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In the crematorium in Liberec, up to 2,000 cremations are performed annually. The deceased is never naked

“Pure, bright, primordial fire, take the fainting body in your arms.” This carved inscription can be noticed by a careful observer when entering the oldest Czech crematoria, which the city under Ještěd is proud of. It was created during the time of Austria-Hungary, its history dates back to 1917. However, the first cremation of the deceased took place later, already during the existence of the Czechoslovak Republic. The Liberec crematorium has had a successful hundred years of existence behind it, and Deník took a peek into normally inaccessible spaces.

Although one hundred and seven years have passed since the construction of Liberec’s cultural monument, which is the crematorium building, and technology has advanced during that time, there are still facilities that refer to its past. These include, for example, two original cremation ovens. The heat from them spread through the basement, due to which the snow did not stay around in the winter and melted. They were later converted to natural gas, and in the 1990s they were replaced by the current, more modern French-type ovens, which are semi-automatic. They are programmed in the morning and then cremation can begin.

The original technology is still functional

The original hearse, which lifts the coffin with the deceased into the large ceremonial hall, remains in operation. “Last year we had to supplement it with a parallel lifting device. However, the technology itself is original and still functional,” Jiří Kovačičin, head of the municipal services department, whose department is in charge of crematorium administration, told Deník.

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Since 2018, the crematorium has been operated by the city, having taken over from the then tenant. During that time, an extensive reconstruction of the roof of the left and right wings of the building took place, and the interior spaces, including offices and administrative facilities, received modifications. Both ceremonial halls were renovated, and the urn grove near the crematorium building was also renovated, which was accompanied by extensive green revitalization.

As Kovačičin mentioned, all interventions take place under the supervision of the National Institute of Monuments, which also entails certain restrictions, whether it is about adapting the layout of the building or energy efficiency. “This year, we would like to restore the main entrance door to the large ceremonial hall, which is a dominant feature of the front view of the building. The divisions will remain the same, but they will return to their original form. Especially on the outside, due to the effects of the weather, the paintwork is degraded and the metal elements are severely damaged,” he outlined the plans, stating that the cost of the total renovation is around three hundred thousand crowns.

They store the body in a cooling or freezing device

And how does the deceased actually get to the crematorium? At first, the bereaved arrive at the funeral service, which is also located in the crematorium building, there they arrange the funeral, its form and other details. Subsequently, funeral service workers pick up the body of the deceased, whether in a hospital, in social facilities or elsewhere, and transport it to the crematorium. Here, they place the body either in a cooler if cremation is scheduled for the next few days, or in a freezer. It mainly depends on the date of possible burial. The body of the deceased is placed in the coffin in the clothes brought by the survivors. If, for whatever reason, this does not happen, the crematorium workers will put him in a shroud. The deceased is never naked in the coffin.

After cremation, the ashes are taken out and poured into an urn, each urn is numbered to avoid confusion. “The survivors can then pick up the ashes in the urn and place them in the columbarium or in the graves. About a fifth of the clients will use the option of scattering ashes on the scattering field,” informed the head of the municipal services department.

For some, working in a crematorium is a dream job

Pavel Hudec has been operating cremation ovens for over thirty years, and he sees his profession as a mission. He remembers the days when everything had to be done by hand, from opening doors to sliding coffins into the oven to picking out ashes. Now, according to him, the work is a little easier thanks to automation. In addition to operating cremation ovens, he prepares coffins, wreaths and arranges the deceased. “Deference and respect are important. I see the dead as people regardless of the fact that they are dead. People deserve a final farewell,” Hudec confided. His junior colleague, forty-five-year-old Tomáš Vladyka, shares a similar opinion. He wanted to work in this field already at the age of twenty, but was rejected in the past precisely because of his youth. He has been working at the Liberec crematorium for less than three years. “It’s a certain job, death will always be here. After two months you don’t even notice it anymore, you need to say goodbye. Of course, when you run into a young person, it’s unpleasant,” Vladyka pointed out.

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Cremation takes place in two ovens. Once the temperature reaches 850 degrees Celsius, the first coffin can be driven in, and during the annealing the temperature can go up to a thousand degrees. On average, one cremation lasts approximately one hour to seventy-five minutes. The weight of the deceased plays a decisive role. The cremation furnace is capable of burning up to two hundred kilos of the deceased, but according to Kovačičin, there are not many such cases. There are one to two cremations per year. “We do about 1,800 to 2,000 heats a year. On average, it works out to 150 cremations per month,” explained the operation of the crematorium.

The cheapest coffin is made of five-layer cardboard

The price of cremation itself starts at 14 thousand crowns. The coffin also affects the price. The cheapest one is made of five-layer cardboard with a wooden structure, the more expensive is a wooden one, and an American-style coffin can raise the price of a funeral by several tens of thousands of crowns. Placing an urn in a grave costs approximately 500 to 600 kroner, the bereaved will pay approximately 4,000 kroner for dispersing the urn in the meadow, including treatment of the ashes. “There are a lot of variables at play, whether it’s the ceremony, the decoration or the type of casket. A funeral with a ceremony starts at 26,000 crowns. It always depends on how clients perceive the issue of death and farewell. Some put emphasis on the price to come out as low as possible. Others, on the other hand, perceive a funeral as an important life event and do not care about money,” explained Kovačičin.

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They are currently looking for a speaker at the crematorium. At the time of the coronavirus epidemic, Jana Hejret Vojtková, a regular in the Liberec drama, got involved in this activity. “Death, crematorium. That alone surprised me. I have been afraid of death since childhood. I am a person who thinks a lot about everything. I have always found the definitive end of life very unfair. I was missing something there, a dot. Now I know it’s a colon,” the Liberec actress recalled, adding that she always needed to feel and see light. After the experience of his father leaving, he knows he is there.

On the occasion of one hundred years since the crematorium was put into operation, an open day was held in 2018, which aroused considerable interest among citizens. They could also look into the otherwise inaccessible background. “We are not planning a similar event yet, but we will think about it when the next anniversary approaches. We know that part of the public would welcome the opportunity to see the operation of the crematorium,” concluded Jiří Kovačičin.

About the history of the Liberec crematorium

The Liberec crematorium began operating in October 1918. However, the city came up with the intention to build it as early as 1901, i.e. at a time when the law did not yet allow cremation. An architectural competition was announced for the shape of the building, and the design of the Dresden architect Rudolf Bitzan, aptly named Feuerburg, or Fire Castle, was chosen as the most suitable design.

Built in the Art Nouveau style, the work was completed in August 1917, when the Austrian authorities still refused to issue permission for the cremation of human remains. It is said that the body of a horse was the first to be burned in the ovens here. The opening of the crematorium had to wait until the collapse of the monarchy. During its history, the building underwent several reconstructions, for example in 1973 and 1994.

The crematorium also entered the history of Liberec with two sad chapters. During the Nazi occupation, students executed after the riots on November 17, 1939, dead prisoners from the concentration camp in Rychnov near Jablonec nad Nisou, and executed victims of the Liberec Gestapo were cremated here. Then in 1968, two large trials for the victims of the August occupation took place here, at which Václav Havel and Jan Tříska also spoke.

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