Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Nov. 8, 2022

Witness Cremations at the Historic Wiltwyck Cemetery

Witness Cremations at the Historic Wiltwyck Cemetery

When the Wiltwyck Cemetery and family crematory started following us on Instagram, instead of getting ... well ... creeped out, we decided to reach out, and learn about this unique establishment. Kingston's Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery goes back to the mid 19th-century, with tombstones artfully occupying some 60 acres of beautiful rolling hills. A crematory was added in 1984, and it's the only one in Ulster County. Wiltwyck's appeal extends beyond county lines, though, as its unique "witness cremations" allow friends and family to be present for their loved one's cremation. We had a lot of questions for cemetery superintendent Matthew Sirni, and he answered them all with transparency and grace. 

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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai

Matthew Sirni  0:04  
I think my job certainly makes you appreciate life and appreciate your family. Let the small issues in life go because I've seen it. I've seen regret in people that, you know, they wish they had said this or that, you know, made up with someone before they passed away.

Brett Barry  0:21  
That's Matthew Sirni, superintendent of the Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery in Kingston, New York. He oversees the historic cemetery, a community mausoleum, and crematory operations. Wiltwyck's state-of-the-art crematory is the only one in Ulster County, and we went behind the scenes to learn all about the process. People often ask where we get our ideas for our Kaatscast episodes, and this one came to us via Instagram, where we noticed the Wiltwyck's Cemetery and Crematory started following us and liking our posts. Instead of getting creeped out by our new Insta fan, we reached out to discover more about this unique cemetery; where families can take part in the typically enigmatic cremation process by way of so-called witness cremations. More about those later in the show. But first, we just had to meet the person who manages the Instagram account that introduced us to Wiltwyck in the first place.

Hannah Speregen  1:23  
So my name is Hannah Speregen and I'm the Social Media and Marketing Coordinator for Wiltwyck Cemetery, and I more or less discovered Wiltwyck simply because I live right next to it, and it was an absolutely beautiful, breathtaking cemetery...a lot of history to it, so that's how I first started as volunteer and then transitioned into a part-time social media content creator. Part of what we do is not only putting the word out about witness cremations, informations in general, it's engaging with the public, telling them we offer historic tours that were open for them just to walk around in, and it's to really welcome the public, not just in one aspect, but in multiple, you know, here, come see our facilities. Even if you're morbidly curious about the whole process...come educate yourself. It's really about education, opening people's minds, and understand. It's not this dark and mysterious thing. By showing them here, these options, here's what you can learn; that sort of is why we've done the public outreach and the media content that we put out. It's to really educate the public.

Matthew Sirni  2:28  
My name is Matthew Sirni, I'm the superintendent of Wiltwyck Cemetery. I oversee the grounds, all of the cemetery operations, as well as the operation of the crematory. I've been in cemetery business for about 30 years, first 27 of those years, as a private contractor, managing and maintaining cemeteries throughout the Hudson Valley...and about two and a half years ago, I was offered this opportunity to come around this cemetery. We are the only crematory in Ulster County. So the cemetery itself was founded in 1856 or '57, depending on which document we look at. The section that we're in right now is considered our new section, even though it still goes back to the early 1900s. The old section is off of Pine Grove Avenue that was just founded by a group of locals who wanted to establish a nondenominational cemetery. So we don't have any direct religious affiliation, but we welcome everybody. We have a very diverse population here in Kingston and even that long ago. The history of Kingston is recognizable here. All the names that we know throughout the City of Kingston...you can find them here.

Brett Barry  3:55  
We passed a family mausoleum for one of those historic Ulster County families...the Hasbroucks.

Matthew Sirni  4:01  
This is a family mausoleum.

Brett Barry  4:03  
And the difference between a mausoleum and a crypt?

Matthew Sirni  4:05  
A crypt is the individual spot that a casket is being in tuned into, so this mausoleum has eight crypts in it.

Brett Barry  4:13  
And just up the path from the Hasbroucks, we passed another notable resident, Gladys Hurlbut, an actress and playwright who you might remember from this episode of "I Love Lucy."

There's a purse snatcher somewhere here in this theater. You know, maybe I'd better call the police. Just let us go down the aisle. We won't make any noise. There was $500 in her purse. I'm sorry. You'll have to see the manager. That's the purse snatcher.

Matthew Sirni  4:39  
Hannah has photographs of her in "I Love Lucy" and some other shows like that...that you remember. This is her mining here. We have about 60 acres that are developed...85 acres total. So we have enough area here to continue operating and burying people for at least another 100 years, that's kind of the downfall if you will of a lot of cemeteries that they start to struggle financially once they run out of room. So it's important that we have all this room to continue to grow and serve this community.

Brett Barry  5:18  
How do you recommend that people express their wishes while they're still alive?

Matthew Sirni  5:21  
That's important. We see a lot of families that they just don't have any idea of what a loved one would have wanted, and then they...they spend a lot of time questioning what that might be. So...first thing would be certainly talk to your family, let them know what your wishes are. Secondly, meet with a funeral director and start making your plans. We're very fortunate in this area. We have a great group of funeral directors, all of whom do pre-plans with families, so they can walk with you through this process of planning a funeral, whether it's your own or that of a loved one.

Brett Barry  6:07  
Do you consider cremation more of an eco-friendly alternative to a burial?

Matthew Sirni  6:12  
I personally do there...there is some debate to that. Cremation does use natural gas. But with a cremation, obviously, you're not taking up a larger piece of land for eternity. Because once these areas are sold as graves, that's it, they won't be utilized for anything else. Cremation itself is very clean, in terms of emissions or anything like that. So in my opinion, right now, cremation is probably the least impactful on the environment. We are hearing and seeing more and more about green burials, and even the definition of what is a green burial is a little bit in question. So if a family were to call us and say, "Can we do a green burial?" We could offer them a regular cemetery grave and they can choose to not have their loved one or themselves embalmed. They do not have to be in a concrete burial vault. They do not have to be in a casket that is coated with varnish and lacquer or other petroleum products. They can choose to be buried unembalmed in a plain...maybe pinewood box. But casket itself is not even required. People can and do choose to just be buried in a cotton shroud. A strict version of green burial would have us digging a grave by hand rather than using powered equipment excavator or backhoe; monuments might not be erected in a truly green burial because the granite for monuments comes from a great distance away. So if somebody has wants a very strict interpretation of a green burial, they might not do that.

Brett Barry  8:09  
And we offer all that.

Matthew Sirni  8:10  
We do. We do. We do now...about 60 burials a year. In the crematory, we serve about 1,200 individuals a year, and that's continuing to increase on a regular basis as cremation rates continue to increase.

Brett Barry  8:28  
What do you attribute that increase to?

Matthew Sirni  8:30  
There is no one answer to that question. There is a little bit of a cost factor. There are some environmental factors. People don't want to take up physical space on a piece of property. There's still a sense for a lot of people of they don't want to be buried in the ground. It allows families to schedule a funeral or a service at their convenience. As a population, we're spread out all over the place now we're not all in the same town or same house that allows families time to get together. In New York State, crematories can only be in cemeteries. So we're the only crematory in Ulster County. So we serve all of the funeral homes in our area; we serve certainly all of Ulster County, Northern Dutchess County, up into Greene, Columbia, down into Orange County, Rockland County. Those funeral homes are bringing their deceased here for us to cremate.

Brett Barry  9:37  
And that wide surface area comes back to a unique option at Wiltwyck...the witness cremation.

Matthew Sirni  9:42  
Witness cremation is an opportunity for families to be a part of the very beginning of the cremation process. The cremation processes always kind of been a mystery for people. So it's not something they can envision. We compared to a graveside service, people are familiar with that; they're familiar with burying a loved one. But the crematory has always been a mystery. Nobody knows what it looks like nobody's ever been in one. So we open it up so that people can see it's a clean, bright, well-managed facility. It's operated by people who are compassionate and care. By allowing families to accompany their loved one to the crematory, we think we're offering a service that is helping people with closure and understanding the entire process of saying goodbye to their loved ones.

Brett Barry  10:40  
After the break, a tour of the crematory, an overview of the cremation process, witness cremations, plus...options for cremated remains. All that and more in a moment. Kaatscast is sponsored by Briars and Brambles Books. The go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills, located in Windham, New York, right next to the pharmacy and just steps away from the Windham Path. Open daily. For more information visit briarsandbramblesbooks.com or call 518-750-8599, and by the 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway; following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries, and links to area restaurants, shops, and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. Kaatscast is also supported by the Mountain Eagle. Covering Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email: mountaineaglenews@gmail.com, and thanks to you our listeners who support this podcast with a monthly donation at kaatscast.com. Back at Wiltwyck Cemetery, superintendent Matt Sirni, led me into the crematory viewing room, a private space for family and friends.

Matthew Sirni  12:19  
Locally, we're already over 65% of everyone who passes away is...is choosing cremation and that's set to continue to increase. When a family chooses witness cremation. This is the room that they're gathering into to begin with. As you can see, it's set up comfortably like a living room, we can also set it up like a chapel. So there are 24 chairs in here for people to gather; then the funeral director will work with our staff to bring the deceased in through the back, we get set up in front of the machines that are called retorts. That's the name of a machine that performs the cremation; then from there, we're able to raise these drapes so that a family can see through the glass into the crematory...they can see that their loved one is there in a casket in front of the retort, and that's enough for a lot of people. But others will choose to go into the crematory to be a part of the casket being pushed into the retort...and then it can even be a part of lighting and beginning the process of cremation. That's important to a lot of people. Some religions do that for all their deceased...and locally, we're doing more and more witness cremations all the time. We want people to see how comfortable the crematory is how clean it is, and meet the professionals that do this.

Brett Barry  13:42  
Matt opened the door and we stepped into the crematory itself.

Matthew Sirni  13:46  
So these are modern retorts. These units are about three years old, completely computerized monitoring temperatures, monitoring fuel consumption, and monitoring emissions. We operate under very strict guidelines from New York State DEC, and we monitor all of our emissions at all times to make sure that we're within appropriate environmental standards.

Brett Barry  14:13  
Standing in this noisy room, it suddenly dawned on me that these retorts might currently be in operation.

Matthew Sirni  14:22  
Yes, this one as well. Yep. So this is the monitor. The crematory operator is always watching. There's no personal information on here. But this is what we're entering is how much does a person weigh? What type of container is it? Is it cardboard? Is it a pinewood box or is it a finished casket? Gender plays a role in the cremation process. You can see temperatures are always carefully monitored...and right now, this machine is completing a cycle. So it's in what's called a cooldown process.

Brett Barry  14:57  
So as you said, there's no personal information so I can and probably reveal that in this retort right now is a male between 100 and 200 pounds in a cardboard container.

Matthew Sirni  15:09  
That is correct.

Brett Barry  15:12  
What kind of temperatures does this need to get up to and how long does the process take?

Matthew Sirni  15:16  
The temperatures on average 1,600-1,800 degrees. The length of the process will depend on the individual and the container. A cardboard container will burn very quickly, obviously, whereas a heavy old casket might add a couple hours, and then body structure as well...very frail elderly person does not take as long to complete cremation as a young adult male.

Brett Barry  15:44  
I asked if a body needs any prep before cremation.

Matthew Sirni  15:48  
Not a lot, does not have to be embalmed, there's only a few things that have to be removed. For example, a pacemaker. Radioactive seeds have to be removed, but that's all done by the funeral home. So those things are all done by the time we receive the deceased individual.

Brett Barry  16:08  
How long can this process take?

Matthew Sirni  16:06  
The cremation itself, usually no longer than four hours, the average is probably two to two and a half hours. But then there's obviously a cooling and processing time. So if someone comes into our facility today...they can pick up the cremated remains from their funeral director the following day. An individual that comes in our facility is usually in our care for about 24 hours.

Brett Barry  16:25  
When the process is finished, and you open that door, what's there?

Matthew Sirni  16:40  
Skeletal remains. So the process of cremation has removed all moisture, all carbon, the only thing that's left is skeletal remains and the calcium of those remains. So there are recognizable skeletal bones leftover, but they're incredibly fragile. So as we begin the process of removing those, they are essentially crumbling to a dust isn't the right word, but a very finer product; much finer product.

Brett Barry  17:20  
And so what kind of processing do you need to do just basically pulling it out or do you have to...

Matthew Sirni  17:26  
We pull it out. The entire machine gets cleaned out very thoroughly, the cremated remains are captured below the retort...and then from there, those remains are processed through a machine that we call the processor which is in the back of the building here, and that reduces the cremated remains to a fine consistency of what people would be more familiar with the end product of what people are receiving back is calcium, we refer to it as cremated remains. The crematory operator brings his cremated remains over to here. They go into these individual cubbies by themselves with their paperwork...then at this station, we refer to this as the peer review station. So everytime someone comes into our care, there are three different people in this organization who are checking paperwork and paper flow before the cremated remains are sealed, labeled, and ready for pickup. So these area's very important. The one question I'll receive every time we do an open house is people asking a very honest concern of how do I know it's my loved one I'm getting back. This is how you know. This is our process. This is our method for identification, and this is why it works, and that's very important for people to see.

Brett Barry  18:59  
And right now, I'm looking at six cremated remains in containers that are ready for someone to pick up.

Matthew Sirni  19:05  
That's correct, yeah, you'll see that they're all separated individually. So there's no chance of commingling. Each one is identified on the exterior of the container, as well as on the interior, and then there's a complete packet of paperwork there. So it's obviously paperwork intensive. But that's a good thing. It's assuring a very secure process. I'm incredibly proud of the staff that we have here. Because it's not a case number to us. It's not a just another project for our day. This is someone's loved one. So we never forget that and they're...they're handled exactly how we would want our loved ones handled in this facility.

Brett Barry  19:52  
Back outside and into the Wiltwycks Cemetery, we talked about options to families once those cremated remains are in hand.

Matthew Sirni  20:00  
In New York State, the cremation itself is considered to be the final disposition. So after that a family can do whatever they would like to do. I personally am a strong believer in burying or using a mausoleum, a cremation niche of some sort. Because we hear stories about people take cremated remains home, they go up in a closet somewhere, and in some cases, they're even forgotten. So we had a case where someone called us and said, "I have a box. It has your name and phone number on it and a number." I said, "Is it a round metal disc?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Is there anything with it?" She said, "Yes, there's a bag of something." I said, "That's cremated remains," and she said, "We just bought this house. We don't know who this is. We don't. What do we do with it? What do we know?" So we do see it, you know, so that was someone who's left behind after a house sale. So I'm a...I'm a big proponent for memorialization. Put them somewhere; let future generations discover their family, discover their...their ancestry, and memorialize each individual. But by law, cremated remains can be scattered in a lot of different places. We do have a scattering garden here in the cemetery, as well as cremated remains are buried on grave plots. We have cremation plots, and then we have the niches in the...in the mausoleum. So this is our indoor mausoleum. This contains both casketed crypts, as well as cremation niche, which is these units here, and this area is our chapel. The acoustics in here are nice, too. So when we get when we have a service here in the chapel. If you get a good singer, it's a pretty impressive sound throughout this building. So these are all entombments, these are full casket entombments. A lot of these are this entire wall here. These are called true companion crypts. So each one of those rectangles, there are two caskets that go into there...in the past few years, glass cremation niches have become very popular...and that allows people to really personalize their cremation niche. You see the photographs that people put up jewelry, even the urns themselves really kind of highlight who that person was, their military honors, wedding pictures, photos of the grandkids...and we allow families to change these two for the seasons, even sometimes, you know what they're displaying within the niche. So but the glass niches are very, very popular...and we actually have a construction project underway. Well, in the planning stages, it's going to add several 100 new glass niches.

Brett Barry  22:57  
Before I left the cemetery. I asked Matt, if there were any life lessons he's learned from a career based in death.

Matthew Sirni  23:05  
I think communication with one's family is probably the most important lesson that I see on a regular basis that you can't, you know, you can't take back time...and so you do get to see what the priorities are. The relationships that we all have, how we interact with everyone around us, that will come out at your...at your service, the people that love you and miss you...and we've seen people that have anger within them, even when someone passes away. So it absolutely affects just how I live my life. In terms of thinking about your own mortality, you know, let things go; things see these personal offenses that everyone seems to experience so easily now. Everyone is so easily offended, but let it go. You see people holding crutches, and it's not for me...right? Take everyone for who they are and what their experience might be...and I don't know, I can't judge others. I have no right to judge you, to judge anyone I don't know, the stranger in the street, my own children, my own family...it's just my job to be kind and compassionate to everyone that I meet...and thankfully, I'm in a job where I get to actively express that on a daily basis.

Brett Barry  24:41  
For more information, including site visits and tours, visit wiltwyckcemetery.org. You can also find them on Instagram at wiltwyckcemetery. We are on Instagram @kaatscast or you can find us at kaatscast.com. Kaatscast is a biweekly production of Silver Hollow Audio. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening and keep in touch.