ray tech in between all of that, too.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Heather Hill: And a vet tech. So I’ve had a little bit of everything, yeah. This is it, finally.

Jason Gillikin: You’re, you’re at Renaissance Funeral Home and you’re a Renaissance woman.

Heather Hill: There ya’ go. I think I’m done with my career choices now, this is it. I think all of that really was – built a foundation for working here. The travel with being a flight attendant and being able to see how different people in different countries live and even different places in the United States, how they, you know, just the human psyche and how different people outside of my own circle react. I think that was a really good tool of learning. And so that, I think that’s really helped me in this career path.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. So, talk about Death Cafe just a little bit. I want to dig deeper into, into that in a future episode, but talk about what it is and how you got involved in that.

Heather Hill: Well, I’ll start with what it is. Death Cafe is an international program, not one that I developed and people question the name all the time, Death Cafe. Why is it called that? I didn’t name it. I just picked up the program and brought it here to Renaissance. And it’s just basically an open table discussion of people talking about death and dying, their experiences, sharing experiences with our community.

It’s nota a planned program. There’s no topics that we’re going in today – OK, today’s topic is cremation or today’s topic is green burial. It is just, we do introductions and we throw out what do you want to talk about today? And the reason I, I wanted to do something like that is the families that you sit with taught me a lot about how our community deals with death, which most of the time they don’t do that very well. And the reason is because we don’t talk about death and dying in our own families, we don’t plan for it, we don’t talk about what we want. And seeing the turmoil of families not being able to decide, does mom or dad want cremated? Did they want to be buried? If they wanted to be buried, did they want to be buried back home? Which, you know, a lot of times is back up North. What did that person want and what is important for that family? So, the lack of those discussions in the families that we were seeing was my reasoning for thinking, ‘We need to talk about this,’ and it has, we’ve been doing this since about 2016, and the turnout is great. We have a lot of people that come to every one, we have a lot of people that just come and, and listen to a few, but I’ve heard from many of our community members that it has really made an impact on them with the ease of talking about death, especially when you’re not upon it right then.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. And having grown up in a typical American family myself, we’re not good at talking about death. And so I’ve been to a couple of these Death Cafes, and it’s really helpful, you know, to just, just talk about it and talk about how it is a part of life. And in one of those Death Cafes, we actually toured the new crematory, which was really neat.

But you talked about how families, you know, sometimes are uncomfortable figuring out if they want cremation, if they want green burial, if they want a more traditional funeral home. Like, are you involved in that process as the funeral director? How does, how does that all work?

Heather Hill: I think of course, every family is different.

For those that  come in and don’t have an idea at all of what they’re thinking, I think with a little bit of discussion, you can hear from them what’s important to that family. I’ll meet with the family, which has happened several times, “Mom loved to garden, she was outside all the time. She loved to walk through the park and she loved trees.

“And so have you thought about green burial where she can nurture the environment that she loves so much?” And that’s a lot of times an option. There are families  that say, “You know what, dad loved the water and, we’re, you know, we want to scatter his ashes in the water.”

So we sometimes, if they don’t have any idea, through discussions like that, we can come up with a fit that would be right for them. And they always want to do right by their loved one. And, you know, we always discuss wherever their loved one is now, whatever your religion or your belief is, there’s nothing hopefully, but, but love surrounding them.

So any decision that you make is going to be the right decision for your family. So they’re always worried about what other family members might think or what they’re one that has just died might think so, letting them know that it’s okay to make a decision is what’s important, I think.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, OK. And one of those options here is now cremation. So Joe, can you talk about building the crematory? Like, is it typical for a funeral home to have a crematory onsite? And like what, how did it all happen? Like how did, how did you bring this to Renaissance Funeral Home? And then, I’m curious to know about the process, too.

Joe Smolenski: Sure. Not all funeral homes have a crematory.

Now, as far as I’m aware, all funeral homes offer cremation, but not all funeral homes have a crematory. North Carolina, again, going back to what the law allows here, because every state is different, just like in healthcare. Well, it’s the same thing for the funeral industry. Funeral homes are allowed to have their own crematories, and they can have it on site.

If they have the room for it, they can have it on site in North Carolina. And we’ve been seeing the cremation rate grow from 2003, when we began, I recall the cremation rate being about 45%. Now, 2020, it’s about 75% for us.

Jason Gillikin: Wow.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah. And, it continues to go up with those, with that sort of trend, it only made sense for us to have our own crematory. If we have had not made that choice last year, what we would have been, subjected to was driving the body to a crematory and basically giving them revenue for them to grow their business. When yes, we serve people and we do a very reverent thing for the community, but we are still a business and it made financial sense for us.

And not even just financial sense, but even time sense. You know, instead of getting in the car to drive somewhere and then go back to pick up the cremated remains, have everything here and also control. You know, it’s – so all of those things played a role in that decision last year to, to put the crematory on our property, we already had a building.

The puzzle pieces fit and it was a quick and easy decision, really.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. And I’ve seen it, it’s impressive. So, can you talk about it, like describe what it looks like and you know, why you’ve made it just so comfortable for families?

Joe Smolenski: Well, I would say more than 90% of crematories that I’ve been to are your typical metal building or warehouse type building, tall ceiling, dusty concrete floor, loud, just an unattractive place to bring anybody, let alone a family that just lost somebody. It would never be a place that you’d be proud of showing if you are a funeral home owner for a typical crematory. And in the past, most funeral home owners and funeral directors did not offer to show their crematory to families.

It was something done behind the scenes. Here, I will take, I’ll take your loved one from this point, and the next time that you will be in possession of your loved one’s remains is when the cremation is complete, when I give you the urn, and that, that’s pretty standard. Well, we attempted to change that by making an attractive place for families to say goodbye one last time, even if it’s just five minutes. For families that want the cremation, but don’t want a public service, they can pay their respects in this room. They can also just be back there to participate in the beginning of the cremation process.

And by that, I don’t mean seeing the body burn by that. I mean, just simply pushing the button to start the machine, or pushing the button to open up the cremation or the retort – that’s the name of the cremation machine is the retort – open up that door and some families want to help push in. Some families just want to witness the funeral directors push the casket in. And then the retort door shuts, and there might be a prayer. There might be some, some quiet time for a few minutes, and generally, then the families would leave at that point, but we created this attractive space that feels just like a living room. It seems as if you’re in our own funeral home, and it’s an inviting space for people to take part in whatever aspect of the cremation they want to, I think that basically sums it up.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the process then. So, you mentioned that there’s a retort. Like, I guess even some of the basics, like how do you get the body from the funeral home to, you know, to the retort? What, what’s that process?

Joe Smolenski: Yeah. It depends. Of course now, like I mentioned, the crematory’s on our property. So for families that are participating in full, like Hindu families, they will actually want to walk the casket back to the crematory. And we’re talking about once we get to the, the rear of our main building, the crematory is maybe 60 feet away, not far.

And we will simply just walk the casket through the back lot 60 feet through, into the crematory. It’s as simple as that. For families that are not interested in participating from, let’s say, a service that’s taking place in the funeral home. They’re just going to meet us at the crematory, we’ll have the casket in place prior to them arriving and have had everything nicely set up.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. So, the, the body then is in like, sort of, a mini casket.

Joe Smolenski: Yes. Yeah, it has to be by law. That’s a misconception or maybe I’ll be enlightening people here. But when we talk about a body being cremated, the body always has to be in some sort of a container.

So the minimum container by law is a cardboard box. It’s specifically made for human body, it’s not just any old cardboard box, but it’s one made for the human body with a certain thickness. And so it’s, it’s sturdy and it provides the purpose of protecting both the crematory operator and the funeral directors, from let’s say an unembalmed body, we can just have the body resting in that cardboard container and, it’s, the body is contained in there. Now the other option for families is a cremation casket, made of wood. Families that want to have a viewing are able to have the body viewed in that cremation casket, and it looks just like any other wood casket in most cases you wouldn’t know. The difference being, it’s got less metal parts and it’s more combustible. You know, you’re not going to find any pine in, you know, pine wood in a, in a cremation casket. But in any case, we can use that as well.

So the body’s always residing in some sort of a vessel before we do cremation. And that’s what the family will see when they come back to the crematory, the casket is placed or positioned on our lift. That’s where we can have the viewing and – if there is going to be one – and once everybody is ready and once, we also have to point out that once we have our authorizations ready, because there is a 24 hour waiting period after death, so the soonest we can do cremation is 24 hours after death. That is also providing we have the signed death certificate from the doctor or, or health practitioner because nurse practitioners can also sign, and the cremation authorization must be signed by the family. So once those, those three parameters, the time restriction, the cremation authorization and the death certificate have all been satisfied, then we can move on with the cremation. And, it’s as simple at that point is pushing the button to start the process. The machine turns on, when the, the cremation machine comes up to temperature and the button is pushed, the retort door opens, the funeral directors, or the family, can push in, the door shuts.

And at that point, the cremation process, it’s all computerized. It’s about a two hour process.

Jason Gillikin: And it’s, it’s flames then?

Joe Smolenski: Correct? Natural gas. It’s fueled by natural gas, ours is anyway. I’ve heard of others being fueled by maybe propane, but ours is fueled by natural gas, and it is flame direct flame.

There are two chambers, probably won’t get too complicated with that, but there are two chambers. There’s a top chamber, where the body and the container reside during the cremation, and that there’s a bottom chamber, which is the smoke burning chamber, which is why during a cremation, you can go outside the crematory, look up at the chimney stack and you will not see any smoke. Which it’s it’s, you know, it’s, it’s interesting, ’cause you’re like “Well, how does it, it shouldn’t there be?” It’s amazing. Actually, the – it gets so hot that the smoke actually burns. And families will stay for a few minutes once the cremation starts, we’ve never had anybody stay for the two hours – not that they couldn’t – but, we just haven’t had any families. They normally – it’s maybe five minutes. They will walk, walk out and at that point, crematory operator will manage the cremation. After the cremation is complete, we sweep the cremated remains out into a cooling pan. The cooling process takes maybe 30 minutes, and what, what you’re doing at that point really is to taking the, the remains of the cremation, which, which are actually fragmented bone, you’re allowing them to cool. And we then, after the cooling process, remove any metal parts from that. So some people have a hip replacement, knee replacements, maybe even dental work.

And we remove any of that because what’s going to happen next is we take that, take those bone fragments and pulverize them into a powder. This is the powder that people refer to as ashes.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Joe Smolenski: And in fact, it’s not ashes, it’s really pulverized bone.

Jason Gillikin: Wait, so the machine pulverizes it?

Joe Smolenski: Yeah, there’s a separate small machine. That it, for lack of a better way of explaining it, it, it’s an industrial blender, in a sense.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Joe Smolenski: And pulverizes that bone into the powder form that we see as ashes. And once the bones are processed, they’re placed into a plastic bag. And that plastic bag gets an identification – two identification tags. One identification tag that’s required in North Carolina, which is a metal disc that states the number cremation that this individual was, so that number is unique to each cremation that’s done. That’s a state requirement. And then not only that, but then there’s another tag that, has the individual’s name, date of birth, date of death, social security number and all of their important information, so we know who was cremated. And that plastic bag and those ashes then go into an urn.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Joe Smolenski: Yep.

Jason Gillikin: All right. So the, the pulverized bones are the ashes, so to speak. Now the casket, is that going to be in that as well?

Joe Smolenski: It’s not, not a large portion of the cremated remains. I tried, I really attempted to figure out a better percentage of, of what it would be.

I mean, let’s, let’s say you had the wood cremation casket, that would be, that would create a lot more wood residue than let’s say a cardboard box.

Jason Gillikin: Right.

Joe Smolenski: And it’s still, even with a wood, wood cremation casket. You’d be looking at maybe about 1%.

Jason Gillikin: Wow.

Joe Smolenski: It’s, it’s not much because what’s left after cremation is mainly sodium phosphates and other phosphates that are left, which is bone. It gets so hot that, you know, wood – burnt wood would just create just a very minute amount of carbon, you know, the black soot that you see maybe, and there’s very little of that left, but it might influence the color of the cremated remains.

So after cremation, if you had a wood casket, because of that black soot from, from the burnt wood casket, you might get a darker color cremated remains, but typical cremated remains are a light gray in color.

Jason Gillikin: OK. How hot does it get?

Joe Smolenski: So, we talked about two chambers. The top chamber where the body resides, anywhere from a thousand degrees to maybe start the cremation, can get up to 1700 to 1800 degrees. The, the middle area is about 1500 is generally where it will sit somewhere in there. The bottom chamber, the smoke burning chamber gets hotter. That is normally at a minimum of 1600, but on the high end can get as high as 2000 degrees.

Jason Gillikin: Jeez.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah.

Jason Gillikin: OK, and you said two hours, is that typically how long it takes?

Joe Smolenski: Yeah, the machines have gotten better over the years. Back in 2003, during our beginnings, I recall cremations taking, in some cases, four hours that today, take 90 minutes.

Jason Gillikin: So you could do say two or three of these per day?

Joe Smolenski: Yes, we generally three is – during a workday, three. Some of the really busy crematories that generally are doing cremations for lots of different funeral homes, sometimes they don’t, they don’t really shut down much but once a week. And as you can imagine, that that generates a lot of heat in the room and you got to have a lot of good air flow. And it doesn’t make any sense to combat it with air conditioning, because it’s just a battle. You just have, you know, even if it’s a hundred degrees outside in the summer, you just have this constant airflow and you’re, you’re just trying to keep it the same temperature as outside.

Jason Gillikin: Wow.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah.

Jason Gillikin: So, I’ve got some more questions and I actually asked people on Facebook about, you know, what questions they have because I said I would be doing a podcast with a funeral director and a crematory owner. So, you know, based on their fears, their curiosity, what questions do they have? And I’ll get to that in a second, but I want to go from the plastic bag that’s marked, and then it goes into an urn potentially.  So. Heather, let’s talk about like, are there typically any ceremonies with that urn? Is it like a normal funeral? Do they use that urn in some sort of ceremony process? How does it all work?

Heather Hill: Most of the time when families want to do a cremation or direct cremation, you know, there, there is a choice I’ll back up a little bit and say the families do have an option to do a full funeral, full viewing, just like we’re used to traditionally, and then we can do the cremation after.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Heather Hill: Then the families just pick up the urn, but I’d say many more families do what we call a memorial service, which they will have the urn, as we say, the urn present at the memorial service and, you know, traditionally we’re used to having a centerpiece. The casket is there with flowers, so we have a really pretty table that we use that we put the urn on the table.

It’s usually surrounded by flowers, a candle and a photo, so there is just like, a centerpiece for the people to focus on. But most of the families that have a memorial service will have the urn present. It’s like you are having then that person’s remains present just in a different way than we’re used to.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah.

Heather Hill: But, yeah. And a lot of families do – that’s what a lot of families do they have that memorial service with the urn present.

Well, there’s lots of different choices with urns and not everybody needs to have an urn. You can do the, if they’re just returned in a cardboard container and you’re going to scatter the ashes, then families just opt for very simplistic return. We have a Himalayan salt urn that can be placed in the water, and it’s really heavy, so it will sink to the bottom of the ocean or lake or wherever, and it will eventually dissolve.

Jason Gillikin: Wow.

Heather Hill: That’s a really beautiful urn. Think of that pink and salt that we use, that one’s really pretty, and then we have our traditional urn-shaped urns. And then if you’re – it all depends on what the families decide to do eventually, and if they’re going to bury the urn in a cemetery, then a lot of times we’ll have them look at a cultured marble urn, which is more like a rectangle, really heavy, you know, swirled like think of a countertop, kind of like look to it.

So those are all the different choices that people usually choose for their urns.

Jason Gillikin: So did you just say that some people bury the urn in the cemetery?

Heather Hill: Yeah. A lot of families, you know, they’re, they have a family plot or they’ve had, you know, when their parents bought these plots back in the sixties and seventies, so they still want the traditional feeling of being in their family cemetery, but they’ll bury their cremated remains in their cemetery so they still have that feeling of that, they’re back with their family for eternity.

Jason Gillikin: So you’ve mentioned scattering the ashes in the ocean or whatever, and let me preface this by saying that you’re not a lawyer by any means, but are there rules about this?

Heather Hill: General rule for that is if you want a scatter on private property, you need the, the owner’s permission to do so. If you are scattering in the ocean or in a body of water, you need to be three nautical miles away from the water’s edge.

Jason Gillikin: Whoa. OK. Oh, I’ve I’ve taken part in some illegal activities then.

Heather Hill: We’re just smiling over here, just shaking our head. You know, there’s no cremation police out there, but you know, you should follow the recommended guidelines, but.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, OK. Aanything, anything that I’ve missed as far as what the crematory is and in the process and everything like that?

Joe Smolenski: I think if anybody was questioning, why do we pulverize the cremated remains? Again, that’s the law. You know, the, the whole process is, is really – every, every step is documented. Again, we follow the guidelines of the state and there’s a document that dictates when and what time and what was done during the cremation process. So, we have to report that to the Board of Funeral Services, the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service, if there was ever a question. All of that paperwork for each individual cremation is filed in the crematory and, that’s it.

We’re, we’re audited annually. The funeral home is audited annually on pre-needs, and the crematories are also audited, generally not annually, but they are audited every two or three years or so. And if there is any question as to what is taking place at that crematory, like I said, we have those files in place.

So if anybody from the board of funeral service wants to, you know, just take a look into the files, but the point is that we are just following the guidelines of what the state requires. And I don’t know of any state that doesn’t require pulverization, but the whole idea behind the pulverizing or the processing of the cremated remains is to not have any parts – bones, teeth – that are visible, in the bag.

When we talked about putting the cremated remains or the ashes in the bag, the state doesn’t want you to be able to look in there and be able to point out, “Oh, this was mom’s finger or this was dad’s tooth,” so you cannot see – there’s no distinguishing. anything in the bag.

Jason Gillikin: OK, gotcha. All right, well, let’s get to some of the questions from Facebook and, and Heather asked some of her friends, I asked some of my friends, we got some really good questions here. So Fred Larsen asks, can donor organs be removed beforehand?

Heather Hill: They sure can. If the family chooses to be a donor, whether it’s, you know, vital organs that happen, of course, before the clinical death happens or donating long bone or tissue or corneas, that can definitely happen before cremation, that has no effect on any of that.

Jason Gillikin: OK. Now this one doesn’t necessarily have to do with cremation, more like just being involved in the funeral business here, Rachel Sheerin asks, do you talk to the bodies? I think I would. Do you have any rituals or things you say to them in good faith or wishes?

Heather Hill: I do, I do talk to the – not every body, but I do talk to a lot of the folks that I’m working with.

Amy and I both do that, she’s our apprentice that helps out a lot. I think it happens more so when I’m doing hair or nails, you know, you feel like you’re, well, if you’re at the beauty salon, you know, you’re chatting with your, your person. So I’ll just say, “Oh, I’m making your hair look nice. You parted it on the right, you know, I’m going to go by this picture. Or, I usually talk about their family. “Your daughter was lovely, and it’s been a pleasure to meet them, and they’re doing everything – they want you to look right. And they’re doing everything that you asked .” It just sometimes feels awkward during that process to not say something, or when I’m dressing them.

“OK, I’m going to put your arm through this, this arm hole or lift your leg. We got to put your, your socks on today.” Just, you know, I don’t know. It’s out of a comfort level for myself. And there’s, there’s times where I have special families and a lot of tragic young deaths are tough and I’ll, I’ll sometimes lay my hands on them and say, “You know, your mom misses you or loves you or something just, and that’s of course, of course, helping me out in dealing with this tragic, this tragic death.

So it helps me to do it sometimes. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Not everybody does, but. It’s funny.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. I mean, you’ve got to do something. Yeah. Yeah. You can’t, you can’t bring wine to work with you.

Heather Hill: That’s true.

Jason Gillikin: Joe?

Joe Smolenski: Well, I, I have to point out that Heather is a very social person and – but she’s got a big heart, and I think that was just displayed there. But no, I don’t. Not that I don’t have a heart and I don’t care, but for me, it’s, it, it’s more of just reverence, respect and I’m doing the family the honor of what they, what they requested and what this individual that passed away wanted. And I go about it in peace, and I’m perfectly happy and OK with that.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, all right. Joe Sax asks what procedures are used to prevent mixing up people’s ashes?

Joe Smolenski: So, cremations are always done one at a time. The retort can only accept one body at a time based on its size. So, in that regard, you will only be able to do one cremation at a time. The only time where there could potentially be a problem at some crematories might be if they’re doing cremations for a lot of funeral homes ,and this machine is just nonstop, and the only – the mix up would likely be after the sweeping out of cremated remains and placing them in a cooling pan, and let’s say you’ve got four cooling pans or five cooling pan sitting in the room, and you didn’t accurately label, ID, those cool pans or cremated remains. We don’t have that problem here.

We’re not doing cremations for other funeral homes. We’re not that, that busy that we can’t keep track of what we’re doing. I personally do cremations one at a time and, pulverize, or process, those cremated remains after they’d been cooled immediately, and the tag and the ID follow that body, or the remains, at all points.

There, there is just no question about whose cremated remains these are. And I welcome anybody that is listening, if they want to come to the funeral home, see the crematory, take a tour, I’ll gladly show you what it’s all about, and I think it might put more people at ease. We grew up understanding what it’s like to be at a cemetery, what a cemetery is like. With the rate of cremation, what it is today, it only makes sense for more people to get comfortable with what a crematory is like. There’s nothing to be scared of or afraid of, come see it. Sometimes knowledge, and understanding is peace.

Jason Gillikin: That’s right. And some people’s, well, probably most people’s understanding of it is what they have in their mind, from what they’ve seen on CSI or, who knows, Dexter or something like that. It doesn’t have to be a, a place to be scared, and you’ve made that crematory a place where people again, can be comfortable.

Heather Hill: You had to choose Dexter? Love that show though.

Jason Gillikin: I miss it. I miss it. So Wendy strong asks, what do you do with fillings from teeth, false joints, you know, all the rods in people’s knees and you know, all the other fake bones?

Joe Smolenski: We remove any metal parts.

Heather Hill: After the cremation.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah, after the cremation. The only, the only, device or devices we would remove prior to cremation would be a pacemaker or any sort of other battery operated devices.

It’s just common knowledge, batteries and heat don’t mix. We have to remove those prior to cremation, and after cremation we’re removing any metal parts that remained. After we have swept the cremated remains out, there are hip joints, sometimes knee replacements, dental fillings, correct.

Any, anything along those lines, they get removed and put to the side. We have a bin. Any metal parts get recycled, and, in some rare instances – and I’ll let Heather tell you one story that she experienced – but some families may request a metal piece back, and we have no problem with that. They aren’t gonna look the same.

They’ll be charred or, you know, darkened or blackened from the process of cremation, but if a family does want a device back, yes, you can have the device back. It’s OK. And as far as fillings and dental fillings go, silver, gold, number one, those fillings are not pure gold or pure silver. It’s it’s a mixture of different metals.

And when the cremation process is complete, it’s not like you get used to, you have this golden nugget or this silver nugget sitting there like, “Oh, I’m going to take this. I’m gonna get rich.” Number one, it’s not pure gold or pure silver to begin with. If a family member truly wants that, that silver mix or gold mix filling back, they need to have it removed before the cremation and, and the funeral home will not do it.

They can definitely hire a hygienist maybe or a dentist to come to the funeral home, be happy to have that happene for them, but after the cremation, it’s melted, it’s changed form, it, in some cases might mix with some of the ashes. It’s, it’s not something that family member would want back and it would have very little value, if any.

Jason Gillikin: Gotcha. OK. Heather, Joe mentioned that you might have a story?

Heather Hill: Yeah. I love this one about getting, you know, I think the listeners may think, why would anybody want anything back? But I had a family, it was two sons and their mom, and their dad had died. And they had asked me timidly if – that their dad had a rod in their leg and they wanted that rod back and the mother was horrified.

She couldn’t believe that kids had asked for this. And the kids, I mean, I’m speaking of, they’re adult men now, but they had said right after their parents got married, he was in a really bad car accident and had a rod placed in his femur. And that dad brought this up around the dinner table all the time about, well, you know, I have got that rod in my leg.

So, you know, you guys have to go mow the lawn or you know, that rod in my leg. And so there was the legend of the rod in his leg and these boys wanted that, that rod in his leg back. And we were able to do that. And like I said, mom was embarrassed by it, but it brought those boys comfort to have the legendary rod back.

I don’t know if they share it or pass it off during holidays or not, but they had a good explanation as to why, and I like that story and we were able to do that for them.

Jason Gillikin: That’s amazing. I wonder where that rod is now. Like, is it mounted up on a wall? Is it just in the attic? Where is that?

Heather Hill: No, I love it. I love it. I love that story. I’ll never forget that.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. Let’s see here. This question is from Doug Henderson, and he asked “To me, funerals and hospitals are places of despair, and how do you do it every day?” Like how do you compartmentalize?

Heather Hill: I think that not every death is a tragic death. Of course, we all understand how sad death can be, but when somebody is suffering or they have gone through a disease for a long time and they are ready to, to go, ready to die, and they’ve gone through the proper channels of hospice and the family is surrounding them. It can be a very healing and loving experience, and one that I’ve heard families discuss that it was a beautiful experience and an honor to be able to be with their loved one during that time.

So while it, you know, this job and this career can be, you know, people say it’s a downer. I’ve heard people say to me, “I don’t know how you do this. I just care too much.” And I take a lot of offense to that like we don’t care too much. I think once we’re desensitized to the fact that these people are having, some of them are having the worst day of their life.

That, that we don’t care. We actually do care a lot. And when we take the, or I can speak for myself, when we take the role as the helper or the guide, or the person that is walking with them through this journey, when you’re giving back, it helps you deal with the pain that you’re hearing from them or seeing them display.

So, I think by – the role that we take helps us. And then when the funeral is over or they’ve come back to pick up death certificates at a later time and you can actually sit down with them and hear the difference that you’ve made in their experience, that gets you fueled up and makes you want to, to keep doing what you’re doing, ’cause you really are helping people.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. And that’s, it feels like that’s what you can do at this funeral home in particular because it’s a family run funeral home, you know, unlike some of the other more corporate type of funeral homes who are just interested in, you know, the bottom line.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah, it’s not an easy business. It’s not for everybody. Certainly wouldn’t recommend it for most people, but there is a level or an aspect of it that, like Heather had mentioned it’s, it’s, you’re giving back and that, that’s what the focus is. It’s what you’re providing for these people.

Whether they’re, they understand what you’re doing for them or not. And as long as I’ve been doing this, there are times still – after I’ve been doing this now for 16, 17 years – where I will, on occasion, still question myself, if I’m doing a good enough job for this family, am I doing enough for them? Whatever, just, just questioning myself and, and what, what we are doing for the family.

And after it’s all said and done, they are very thankful and that’s the reassurance that, okay. They’ve noticed that, you know, what we’ve done for them. And it’s not that you need that because even if they didn’t say that, everything would, I would likely still be content, but it is nice to hear because when your mind plays those games with you saying, are you doing enough for the family?

Did you, are you doing it right? Did you do everything you should have done? Could you have done more? And when that comes out and someone says, “Thank you so much for helping us.” That’s like, “Oh, okay. Thank you.”

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. Wow. Yeah. Thank you for adding that. well this has been super interesting. I mean, thank you for sharing all about the funeral home, all about the crematory.

I know people were curious. I was curious, and I think you answered their questions very well.

So how can people find Renaissance Funeral Home and contact you, too?

Joe Smolenski: The easiest way is the website. Everything would be there – the email address, phone number website is www.rfhr.com.

Jason Gillikin: OK.

Heather Hill: We’re on Facebook and Instagram as well.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah. And then Joe, you’re going to be doing more hosting of this show. You’re gonna be on the show more and we’ve already recorded a couple episodes and you’ve got more in the queue. So talk about who you have coming up, and it’s gonna be more about the business of, of death and dying and funeral homes.

And it’s going to be super interesting. I’ve enjoyed listening to these and I can’t wait to share them, but talk to our listeners about that.

Joe Smolenski: Yeah. I think some of the new episodes coming, we’ve got an apprentice, and a student of Fayetteville Tech that we are interviewing to give people a perspective on the school.

Anybody out there that’s interested in what it’s like to be a funeral director student, or is interested in going to school for funeral directing, this would be a great episode to listen to. We have episodes coming up about organ donation and also tissue donation – there is a difference. So, those – they’re all going to be interesting topics.

We, we don’t want to bore people. We think that these would be topics that most people would be very interested in, and if we can put any other topics out there that people would like to hear, please email us, get in contact and say, I’d love to hear, hear an episode about this or that. Please do, we’d be very open to it.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, I mean, I think when you’re asking for that, people are, some people are gonna be interested in. How does embalming work?

Joe Smolenski: Exactly. We’d love to hear that.

Jason Gillikin: You know, are you worried about ghosts? You know?

Joe Smolenski: Yeah. We’d love to hear that too. Any, anything that’s on someone’s mind that we can, if we have to combine a few topics into one episode, but would love to hear what’s on your mind, what interests you about anything that we could contribute.

Jason Gillikin: Yeah, definitely. Well, I’m excited for this season coming up, season two. But thank you both, Joe Smolenski, Heather Hill for being on the Beyond the Obituary podcast. I’m Jason Gillikin, and we’ll see you next time.

That was Joe Smolenski and Heather Hill from Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh North Carolina.


You can find more on Renaissance by visiting RFHR.com.


This season, we’ll be hearing more about the death industry, including upcoming episodes about anatomical gifting, organ donation, green burial, and how to become a funeral director.


To be updated, be sure to subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts.


Beyond the Obituary is edited and produced by Earfluence.


Thanks for listening everyone, and we’ll see you in two weeks with another episode of Beyond the Obituary.

Full Episode Transcript

Beyond the Obituary is hosted by Jason Gillikin (for this episode anyway) and is a production of Earfluence.

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