The brick building across the street from my workplace parking lot is unremarkable.
Three floors. Squat. Only one small window: a foggy one that looks as though it was last opened during the Cold War. There is a loading dock with a heavy metal door that is almost always closed.
For most of the year I’ve worked at this job, I have managed to notice the building while not noticing it at all. It looked like most older city buildings. Many mornings, a nondescript commercial truck came and parked outside it. Sometimes I would see a man in a heavy fleece and a baseball cap getting into the truck or out of it.
And then, one day, I changed parking spaces and found myself facing the building while I had a pre-work, morning chat with my mother. The metal door that hid the loading dock was open, and the truck was there, and the familiar fleece-wearing man was using a lift to slowly lower large rectangular boxes, wrapped in heavy-duty quilts and plastic, down from the truck and into the bay.
Huh, I thought, bemused, looks like caskets.
And then the man tugged off the quilts and the plastic, and I realized that’s exactly what they were.
One by one, he worked until I eventually found myself staring at what looked like fourteen sheet-covered gurneys, much like what you would see in a hospital. Bewildered, I watched as he hopped into the truck and then drove away. Eventually, the door to the loading dock closed to hide the gurneys. Later that afternoon, I watched in confusion as people—workers there?—slouched outside that same door, smoking cigarettes and sharing lunch as though there had not been what appeared to be actual human corpses there.
When I asked my coworker, her response was offhanded. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Did you not know that was a crematorium?”
I assuredly did not.
Now I do, though, and the routine is almost always the same. The man in the truck comes, the bodies appear off the truck, lined up in neat little rows, and then the door closes and the man leaves. And I think a lot about them, those anonymous dead under sheets. I wonder about why it startles me and leaves me uneasy to see them treated with such calm disregard, like they are any other form of cargo. These people who were surely mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, some witty, some joyful, some shy: they are all in boxes, and all the boxes are covered in white sheets, and they all wait together for cremation in a loading dock with such little ceremony, though surely many of them are grieved.
For whatever reason, the sight always makes me reflect on my faith.
I am glad that I serve a God to whom no one is anonymous. Everyone is known to him; there is no one insignificant to him in life or in death. Every person who is wheeled into that crematorium, grieved or not, is known to Him, and cared for by Him, and I often marvel at that and am grateful for it as the truth sinks in. We live in a world where it is easy to be unknown and anonymous, uncared for and unseen, in life and also in death. But God always notices. His eyes always see. And it is comforting to me that those anonymous-looking shrouded people on the gurneys are not, and never were, anonymous to God.
And I am grateful, too, for comfort about death—and the temporality of it.
In the Middle Ages, the abrupt reality of death was a constant truth. Memento mori – remember you must die – was the theme of the age. In a world where the plague ran rampant, the reality was impossible to ignore. But in our modern age we’ve insulated ourselves from death. The sight of those bodies at the crematorium was shocking to me because the sight of dead bodies is so rare generally in our culture. The sight of the work of death is rare. We confine it to caskets, to a square rectangle of earth, to an urn. But we don’t expect to meet it in other places. It startles us.
Most of our culture lives desperately to avoid death. All the trends in wellness and in Silicon Valley are about living better, longer. About uploading our brains in some digital manner so we can “live forever,” about freezing our bodies until we can treat the diseases in them in some ideal future, about living, living, living, more and more and more and as long as we can. But humans can’t, and won’t. Death is a terrifying truth, if you are not a believer. It is the end of everything, if you are not a believer. It is the tearing-away, the abrupt goodbye, the heavy finality, the bitter darkness, lost potential, a vanished future, a nothing, a void.
If you are not a believer.
But I am.
And so I can look at those sheet-covered gurneys, and I can mourn with those who mourn – I always think of those who must be hurting, and left behind – but I am also comforted by the realization that although death is truly an awful thing, and what God did not want for His beloved creation, Jesus met it first and conquered it. And because He did, I don’t have to fear it as anything more than a transition. For the believer, death isn’t a wall, but a doorway.
I’m glad for that – and for the strange sight from the parking lot that reminds me of it.