It’s strange that something as simultaneously savage and civilized as cremation would only come to prominence in the 1870s. In the present context, it feels tinged with a certain cruel irony appropriateness that the Italians were the ones to champion and innovate the concept the most. For it was in 1869 that Professors Piero Castiglioni and Ferdinando Coletti presented their ideas for regular implementation of this practice to the Medical International Congress of Florence. Of course, it was also in Italy that the first body was cremated in the “modern” fashion. Still involving a pyre, proving that modernity is always relative. That corpse was none other than that of Percy Shelley, whose body was burned on the beach of Viareggio. After all, it was in the waters of the Gulf of La Spezia that he drowned during a storm that toppled his sailboat. Naturally, it was Lord Byron, with all his sense of the poetical, who suggested the burning of Shelley’s body.
It was this “romantic” story of the first modern cremation that initially spurred the interest of a young Fausto Bascoletti, who would later transform into “Mr. Frematorium” for the sake of giving his business a memorable moniker. He was only twelve years old when he first learned of it. Doing research in the Biblioteca Hertziana on behalf of his German-born professor father, a stern man who, despite over twenty years of living in Italy, had not stamped out any of said German sternness. It was his austerity that forced Fausto to never question the research he was instructed to carry out. Down the rabbit hole of a book, he had come across this tidbit of information on the origins of cremation in his country, allowing it to stew and marinate in his brain for the next several years as his despotic father tried to push him into going to law school. Into choosing not a path that Fausto might be interested in, but one that his father deemed both respectable and lucrative. Whereas cremation was solely lucrative, and not even until one had put in the time in the trenches of body disposal. This was time Fausto was willing to give, and had already started to do so in secret during the latter years of his high school tenure. Offering to apprentice a mortician named Girolamo Erzano a few neighborhoods over from the posh Monti environment he inhabited, Fausto went there in secret, day after day, assuring his father that he was studying at a friend’s. Believing him because it’s what he wanted to be true, Wilhelm did not question his son’s whereabouts too vigilantly.
It was in this way that Fausto became more adept than the average mortician starting out, finding himself in the awkward position of stumbling upon Erzano slumped over in his office chair upon arriving one afternoon after an unpleasant confrontation with his father, who had finally caught on to Fausto’s lies and had given him a belt beating unlike any he had received since childhood. Bruised and battered, Fausto fled to Erzano’s nonetheless. The sight of the old man devoid of life sent him into a state of uncontrollable weeping, realizing he had just lost the only person in his life who truly understood him, and supported his dream. What was he to do now without this morgue as his sanctuary for learning? The answer came upon the reading of Erzano’s Will, in which it was stated that he wanted to leave the business to Fausto. While this angered Erzano’s two biological sons, who had hoped to repurpose the structure into an apartment they could rent out for extra cash, Fausto had never been so moved by such a gesture. Knowing that Erzano viewed him as the son he never had, he humbly accepted the role, though it meant total disownment by Wilhelm, who also forbade his mother, Patrizia, from seeing him as an additional form of punishment for his career choice.
Of course, like any Italian mother, Patrizia could not be kept away from her only son, sneaking home-cooked meals to the crematorium at every chance she could get. As time passed, however, she grew too feeble to make the journey to what had since become the world-renowned “Mr. Frematorium’s Wonder Crematorium,” a name that, yes, he had stolen from a lackluster 00s movie, but Italians didn’t really catch on as the title in that country had been altered (as usual) to: Mr. Magorium e la bottega delle meraviglie. One could say Mr. Frematorium certainly had plenty of “meraviglie,” if one was something of a necrophiliac. But no, most of the clientele exhibited the usual brand of thanatophobia, wanting to know as little as possible about the “process.” At the very least, Italy had the indoctrinated comfort of Catholicism to make them believe there was a “higher purpose.” Mr. Frematorium, of course, knew better. One couldn’t spend their years looking at lifeless body after lifeless body and think otherwise. There was no “soul” that entered another realm. No “spirit” that floated into another dimension. He kept these thoughts to himself whenever he pitched a “cremation and funeral package” to his clients. They wanted to keep the myth alive. The one that insisted they weren’t losing a loved one, but giving him or her up to God.
As the virus outbreak magnified in his tenth year as owner of the emporium, it got harder and harder even for the fanatics to believe in such foolishness. He was no longer getting paid lavish sums to do his work, for it was mandated by the government to do so at a breakneck pace. He was the most creative body disposer in all of Europe, nay, maybe all the Western world when it came to efficient and environmentally sound means of corpse disposal. And he was now more relied upon than ever as the bodies continued to mount at an unstoppable rate. He already knew long before the families and the authorities were willing to admit that a potter’s field was going to have to be set up. Many, in fact. And as the disease spread to the once Italian immigrant-pocked land of New York City, he was summoned (for far more substantial pay than the Italian government was offering) as a consultant to help the unequipped and so far inapt morticians of the five boroughs in dealing with how to burn the bodies more rapidly, how to set up temporary morgues (a term that conjures an image as ghetto as it sounds–and, as we all know, Italians are far more habituated to ghetto than Americans) and, most importantly, how to “create” discreet potter’s fields that didn’t force everyone to rely on Hart Island for tossing out the unclaimed. And yes, there were many friendless, familyless people in New York. It was the loneliest city in the world when you didn’t know anyone. Alas, an emphasis on working away most of one’s hours made it difficult for some to forge meaningful connections.
And it was this, this fact above all the other cold realities that Mr. Frematorium had been faced with of late, that made him break down in tears one night as he was assisting a mortician by the name of Mr. Yan in Queens incinerate the corporeal remains of the diseased. Although he had promised to stay for a full month in the city to impart the benefit of his expertise, he had not the stomach to stay for more than two weeks. He had to return to Italy. Where people still possessed within them some shred of humanity, some semblance of caring. As opposed to the every man for himself philosophy he was seeing laid bare before his very eyes.
It was only a week upon his return, more stressed and sleep-deprived than ever amid the pandemic, that he was met with the ultimate death blow (to use an unavoidable pun): the arrival of his own father–or rather, his shell–at the morgue. He recognized him immediately, though he had aged significantly since the last time he had caught sight of him briefly, at Patrizia’s funeral. He held it together in front of his assistants for long enough, but when it was clear he was giving more special attention to the body’s handling and embalming, one of them was brazen enough to ask questions, prompting Mr. Frematorium to fire him on the spot. In fact, he fired all of them, further backlogging the bodies that kept being dropped very literally on his doorstep.
But he could not be bothered with these husks. All he could do was sit next to that of his father’s and let the full weight of death, for once, truly capsize him. The same way Shelley’s sailboat was all those years ago in 1822. And it was hot, so goddamn hot, it was as though Mr. Frematorium could feel the very flames of hell lapping at his feet thanks to all the thermal energy radiating throughout the building (combusting bodies is a heated enterprise, after all). It was in that instant that he would have given anything to trade places with his father. For he knew he was going to have to do something that required a skill Wilhelm would never have been able to carry out, even for all his sense of superiority to his son.