Handling What Remains
S2-ish, minor spoilers. Dean, Sam and the practicalities of destroying the things that are left behind.
. . . . .
So here's the thing about burning bones: it doesn't really work. Or rather: it works in places like crematoriums where you have all the stuff that lets you take your time and do it right, that grim-ass oven baking crap, but out in the field, most hunters have barely enough time to do more than a drive-by lighting. Any hunter who has the opportunity to sit down and do a burn properly is probably already working on home turf, which means they've also got the nearest funeral home on speed dial and its owner in their pocket.
Heat does different things to bone than it does to flesh. A person's body fat happily doubles as fuel until it blackens away, but bones dry out and weaken; bones get thinner and thinner, crumbling under pressure. You need that pressure to completely finish the job, however. Smaller bones dissolve on their own, but larger ones weather through the flames and keep their shape, even when the marrow inside is a thin crust. Crematoriums have the luxury of grinders that they send the remains through, make everything mash and powder, but hunters have to go without a lot of things.
That's okay. Hunters usually have to make do.
Dean's heard his fair share of stories about novice hunters who thought that all they had to do was dump a gallon of gas into a hole and bang, boom, body's in a perfect uniform fine ash and they could still catch a midnight movie afterwards. Hell - he even tried it when he was first starting out and Dad told him to take care of the breakdown and hurry up about it, Dean, and he was all falling over his feet wanting to impress with how fast he was learning. A gallon of gas, a match, and done.
What he got was half his eyebrows singed off, both sleeves charred, and the authorities hot on their asses because he'd been careless about the nearby foliage, and the entire cemetery almost went up in smoke.
Dad had explained it to him after the third time that Dean kept repeating the same mistake, adding more and more gas in hopes that he could find the right amount to break down bones. He smoked corpses like barbecue hams, got soot everywhere, and nearly immolated himself because he was in too much of a hurry to let the vapors dissipate first.
Dad had finally stepped in the fourth time that Dean started lugging out the can with a grim expression, trying to remember hard not to drop the match in right away unless he wanted fireballs. Dad had taken the gas away from him without a word; he sprinkled only half the can, stepped back until the air cleared, and then tossed in the flame from a distance. The resulting blaze was fast, but weak to Dean's eyes; when it was over, the flesh was crumpled, the bones still intact.
As Dean stared down at the mess, disappointed, Dad got out the claw hammer from the Impala's trunk.
The shovel got flipped over, the largest chunks of flesh pushed aside. A few scraps of bones went onto the flat, sliding around into the dirt until Dad got the angle right - and then Dad started smashing the hammer down, short jerky smacks that mashed the remains sloppily, and left Dean staring. He'd thought - he'd wanted it to be perfect, but Dad was leaving chunks behind, entire thumb-sized wedges of bone lying around intact, and moving down each limb like an assembly line.
It hadn't made sense. The whole point about salting and burning was to get rid of the corpse so that it wouldn't attract ghosts, so Dean couldn't figure out why doing a half-ass job was fine.
Then Dad had explained, and Dean didn't know if he felt enlightened, or just plain stupid.
It wasn't actually the bones themselves that had to go away. A good salting would fry most of the spiritual ties that were clinging to the remains, bonded there by physical proximity for however many years of life. Heat would help with the rest. But the real point was the message that you sent by coming around and cleaning up, helping a ghost become unattached by changing their remains enough that they didn't want to stay. It was like chasing off a stray dog that kept nosing up to your door even after its previous family had moved to another state, showing them that this wasn't their home anymore. This wasn't their place.
But it's polite to other hunters to at least leave a sign to show the remains were done properly, that you'd taken care of things. Over the years, Dean's cottoned on to why. He's followed cases before where he'd chased down the skinniest rumors like a madman, only to take a really good look at the bones he'd unearthed, and realize that a hunter had already been there before. Pulverizing the remains was a calling card, a courtesy. They weren't grave-robbers, they'd been there on business. Sometimes, if he was in a hurry, it was hard to show that he'd been there, but the effort could make all the difference for other hunters when angry ghosts were screeching down their spines. When you did the job, it helped everyone if you did it right.
The house itself could stay. It was the dog that had to realize things had changed.
. . . . .
Now that he's older, out and hunting on his own, Dean knows the ingredients of a good breakdown by heart. The shovel comes with him when he digs up graves. He also brings a hammer, and it's not just to break through coffins that are tough. Bobby told him once about a hunter that brought a portable coffee grinder with him wherever he went - one of those hand-driven jobs you can pick up at Cabela's and claim it's for camping, metal basin inscribed with symbols all along the inside, little drawer for collecting the fragments - but Dean figures that was just Bobby pulling his leg. At least, he hopes so. Bobby said it made one hell of a cup of joe, too, so Dean really frigging hopes so.
Sometimes when he's had just too long of a day, Dean finds himself trying to work out the logistics about how you'd get some of the larger chunks into such a tiny mill, if you'd snap a hipbone with your hand or wedge it into fractures with the shovel. That's when he knows he needs a breather: a good beer and an attractive girl to unwind with, and not get too dragged down.
There's a lot about the work that hunters don't like bragging about. It's put aside, safe in a separate category from both triumphs and failures. Things like setting vampire kids on fire who are too young to understand what they are, or having zero bladder control for a week because of a naga bite. These are the blind spots in the stories, the parts that people know have to be done, that aren't heroic and aren't terrible, they just are, and mashing up a corpse like a handful of potato chips is one of them.
Making an end of things is just as important too. You have to help people move on.
Ribcages, you can do with a boot. Skulls are fine with a split. Teeth are harder, and usually not worth even trying. Sometimes he and Dad used to trade the breakdown duty; Dad was enough of a vet to make broad strokes with his hammer, familiar with how much was enough, but Dean always wanted to make sure he did it right, did it perfect as long as Dad was watching. Determination made him really good at it, at finding the right angles to be efficient about grinding stuff down, finding the tough patches in the thicker bones, until it was just another part in the whole damned process, no worse than wiping off his shoes afterwards.
The last lesson Dean took away from it, the lesson Dad made sure to emphasize - his hands smeared with soot, eyes red from smoke - was that if you wanted to do a salt-and-burn right, no matter how rushed the job, you had to break the toughest pieces yourself. Otherwise, you could never sure there wasn't something left to linger, something that another person wanted to have around, no matter how small. No matter how damaged.
. . . . .
Sam hates having to do the breakdown.
Dean has stared at more bones than he can count. He's packed down an endless parade of corpses, his hands remembering how to turn the hammer and pound carefully at the fragments, like chipping ice off a windshield. He's never understood how the same kind of act could be considered both purification and defilement; he'll never figure it out either, doesn't want to. People with an excess of spare time could tackle that one. Dean's got other things to do.
What's important is that the spirit knows that this isn't a place for them anymore. They don't belong.
He finishes up with their latest grave and gets back to the car. The smell of the corpse is sticking to his body, varnishing his shirt with liquefied fat and oils: the fumes of roasted, rotting meat. He was smart this time, removed his jacket first, so the reek couldn't get into the leather. Even so, he's definitely not going to want a hamburger for -
Fuck, who is he kidding? He'll have one tonight, probably, with extra bacon on top. He's been doing this way too long to lose his appetite.
"I hate that shit," Sam says when he gets close enough. "All those parts left over. It'd be easier if we could just start the fire and walk away."
Dean sniffs his own arm, thinks about shoving it into Sam's nose just to watch his brother gag. The humor of the moment's all sour. The irony in the words is hitting him funny, like sun off a billboard that makes the grinning models look sinister, not sellable.
He glances over at Sam, who's been wanting to get free and came back anyway, and even though Dad's not with them, it's still a bare bones home. There's still the ghost that Sam is, or Dean is, or they both are, trying to stick close to the only things they know they once belonged to. And once Dean's thought about that, it's like a faucet that won't shut off: he can't shake the parallel about how this whole struggle's made them weak in places, how life's thinned them from the inside and made them brittle. The next logical step would be to smash down the last bits, and leave nothing left for either of them to be drawn back to.
And maybe, just maybe, if Dean had the words for it or the schooling, he'd be able to find the best way to pretty it up. String metaphors together, make it all poetical the way he knows Sam wants to hear things. Use words right.
But he's not; he doesn't. He isn't. All Dean has is a hammer in his grip and the smell of a stranger's death on his body, and the awareness of why it's important to destroy the significance in things, to crush them up until they're unrecognizable and unwantable.
That's the lesson Dad gave him. That's the lesson from all hunters. People have to move on. Bad shit happens when they don't. It's important to break down a corpse, get rid of the last few things that a spirit might continue to crave. You're not supposed to flinch.
Dean hesitates; he wets his lips. He heads for the trunk to stow the gear away, but he all he says is, "Yeah, Sammy. Yeah. I know."