How do funeral homes control their odors?
December 17, 2007 9:27 AM   Subscribe

This question is morbid, but I've always wanted the answer. How on earth do funeral parlors (especially those that do cremation) operate in neighborhoods or right next to them without smelling horrible?

I've long heard from WWII accounts that things like the nazi atrocities produced the "smell of death" from burning bodies. I've been around friends that had long hair fall into a candle at a party, and even on that extreme small scale, the smell was horrendous and stuck around all night in a large space. People came to the party two hours later and said "did someone burn hair in here?!"

A few years ago, I had a small office right next to a funeral parlor, right on the edge of a normal suburban neighborhood. I'm pretty sure they did cremations, but I never smelled anything unusual.

I understand how air pollution controls work, how smokestacks can have scrubbers and activated carbon filters to trap organics that can cause awful smells, but how do small family-owned funeral parlors do it without spreading the "smell of death"?

Are cremations done off-site? (if so, how do they control smell?) If done in funeral homes, do they just have amazing equipment for limiting the combustion smell?
posted by mathowie to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I used to live in a town where there was a funeral parlor and crematorium right downtown with many businesses and residences nearby. I worked closeby and never noticed any bad smells. As for why it doesn't stink, it may have to do with the extremely high temperatures that they operate at.

Paging ColdChef...
posted by zsazsa at 9:33 AM on December 17, 2007

One big difference is cremation in modern times is done at a VERY high temperature with massive filtration. This was not done in WWII.

See Cremation on Wikipedia for some more info.
posted by slavlin at 9:35 AM on December 17, 2007

I'm pretty sure there was a chapter about this, or at least touching on this, in Stiff by Mary Roach.
posted by amro at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2007

Yes, Stiff covered this, as well as anything and all other morbid questions you may ever wonder. With reverent humor to boot.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:42 AM on December 17, 2007

High temperature, good filters, and they often do the work in the middle of the night. Believe me, if you did smell burnt flesh, you'd probably know it. It's a sickly sweet smell. Like in a Chinese restaurant.
posted by ColdChef at 10:30 AM on December 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Well, the Cremation Society of Illinois in Hyde Park sits right across the street from a BBQ restaurant called Ribs n Bibs. So that's one way to do it.
posted by granted at 10:35 AM on December 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

They aren't all good at keeping the stench down. I worked around the corner from a (now out of business) cremation facility. There was often a weird mild stench in the air. Being that it is an industrial area, it wasn't a smell you would necessarily register until someone pointed it out--like when my co-worker announced "smells like pets next door today!" Mmmmm! Apparently they weren't very diligent about keeping their burners calibrated and sometimes clouds of gray smoke would billow down the street from their building. That was a little disturbing.
posted by slowfasthazel at 11:15 AM on December 17, 2007

Well, I worked in a building next to a funeral parlor that did cremations for two years or so. I never noticed any unusual odors, except once. Late one night, this horrible smell permeated the air and we could see smoke rising from the funeral parlor. I'm pretty sure it was the cremation we were smelling. Like ColdChef pointed out, this was close to the middle of the night, which is probably why most people don't notice it.
posted by geeky at 11:17 AM on December 17, 2007

I lived very near a place that did cremations. That whole block smelled like coffee a lot of the time.
I was told they threw old beans in with the bodies, but I have no idea of that's true.
posted by gally99 at 12:22 PM on December 17, 2007

I was told they threw old beans in with the bodies, but I have no idea of that's true.

That is almost certainly not true. At 1500 degrees, coffee beans would instantly be char, it's unlikely that you'd smell anything directly from them.
posted by ColdChef at 12:48 PM on December 17, 2007

Well, there is a crematorium on the 405 right south of the 5/405 interchange in Mission Hills, CA. When I drive by at night I can smell something like minty burnt coffee grounds.

Not sure if it's a masking agent to cover up the burnt body smell, like my cousin swears. But it is a pretty strange smell to come from a cemetary.
posted by sideshow at 4:22 PM on December 17, 2007

A charcoal filter, maybe??
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 6:24 PM on December 17, 2007

Best answer: I keep picking at this one, and it's been surprisingly hard to come up with good specific information on the air quality control devices used for this. There's plenty of general info from product manufacturers - as a representative example

American Incinerators along with US Cremation Equipment can provide a variety of scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators, filters, bag houses and other cleaning systems where necessary to meet local emissions regulations. Our equipment is designed to meet the new and stringent EPA and European Community standards for air pollution control dealing with acid gases, particulates, dioxins, furans and heavy metals.

Suggesting first that commonplace air quality control technologies ultimately control smoke and odor and that environmental law concerns are at least as great a factor in this as aesthetics (perhaps given issues like mercury amalgam fillings, medical implant batteries, and embalming fluid this is not surprising).

I think the original question as to how the "small family-owned" business can presumably afford to apply this technology probably turns the economics of this upside down: a 500 megawatt coal electric plant might burn 1.4 million tons of coal a year: that's like ten million or more bodies. In addition, they don't care if the neighbors think they stink: they're a coal plant, of course they stink. They treat the air as much as law requires and no more and the amount of money they receive per pound burnt is pretty small - consuming a crude commodity in a crude (if relatively economical) fashion. Cremation is providing burning as an very specialized service for an extremely high premium considered from the volume burned perspective, so the cost of capturing anything volatile that survives the high temperatures is likely relatively insignificant, and from a business perspective a lot more necessary.
posted by nanojath at 12:33 PM on December 18, 2007

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