For a Brattleboro crematorium operator, two things in life are certain: death and dignity
I’d never spent much time around a dead body before. My previous experience had consisted of a few open-casket funerals — where you peer in at someone with loads of makeup on — and an accident scene where I knew the form under the blanket was a corpse. But when we walked into my mother-in-law’s hospital room one morning last June, her blue eyes were staring out the window without any sign of light or life. “She just stopped breathing a few minutes ago,” someone said softly. The full impact was deep and instantaneous. We were looking at the shell. Her spirit was gone.
Nancy Jane Montgomery Post was 68 years old and was in her first full year of retirement from her own business. She had kept the news of her inoperable cancer from us so as not to spoil our wedding, which had taken place less than a month before in the garden that was her pride and joy.
After the first half-hour of sitting there in what was for us the peaceful presence of death, we knew it was time to start taking care of some details. That’s when we called Tom Robinson. He showed up about an hour later, clad not in the typical undertaker’s dark suit, but a pair of clean blue jeans and a short-sleeved sport-shirt. His eyes were calm, his manner reassuring.
As the sole proprietor of the Eternal Flame Crematorium in Brattleboro, Robinson had attracted Nancy’s attention in a newspaper article, and she had instructed us that she wanted him to “get the business.”
As we sat by Nancy’s bed, Robinson gently discussed the details. He would obtain the necessary paperwork, take the body from the hospital, cremate her remains, and deliver the ashes four days later on the day of the memorial service. There were papers to sign and a check to write. He answered all our questions, but what was most impressive was his attitude. Robinson spoke to us about his belief that our love and caring meant the most in the process of honoring Nancy and her passage into death.
It was time to say goodbye, and we touched Nancy’s now cool body for the last time. As we pulled away from the small hospital in Southern Vermont, we saw Robinson’s white minivan at the service door. Somehow, the fact that her body was being transported in something so ordinary was reassuring. Nancy had hated pretentiousness.
Tom Robinson had made a remarkable impression on us: His service was unique, his “customer service” skills impeccable. I couldn’t stop wondering how he got into the business, and what that business — grim to most of us — is really like.
Robinson was born and raised in Springfield, the old machine-tool capital of Vermont. As an employee of the town several years ago, he found that working in the municipal cemetery felt natural to him, comfortable. It’s also “where I saw that people paid a lot of money for funerals,” he says. “I buried a lot of money in the ground.” After a year and a half, he and his boss started a business on the side, traveling around to other cemeteries to clean and repair old gravestones.
In November 1995, Robinson was looking through a funeral industry trade paper when he saw an ad for a crematorium equipment manufacturing company in Apopka, Fla.. He had already planned a trip to see his parents, who were wintering in the Sunshine State that year, so he called the company to see if he could stop by. Robinson had an idea about offering families a lower-cost alternative to the standard expensive funeral. “The snowball started rolling,” he recalls.
Little more than a year later, in January 1997, Eternal Flame Crematorium was open. Robinson had obtained a series of permits, including one for town zoning and an air-quality permit from the Natural Resources Department. Backed by loans, and some mentors who had helped the 23-year-old with his business plan, he was ready.
At first Robinson thought he would work with the funeral home industry, but he saw no reason not to also deal directly with consumers. But he soon learned that idea proved threatening to funeral home directors, and they began to boycott him. The ensuing “negative” publicity, however, actually helped Robinson get the word out about Eternal Flame. Currently, close to 90 percent of his business is dealing directly with families; the remainder is with funeral homes.
Robinson’s timing was good. The number of cremations in Vermont grew from 1063 in 1988 to 4932 in 1998, according to the Vermont Department of Health. The state’s rate of cremation was 38.9 percent of all deaths in 1998, compared to a national rate of 24 percent. Robinson has performed 439 cremations since he opened, with the numbers increasing steadily — around 225 this year.
Vermont has also been in the forefront of consumers’ rights in caring for their dead, thanks primarily to Lisa Carlson. A Hinesburg resident and the executive director of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America (FAMSA), Carlson is the author of the 640-page Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love. The 1998 book is described on the FAMSA website as “A comprehensive tome on funeral law for the consumer; state-by-state — discusses how well, or not, prepaid funeral money is protected, ethical standards, and serves as a manual for families who wish to handle a death without the use of an undertaker.” The book also lists crematories, medical schools and the requirements for body donation.
According to Carol Pritchard, owner and director of Boucher & Pritchard Funeral Home in Burlington, the average full-service funeral costs between $5000 and $6500. A simple cremation runs $1100. “Funeral directors get a lot of bad rap, but we’re on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and [are] ready to be there usually within a half-hour,” she says. “It’s a real tough job. Our only goal is to help people through a difficult time.”
Robinson charges $550 for the service of picking up the body, performing the cremation and returning the ashes — technically, the “cremains” — anywhere in the state of Vermont. “If it was about the money, my prices would be different,” he states. The only variable is whether the family would like something other than the standard granite urn.
Robinson feels strongly about the price issue. “Most people would rather leave their family with something better than, ‘Honey, we just had to come up with $7500 to bury Gram,’ and maybe put a second mortgage on their home. I don’t think that’s fair,” he says.
By offering only cremation services, Robinson does not have the overhead of a funeral home, which may offer a site for services, if needed, and the inventory of caskets, embalming supplies, mortician’s wax, makeup, etc.
Eternal Flame’s cremation retort — the name for “a chamber in which substances are decomposed by heat” — in Brattleboro is a 30,000-pound machine, operating at 1600 degrees. Depending on the size of the body, it takes two- to three-and-a-half hours to reduce a body to ashes, followed by a cool-down and processing time. It is important to “process” the remains, or the family may be in for a rude shock.
Twenty years ago I lived in a state where it was technically illegal to spread ashes, and the family was supposed to either bury the cremains or inter them in a mausoleum. One of my best friends had died, and his wife convinced the funeral home director to give her half of the ashes.” I’ll never forget opening the gold-colored coffee-type can on their kitchen counter. Much to the horror of the widow, the “ashes” were primarily large pieces of bone.
Currently, there are seven crematories in Vermont, and all except Eternal Flame and Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and Crematory in St. Johnsbury deal only with funeral home business. A new crematory has been proposed by funeral director Steve Arnold for Charlotte, but so far he has indicated he will only service the funeral home industry. Not surprisingly, the project has generated some controversy among neighbors of the proposed site.
In Vermont, anyone can transport a body, as long as they have a death certificate signed by a doctor. The certificate has to be taken to the town office where the death occurred, and a burial transit permit obtained, which allows the holder to remove the body. Then a state permit to cremate is issued from the state medical examiner’s office. New Hampshire requires a 48-hour waiting period to cremate, but Vermont does not.
Robinson describes what he does as “taking care of a cremation removal of the body, and the civil paperwork,” he says. “I’m helping people take care of their own, without having to do some of the harsh things that some people physically or mentally can’t take.” Robinson says he has “been given a gift. I didn’t know this as a young man — I found this out working in the cemetery.”
Perhaps because of his “gift,” Robinson provides more than just an economic or mechanical alternative to a funeral home. His approach to the topic of death alone sets him apart. “I’ve always known that within this life there is death — Shakespeare said it — ‘We’re all born to die,’” Robinson says. Being around dead bodies — abhorrent to most people — doesn’t seem to faze him. “All I am here to do is help these people to take the last few steps with the utmost dignity and respect, which cannot be bought.
“It’s gratifying to help people through what is probably one of the most traumatic times in anybody’s life — to lose a loved one, whether the person is old or expected to die, or anything,” Robinson continues. “No matter how much you know what’s going to happen, all your emotions just pour out. People take me in, they hug me, they show me what they feel.”
Since death does not observe a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 schedule, Robinson has not had a vacation since his last trip to Florida in 1995. “I’ve devoted myself to this — this is the path that I’ve been given. To describe the energy that I feel, for me it’s like the saying, ‘The more love you take, the more you make.’”
It’s a career clarity — and mortal certainty — not many 27-year-olds have.
True to his word, Robinson delivered Nancy’s ashes to her home after the memorial service. He brought us more than just a box of remains. He also made us think deeply about this society’s relationship to death, which, like many others things — food, money, sex — seems out of whack. Robinson helped me see that, even in death, we have choices.