Stephen Gregory doesn't call his customers "clients." They're his "families." It's easy to understand how the Shelburne funeral director specializing in cremations develops a bond with the people who use his services. Invariably, he meets them at a vulnerable time, when even a small gesture - a hand on the shoulder, a kind word, respectful silence - can have a lasting impact.
A native of Saranac Lake, New York, Gregory has been in the funeral business for the last 29 years. In September 2001, he founded Stephen C. Gregory Cremation Service. He was the first funeral director in Vermont licensed to handle cremations exclusively.
Gregory doesn't personally operate the cremation chamber, or "retort"- that's done by the crematory staff in South Burlington. But he handles everything else about the process. He goes to the place of death, obtains the death certificate, arranges the religious services, transports the body to the crematory, and returns the cremated remains, or "cremains," to the family. Gregory even takes care of other posthumous paperwork, such as notifying Social Security and helping next of kin file for veterans benefits. As he puts it, "Usually the families don't even have to leave their house."
Gregory, 57, is a gentle, soft-spoken man, whose lined face reveals years of working odd hours and tempering others' sorrow. His adult son, an IBM employee, occasionally helps with the business. But most of the time Gregory is on his own. "You sleep with a pager next to your head every night, seven days a week," he says. "We went away for a week last spring and it took me three days just to stop reaching to see if my pager was on my belt."
Cremation has become a popular choice for many Vermonters. In Gregory's first year, he handled 14 people; to date, this year there have been 60. Those numbers reflect state and national trends. In 2004, nearly two in five Vermont deaths resulted in cremations. Cost may explain it. A full-service funeral in Vermont can run more than $5500 even before the expenses of the plot and cemetery fees; Gregory's prices are on the low end of the spectrum, according to data from the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Asked about the downside of his job, Gregory's answer is surprising. "If you know the person ahead of time, you feel bad after something happens," he says. "And if you didn't know the person, after hearing what's said about them, you wish you had. It's kind of a Catch-22, you know?"
SEVEN DAYS: Why is cremation so popular?
STEPHEN GREGORY: Number one, cemeteries are scrambling for space. Number two is cost . . . Some families don't have the funds to go the whole nine yards, so they'll do direct cremation.
SD: Tell me about the cremation process itself.
SG: The body is placed into what we call an alternative container. The crematory requires a rigid container. Once in a while, a family will want a casket, but I recommend the alternative container. It's heavy cardboard. Then it goes into the retort. It takes a couple of hours and everything is burned away except the bone. That's taken out and put through a pulverizer that grinds it up into a fine powder. Those are your cremains.
SD: How hot does it get?
SG: About 1600 degrees.
SD: Is anything removed from the body prior to cremation?
SG: The big thing is the pacemaker. That has to be removed beforehand. Artificial knees and those things don't burn away. They separate that out later.
SD: Are bodies cremated in whatever they're wearing?
SG: A lot of times the family will dress the person - or I will, if they ask me to. I recommend they remove everything. Sometimes people want to let someone go with the wedding band, and I say, "Why don't you remove it and we can put it with the cremated remains?"
SD: Is that for safety reasons?
SG: No. Maybe somebody in the family might like to have it. I just can't see sending jewelry to the crematory. A granddaughter or a grandson might want it.
SD: Can family members watch a cremation?
SG: Yes. Everything is open to the families. There's a big door and the body goes right in on a track and the door shuts . . . The people at this crematory are wonderful. The place is kept spotless. They're really nice and very respectful of the body. You think of a crematory as a manufacturing place, but it isn't like that at all. There's no waiting three or four days for cremains. It's usually 24 hours, sometimes that afternoon. It's important to the family - and to me, too.
SD: Then what?
SG: Sometimes I hold the cremated remains for the family until they're ready for them, sometimes I take them right to the family. Some make their own urns. Some of the handmade urns I've seen are beautiful. I've been asked to use a toolbox before, a fishing box, a wooden cigar humidor, something that was near and dear to the person and meant something. That's kind of nice. People put all different things in there: cribbage boards, fishing lures, golf balls. Sometimes I'll recommend to the family, if they have little kids, they might want to write grandpa or grandma a little note and put that in there.
SD: What can be done with the ashes?
SG: There are no laws about that. If you're going to spread them on someone else's land, I think there might be a problem. But people scatter them all the time. It might be at somebody's favorite place to go hunting or fishing. Sometimes families split them. Some are buried, some are scattered, sometimes someone will take them to Maine and scatter them in the ocean.
SD: Is cremation a "greener" way to go?
SG: Environmentally, I think the biggest thing is space. With cemeteries, the casket takes up a lot of room. We have a cremation garden down in Shelburne. That's saved acres of land. It's a beautiful place.
SD: How do you maintain a positive outlook in your profession?
SG: It's tough. Untimely deaths are hard. I have a lot of young people that I've had to take care of, and that takes its toll.
SD: Does this work affect your family?
SG: This is a tough business for a wife. You might be just getting ready to go out for dinner and you get a call and you go. I would never ask people to wait . . . Sometimes I'm working outside, so I have to shave and shower first, but I'm there within an hour or so. Then again, some people want me to wait.
SD: How do you make things easier for the mourners?
SG: I have this little quilt I put on top of my stretcher - it was my mother-in-law's - so they don't have to see the [body] pouch. I don't just go in, put the cot down, shut the door and tell the family to leave the room.
I ask if they'd like to be there. Some like to help. Something as simple as that quilt really takes the sting out of that stretcher . . . And, I never zip it until I get out the door, I just pull the quilt up. I wish that somebody would come up with a silent zipper for those pouches. Maybe it seems louder to me than it is, but when you pull that zipper, it seems like it echoes through the whole house.
SD: What do you consider a good day at work?
SG: If the person who died was a hundred years old . . . The thing is, you've got a grieving family and some people don't have a clue what they've been through, so I try to make things as easy for them as I can. When I come home at night, I can look myself in the mirror and say, "You did good today."