TWIN FALLS — Mortician Heidi Heil headed to her Twin Falls garage to begin a cremation and turned on the natural gas that heats her cremation chamber to 1,650 degrees.
Heil, who owns Serenity Funeral Chapel in Twin Falls, pulled what looked like a collapsed cardboard box away from a wall. She put it together on a rolling metal table and secured the corners with zip ties.
“Zip ties, they’re like my favorite thing,” she said on this mid-October afternoon.
The heavy-duty box, called an alternative container, is rated to hold up to 500 pounds. It’s where Heil puts a body for cremation.
“It’s the cleanest way to go,” she said. The cremation chamber, called a retort, emits such low levels of chemicals they’re exempted from regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. “All you really see coming out of the stack is heat waves.”
Heil’s family lives on the funeral home property. As she worked, her children helped their grandmother clean at their nearby house.
Being a mortician is a tough career for many to fathom, but it’s something Heil is passionate about. As a child in Castleford, Heil turned her mother’s garden into a pet cemetery, creating an elaborate wooden cross with a Bible verse for each cat’s or dog’s grave.
“I memorialized all of them we lost,” she recalled. Another childhood project: cleaning and preserving the carcass of a dead hawk.
When she was 12, she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a mortician. After graduating from mortuary school, Heil launched her business in 2004.
Now she has three children — ages 2, 4 and 12 — and is pregnant with her fourth. During a pregnancy, Heil uses a respirator when embalming a body and gets help with lifting.
“I usually work right up to when I deliver,” she said.
Heil wants her children to understand the cycle of life and death. “I’m just trying to educate them that death is nothing to fear.”
That afternoon, Heil opened a large refrigeration unit in the corner of the garage. She put on latex gloves and adjusted a rolling table to the correct height before removing the body of a man who had died three days earlier.
This time, because Times-News staffers were present, the body was covered by a white sheet. Typically, a body is cremated in whatever it wore when it arrived at the funeral home — such as a hospital gown — unless the family requests something different.
“The cleaner, the better,” Heil said, adding it’s important to avoid items with metal.
After lining up two tables, she pulled the body into the container and used zip ties to secure the two remaining corners. She rolled the table to the retort, near her covered Mustang parked in the garage.
“Unless they’re very large, they go feet first,” she said.
Heil opened the retort, slid the container inside and closed the door. Once the body is inside, the retort runs for 30 minutes before the more powerful cremation flame ignites.
Most cremations take about three hours, leaving red-hot remains of bone fragments. Once the cremation finished and the machine cooled, Heil planned to sweep out the remains before she went to bed. Later, she’d do finer sweeping.
“I want to get as much as possible,” Heil said.
Then she’d use a heavy-duty magnet to take out any metal and sift through the remains by hand. She’d put remains into a processor that reduces human remains to a powder and, finally, into an urn.
It’s a tedious process. And being a mortician is an around-the-clock venture that often interrupts holidays and family time.
For years, Heil paid herself only $5,000 per year. She increased that to $15,000 in 2015, and she was aiming for $25,000 in 2016.
Heil has worked for corporations with higher pay. But she wanted to own her business and raise her children without putting them in day care.
“It’s a blessing for me.”