Ever wanted to know the nitty-gritty of what happens inside a crematorium? Now you can. When a crematorium open day presented itself on the Kāpiti Coast, David Haxton took a deep breath and ventured forth to find out more about the specialised art of cremation.
In a corner of the picturesque Awa Tapu cemetery in Valley Rd Paraparaumu is a normal looking building.
The building comprises a crematorium and committal chapel owned by Kāpiti Coast Funeral Home.
It's a place where people come to farewell a loved one whose final curtain is about to come down.
On a cold, wet and miserable winter's day the funeral home held an open day for people to see what happens at the crematorium – without an actual cremation happening of course.
It was a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes of a state-of-the-art crematorium.
On arrival visitors were greeted to a warm 40-seat committal chapel.
The company has a larger building in nearby Hinemoa St where funerals are held but the committal chapel has become increasingly popular with a third to a half of private funerals held there.
Next to the chapel is an inviting outdoors paved area where, on this occasion, a tūī was playing happily in a kōwhai tree.
A hearse would bring the casket, containing the deceased, to the building where it is taken through the front door into the committal chapel.
After a service and final goodbyes, the casket is moved into the cremator room.
It's a large room where the cremator takes pride of place.
The process to install a cremator in the building took six years and involved things like gaining permission from the local authority, rezoning a parcel of land to commercial, applying for an air discharge consent, ordering a cremator, building and health department consent.
The cremator, imported from overseas, is fully computer automated but has a manual option too.
The two-storey cremator features a top chamber, where the casket goes, and a bottom chamber which nukes the emissions.
The bottom chamber is pre-heated to over 700 degrees, using natural gas, before a normal cremation starts.
Old-fashioned cremators featured a single chamber where the casket was burnt and smoke shot out of a chimney. It was a fast process.
But new cremators, operating under strict air emission conditions, are built with a floating hearth allowing flames to burn emissions in the lower chamber.
The cremation time is slower because of the need to try and burn emissions.
The company isn't allowed to emit more than 0.01 per cent of contaminants into the atmosphere.
If you looked at the crematorium's small chimney, when a cremation was happening, only a shimmering heat haze should be noticeable.
The casket, which has the person's name plate on it, is positioned on top of a machine which will not only load it into the cremator, but provide a weight reading, which is important as the cremator operates on a band of weight ranges.
Weight scales range from small 0-50kg, medium 51-90kg, large 91 to 150kg, or obese.
On a computer screen various information needs to be input including who is operating the cremator, weight of the casket, the gender of the deceased [males and females have different bone density and body fat ratio], what number cremation it is today and what the casket is made from.
With the cremator at the right heat level, and all the information in the computer, the operator is ready to load the casket into the cremator via cardboard rollers.
Before the casket is placed inside, the name plate is removed and is put at the end of the cremator where an ashes container is.
"So we know at a glance that's who is in the cremator at the moment," senior funeral director John Duncan said.
And as per resource consent requirements, the casket's handles are removed, and won't be used again.
Pine caskets are the most common and are "more cost effective and provide cleaner cremating than custom wood with veneer".
The casket is loaded in, door closed, and a button pushed to start the cremation process.
The cremation is expected to start within one to two minutes but there is a booster button if it doesn't start efficiently enough.
Cremation is now under way.
"There's actually not really a jet of flame being sent onto the casket, it's the combustion of the casket itself and then the deceased."
The cremation timeframe, broadly speaking, is about three hours for most average adults.
If the person is obese the machine operates differently.
"You put the casket in and then you start the machine.
"They have to be the first cremation of the day because it [the cremator] has to start from cold.
"If you put an obese body into a very hot cremator, particularly if it was the second or third cremation of the day, you could have problems with combustion of body fat happening very quickly."
With cremation complete, there's an hour cool down period before the ashes are recovered with a long handled brush.
"All that's really left after cremation is calcified bone ash of the skeleton."
The ashes are placed in the container, which has the person's name plate with it, and taken to a corner of the room for processing into powder form.
Bits of metal from the cremation are extracted with a magnet and can range from titanium spectacle frames, belt buckle, screws, staples, metal buttons and so on. They are discarded into a waste bin.
Replacement hips or knees are taken to a specialist company in Auckland which recycles the metal.
The only thing removed from the deceased before cremation is a pacemaker – that procedure is done by a medical specialist at a separate location.
The processed ashes and name plate are placed in box which also has the person's name on it for double identification.
The cremation process is now complete and the ashes are ready to be collected by a loved one.
It has been an informative open day hosted by friendly and helpful funeral home staff.
Outside the rain is still falling as I scamper to the car.
I glance back and see the tūī sitting cheerfully in the chapel courtyard tree.