One writer's curiosity leads her to Brian Gardner and the Columbia Cremation Care Center
I was expecting something a little more theatrical when I set out on my mission for dead people. I wasn’t in graveyards tracing carbon copies of headstones or lurking around morgues in the middle of the night. I couldn’t because the bodies I was looking for aren’t buried in cemeteries. They’re stored in boxes right across the street from Faurot Field.
About a year ago, a professor turned me onto the search for potter’s fields. I had no clue what they were, until Google told me they were burial grounds for unidentifiable, impoverished or unclaimed bodies.
Hart Island, a small island off of New York near the Bronx, is the burial ground to almost one million adults, children and infants, making it the most heavily populated potter’s field in the United States. Not that there are many to choose from. Most of the potter’s fields in the country have been turned into traditional cemeteries, the kind that cause lines of traffic when there’s a funeral procession. But the world hasn’t stopped having unidentified bodies or people who can’t afford burial costs.
So where do they go?
In Boone County, they sit among office supplies in a storage closet in the Medical Examiner’s Office. But before they can be shelved, they have to be cremated. And in the majority of cases, Columbia Cremation Care Center is the first stop on their journey to the closet shelf.
I didn’t know anything about dead bodies, so that was my first stop too. I also didn’t know what to wear. I had never been to a funeral, but I watched enough melodramas to figure black was a safe color. It probably wasn’t the best decision for early September, at least not in Missouri. Mother Nature has the same tendencies I did when I was 13 years old; what started off as a cool, breezy morning had gone through an unexpected mood swing and turned up the heat to a high of 77 degrees. By the time I got out of class and started driving down Providence Road, I was drenched. My black ensemble was suffocating me with my own sweat and body odor.
First impressions could be worse, I guess.
My car wound around the side street, past the Arby’s and through the parking lot of a car wash that looked like a lame imitation of Dover Castle. The cremation center was modest — just a small blue stucco box with a more intense shade of blue trimming the gutters and posts. The parking spot lines on the side of the building were faded to the point of nonexistence, so I parked parallel to the only other car in the lot, a red SUV. I couldn’t see any lights shining through the windows of the entrance, and the first door I tried to pry open was locked. Someone must’ve heard me because I saw a light illuminate the lobby.
Fifty-four-year-old Brian Gardner is the owner and one-man cremation wonder at Columbia Cremation Care Center. He greeted me in a hushed voice, like he was catching up after a church service. He has a well-groomed mustache that defies all laws of physics when he talks — no matter how much he purses his lips, puffs his cheeks or scrunches his nose, that black mustache does not move. Ever. His eyes are dark and beady behind rimless glasses and his button-up shirts — often some variance of small or large checkered squares — hang off his lean frame. He has a habit of going on tangents about his daughter, a college sophomore triple majoring in spanish, history and international studies at Graceland University in Iowa; his son, who wrote a play based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rapucinni’s Daughter and is now working on a book; and his wife, who Brian says “is the brains his kids take after.”
Brian is a certified funeral home director and licensed embalmer. If there’s anyone who’s informed on the process of death, it’s him. His part-time job at Davis-Playle Funeral Home in Kirksville, Missouri, allowed him to live in his college apartment rent-free. Brian earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, marketing and personnel management from Truman State University in 1984. That part-time job in college became a career. He attended Kansas City Kansas Community College in 1985, where he earned an associate in applied science degree in mortuary science. Brian received his funeral directors license in 1986, and his embalmers license in 1987.
He’s worked at five funeral homes all over Missouri. He purchased two in New Franklin and Fayette that he used to manage, but took a brief hiatus between May 2000 and March 2001 because of a conflict with an employer. The Texas-based corporate funeral home he was working for was pressuring him to “rip-off grieving clients for more money.” He wanted to do his job in the most affordable way possible. He took another three years off after selling his funeral home in New Franklin and on March 23, 2009, he opened Columbia Cremation Care Center.
I waited in the conference room where he normally meets with clients. It shares an eerie similarity to the duplex of my friend’s grandma. The room is neat but musty. Pastel paintings of flowers and lakes and forests hang in impartial solidarity. The drawers lining the wall closest to the door look like they should be filled with muumuus or doilies instead of cremation pamphlets.
“Sorry, had to confirm a drop-off for today,” Brian says evenly, as if he was confirming a delivery of snacks to restock a vending machine. The cremation center doesn’t have a vending machine. I didn’t ask, but my guess was the delivery would be traveling in the back of a hearse.
I set down my phone, switched on the recorder, and tugged on the collar of my black v-neck — nervous habit. We gossiped over the weather, how he got into the business, what his kids were up to and what kind of people get left behind in the death industry. Unlike counties and cities that use potter’s fields, plots of land reserved for cheap burials, Boone County cremates those that slip through the cracks of the system, the unclaimed. Brian sees about two or three people go unclaimed every year. They are sent to him from all over central and northern Missouri. More often than not, they’re either homeless or they’re left behind by families who can’t afford the cost of cremation or burial. The Missouri State Licensing Board requires medical examiners to hold the bodies for at least 30 days to provide family members a chance to claim them. After that, a licensed physician and Brian sign the death certificate in the place of a family member, and the cremation process begins.
Scroll over the numbers to learn more about cremation in Boone County.
Brian is not the only one in Columbia who handles the unclaimed bodies in mid-Missouri, but he’s one of the least-expensive options for a county on a tight budget. The county commission budgets $250 per body to cremate or $500 to bury. Even though burials for unclaimed bodies are an option, they’re almost never done.
Columbia Cremation Care Center is able to offer lower prices because the cremation is handled on-site, and Brian is the only employee manning the facility.
On-site. The bodies are cremated on-site. The detail hadn’t really stuck with me until Brian said it. I thought if he was sitting here talking with me, then the only people in this building right now are alive. And then my throat closed up.
“I actually have a couple in the back right now.”
I knew someone was coming soon to restock the death fridge, but it never occurred to me that the occupants and me were in the same building at the same time. I let him finish his sentence, shook his hand and gulped down the clean air from outside before he could offer to show me the crematorium in the back. Air never tasted so fresh. Not after breathing in the oxygen another human couldn’t.
I think I was the only third grader in Chicago planning my funeral during the half-hour allotted for silent reading. I paged through a hardcover copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I perpetually kept checked out of the library but never actually read. I was slumped back in the beanbag chair under the window. It was the first time I was quick enough to claim the beanbag seat. But it was hard to focus on a supplemental Harry Potter book when I couldn’t decide whether people would want to eat shrimp or ribs during my wake.
My parents didn’t appreciate the obsession I had with death, and I’m pretty sure if I’d kept waking them up at 3 a.m. asking questions about what happens, they would have killed me. At least then I’d have some satisfying answers.
“You just keep sleeping,” they said. That’s a raw deal; I already hate sleeping while I’m alive, and now I’m condemned to doing that full time?
“You go to heaven.” But we’re Jewish and Catholic, and Lucas Kratz just got confirmed, and he said that you only go to heaven if you’re Catholic.
“The coffin keeps things from eating your body.” I doubt that. You guys don’t know this, but I found the VHS of Cujo, and I know for a fact that it wouldn’t take much for that dog to dig me up and rip me out.
In the third grade, my parents signed me up for a lunchtime meeting group called Rainbows, where kids ate their brown-bag lunches and cried about the loss of a grandparent or an aunt. My teacher from the previous year, Ms. Rio, was the leader of the group. We would sit in a circle on a carpet with street and stop signs drawn into the felt. The group members carried on with their Deathoholics Anonymous meeting, talking about how sad they were because their grandma died of cancer. Meanwhile, I traced the red octagons with a paper clip. I wasn’t sad. I still had all my grandparents. When it was my turn to talk, Ms. Rio gave the same vague answers my parents supplied: it’s just like sleeping, you go to heaven, rabid dogs will not dig up your body and eat your remains.
I was sick of asking questions that didn’t have the answers I needed, so I played my part and let my parents sleep.
And then when I was 15, I saw my first dead body.
I was late to my softball game that day. I worked as a lifeguard at the local pool in a northwest suburb of Chicago. Our meeting ran overtime that day. The mandatory CPR training was taking awhile because someone in the group kept forgetting the proper compression-ventilation ratios. I still had my Fox 40 whistle hanging around my neck when I arrived at the field. Vince was the umpire, so it was going to be a good game — the guy had the most consistent strike zone a house league softball team could hope for. We exchanged small talk at random points throughout the season because we shared the space behind home plate for half the game. As the catcher, my job was to charm the umpire.
I was clipping on my shin protectors when he reminded me to take off my whistle before the game started. I waddled back to the dugout in hand-me-down catcher’s gear that was a size too big, and I slipped the whistle through the chain link fence separating the dugout from the parent section. The cloud of dust behind home plate kicked up and all I could think was, “Man, he’s really going to town on shining up our diamond.”
But Vince was on the ground. Everyone froze, but I kept walking toward the settling dust. The adults organized into their own version of an emergency action plan. My dad, who spent a large portion of his teenage years as a lifeguard, and a woman who daylighted as a school nurse were pumping his chest. The rhythm of compressions was not in sync with the recommended 100 beats per minute. In lifeguard training, we were taught to sing “Another One Bites the Dust,” or “Staying Alive,” in our heads to stay consistent.
Vince didn’t bite the dust; he crashed into it.
He had fractured his nose from the impact. When the adults turned him on his back, his broken glasses slid off his face and split into two separate monocles.
I stood agape as Vince choked on the blood pooling in his mouth. His skin began to turn blue and it looked as if he’d been in the morgue for at least a week already. The agonal wheezes were a harsh reminder that he wasn’t dead yet.
The commissioner of the Mt. Prospect softball league would later tell us that the 57-year-old umpire had suffered a major heart attack. He fumbled through at least 18 euphemisms before he finally gave up and called it what it was — dead. I didn’t approach the casket at the umpire’s wake. My final image of him was already keeping me from a full night’s sleep; I didn’t need to see what the aftermath looked like.
The second, third and fourth bodies came in rapid high school succession, filing into Friedrich’s Funeral Home as quietly as they used to walk into my math class and science lab when they were alive.
Drunk driver, suicide, cancer.
At this point, I was 18. I could vote. I had a driver’s license. I had memorized my social security number. I was an adult. And I was still plagued by the same questions that kept me up at night 10 years earlier, only this time I had faces to pair with those questions.
Gallery: Follow Brian Gardner through the cremation process
[gallery type="slideshow" ids="77368,77371,77370,77373,77372"]
Brian has plenty of faces to pair with my questions — an average of 475 a year — but he’s careful not to get sucked in. “I have to remove myself from the grief; otherwise, I won’t be able to do my job.”
No case is the same when it comes to death. The cremation center might be the only place where a prisoner, a father and a John Doe share something in common — space in the crematorium.
In October 2014, Marion County referred a death to Brian. A tree cutter had either been crushed by a tree or had a heart attack. Brian’s hand swats at empty space while he recalls the memory. He said the report was unclear.
The man’s family was referred to Brian from another funeral home because they weren’t able to pay the funeral home costs, and because the body was already in Columbia for an autopsy, it made more sense for Brian to take him. He contacted the dead man’s sister-in-law and son. They told him they’d scrape together the money. After sending over the paperwork, he heard nothing. A few emails later, the son said he hadn’t had the time to make the trip to the library to print out the forms needed for the death certificate. Then nothing.
The tree cutter wasn't just abandoned by his family who couldn't afford the cremation. He was abandoned by the Marion County coroner who wasn't filing paperwork or returning phone calls.
For a routine cremation case with the family actively involved, the process only takes between two and five days. It takes much longer for someone who goes unclaimed. The tree cutter was in the morgue for three months.
“If it’s a Boone County case, the Medical Examiner’s Office will wait about 45 days until they (decide) to do something about it, get them out of there, but since this was a Marion County case, we didn’t have the go-ahead for cremation,” Brian says.
If the death is in their coverage area, the medical examiner has to take care of signing the death certificate in place of a family member, and the body is cremated by default. No memorial, no casket, no goodbyes. The body is considered a county case and sent to Chief Forensic Investigator Dori Burke.
It took me months to get in touch with her. It wasn’t because she was trying to blow me off. The Medical Examiner’s Office is always busy. They cover all the cases in mid-Missouri, including the smaller counties that aren’t as populated as Boone or Callaway. Dori is the only forensic investigator on the job.
Her office is closet-sized, stuffed with stacks of autopsy reports, death certificates and clear CD cases. Two desks are against opposite walls, one for Dori and one for her part-time office assistant. It was hard to pick out distinguishable items with all the clutter. If not for the magnet of Dori’s granddaughter, the only pop of color in the office, I wouldn’t have seen the grey urn sitting on her desk like a somber paperweight.
“This is Patricia, just got dropped off.”
The bottom of the urn is marked with her date of birth, date of death and date of cremation, along with some numbers identifying the remains. No way were 30 to 40 unclaimed boxes of remains stored in her office — there was just no space.
Scroll over the dots to learn more about urn with facts provided by Brian Gardner.