Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

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The 'False News' Trial of Ernst Zündel -- 1988

Ivan Lagacé

[Ivan Lagacé was the fourteenth witness called by the defence. He testified on Tuesday, April 5 and Wednesday, April 6, 1988.]

Ivan Lagacé was tendered as an expert in the practical aspects of crematorium practices. Lagacé worked as a professional embalmer-funeral director, and crematory manager and operator at the Bow Valley Crematorium in Calgary, Alberta. He had completed the two and a half year Funeral Services programme at Humber College in Ontario and in 1979 obtained his diploma and Ontario license. In 1983 he obtained his Alberta license. (27-7383, 7393; qualified to give opinion evidence at 27-7394))

Lagacé testified that while a crematoria business required licensing, the personnel themselves required no licence or certification. This applied to Canada, the United States and Mexico. Crematorium operators were trained by factory representatives in the operation of the equipment. Most operators were members of the Cremationists Association of North America, a self-governing association which sets voluntary standards for crematorium operation. (27-7384, 7385)

In the course of his career, Lagacé had dealt with over 10,000 bodies in his work and had cremated over 1,000 bodies. The work involved bodies in a variety of physical conditions, from accident and fire victims to people who died of highly contagious diseases. (27-7385, 7386)

Cremation Process

With the use of a flow schematic drawing, Lagacé explained the three basic processes of cremation which applied to any crematorium built from 1800 onwards. In the first stage, the human remains (referred to by crematory operators as the "fuel") were placed in the main ignition chamber. The body could be in a container such as a casket or not, but it was definitely easier to burn the body without a container because there was less fuel to burn. Although it depended on the design of the unit, the body would usually be placed through the loading door feet first. (27- 7396, 7397, 7398)

At that point, the heat source was employed, most modern crematories using gas fired or oil-fired burners. The fuel (human remains) was ignited. Temperatures became extremely hot, normally reaching 2,000 degrees, and depending upon the fuel, could go as high as 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. (27-7399)

From the main ignition chamber, the gasses were sucked at a high velocity into a mixing chamber and thereafter through a series of baffles until the gasses were finally expelled outside through a tall stack. The main purpose of the mixing chamber and baffles was the elimination of any smoke or odour emissions. The baffles achieved this by forcing the escaping gasses through a series of twists and turns, creating turbulence or mixture. A secondary burner could be employed at this point to burn off any remaining gasses and smoke particles, but, Lagacé explained, it was not usually necessary. Because of the high temperatures, all that was needed to be introduced was more oxygen. This induced a secondary burn within the after-burner portion of the crematory unit. (27-7399, 7400)

Cremation reduced the human remains to calcium. These particles were sucked from the cremation chamber into a space called the settling chamber. Because of the larger size of the settling chamber, the vacuum pressure dropped, causing the calcium particulates to fall down. Lagacé explained that the settling chamber filled rather quickly and, depending on the number of cremations, had to be checked regularly and cleaned at least once a month. Most crematoria usually maintained a log of clean-ups. As a result of these processes, nothing but clean hot air escaped up the stack. (27-7400 to 7402)

Lagacé testified that because of Bow Valley Crematorium's extremely high stack, 45 feet versus the normal 15 feet, a high velocity draft was created drawing very large volumes of oxygen into the cremation chamber. The more oxygen that was provided, the higher the temperatures would go. As a result, crematory temperatures were passing 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, exceeding the tolerance level of the bricks. This caused Bow Valley's refractory to fail, requiring re-bricking of the entire machine besides the stack itself. (27-7402, 7403)

Nevertheless, because of its high stack, the Bow Valley Crematorium was the hottest, and therefore, the fastest crematory in operation in North America, with the capacity to cremate one adult human body in a minimum time of an hour and a half under optimum circumstances. Children took much less time to cremate simply because of their smaller size. Bodies with a moderate amount of fat were easier to cremate than skinny people. Fat was a good fuel which ignited instantly upon exposure to the flame. A tremendous surge of heat would result, actually aiding in the cremation process. A person with no fat on their body was very "stubborn" fuel to burn because it consisted mainly of wet tissues. (27-7405, 7406, 7407) The torso was the most difficult part of the human body to cremate because of its bulk and thickness. (27-7426)

After the initial surge of heat from the ignition of body fat, the temperature in the retort would drop to around 1,900 degrees and would remain at that level until the cremation was at least 80 percent complete. Thereafter, the temperature further declined to about 1,600 degrees until the end of the cremation cycle. (27-7425, 7426)

Lagacé next took the jury through the Operations of Cremation Equipment Manual which set out operating procedures for crematories. The manual warned the operator, for the first case of the day, to "check and see that the ash tray is installed in the ash pit" and warned that "failure to have the ash tray installed can cause/or result in fire outside the Retort!" (27-7407: Manual filed as Exhibit 105 at 27-7422) )

Lagacé explained the importance of this procedure, especially in the case of obese cases, where incomplete combustion of body fats occurred. In such an event, the burning body fats dripped into the waterproof ash pan and continued to burn there. If the ash pan wasn't there, however, the fluid would leak outside of the retort and cause a fire outside the crematory. (27- 7407, 7408)

After checking for the ash pan, an operator started the preheat cycle for the afterburn chamber. This chamber was heated to create or establish the draft in the stack. The preheat cycle took approximately twenty minutes to reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit. After the preheating, the fuel (human remains) was introduced into the ignition chamber on rollers, the main burner ignited and the cremation process commenced. (27-7408, 7409, 7410)

Lagacé pointed out that the Manual contained the warning that: "Use of any metal type roller will cause excessive wear on the floor tile and shorten the life period of the floor tile." He explained that the refractory tiles used on the floor of the ignition chamber tended to wear out very quickly because of the wear and tear of the rollers and because this was where the fuel ignited and burned. Lagacé himself had worn out floor titles after only 250 cremations by using metal rollers. Once the wear started it was extremely difficult to stop. (27-7410, 7411)

To repair the unit in such circumstances the operator had to cease operation of the retort, allow the machine 48 hours of cooling down time with the door fully open, and preferably with a fan flowing through the machine. The bricks or tiling then had to be removed and new ones cemented. The average life expectancy of floor refractory was 1,500 cremations. The bricks of the retort's walls and ceilings were rated for 3,000 cremations while the bricks of the afterburn chamber were rated for roughly 2,000 cremations. (27-7411)

The time to cremate a human being (the cremation cycle) took an average of two hours. After the first cremation of the day was completed, the operator must let the retort cool-down for a minimum of one hour before beginning the second case. After the second cremation, a cool- down period of at least two hours was required. Even with cool-down times, Lagacé testified that cremations could not be done "24 hours a day, round the clock, day after day...the refractory will not tolerate it." Factory recommendation for normal operation was a maximum of three cases per day in a normal eight hour work day. No more than 50 -- 60 cases should be processed in any month so that the refractory life was prolonged. That was an average of 2 cases a day. (27-7412 to 7415; 7427, 7428)

There was no way to speed up this process, Lagacé testified, without effecting the refractory brick and endangering the life of the operator. If no cool-down period was allowed between cremations, the temperature would go out of control and probably exceed the 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit rated for the bricks. This would cause excessive spalling, or flaking, of the bricks. Secondly, the operator could not safely open a retort having an internal temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. "I have to allow for cool-down time, for my safety," said Lagacé, "and to bring the temperature in the retort to a point where there is safe loading of the next case." (27- 7412, 7413)

Lagacé testified that he had "burned my hair and my face often enough to learn that I don't attempt to open the door when the temperatures are excessive. It just can't be done, unless perhaps you are wearing a full asbestos suit. From my experience with asbestos garment, they prevent flame from contacting you, but they still get very hot." (27-7414)

Lagacé emphasized the real dangers involved if the cool-down periods were not followed. If an operator attempted to introduce a body into the retort when temperatures were still excessive, a "flash ignition" could occur whereby the body would ignite before it was fully introduced into the retort. In such a case, the operator would be engulfed in flames from the burning body and would be unable to close the door to the retort. To put it simply, he said, "you can basically walk away and watch your building burn down." (27-7415, 7416)

Lagacé introduced a sample brick into evidence which the jury was allowed to handle. The brick was extremely light and brittle making it an extremely good insulator, but also very delicate: "I could take an ordinary handsaw and cut it in half." The brick was able to withstand 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, and was therefore a little better than the average firebrick. (27-7422, 7423, 7424; brick entered as Exh. 106 at 27-7423)

In a new crematory, the new refractory brick had to be cured or dried out during a break- in cycle of one cremation per day for 25 days. If this number was exceeded, refractory failure would certainly be caused. (27-7428)

During normal cremations, there was some flaking of brick, wearing it from the inside to the outside. If the brick was overheated, however, it would simply crack along its length to about one half of its depth, thereby causing premature failure. In such a case, the fire would not be contained within the retort and the metal superstructure, which supported the retort, would buckle. Eventually, testified Lagacé, the retort would collapse and a fire would occur outside the cremation chamber. (27-7424, 7425)

During cool-down, Lagacé shut down the natural gas burner used to fire the crematory and pumped air through the chamber. Older furnaces, he said, had been coal-fired, and had been difficult to cool down simply because the operators could not shut the heat off: "Once coal is burning, unless you remove it, the heat is still being produced." Coal-fired furnaces thus prevented any quick cool-down to occur and in fact required "enormous amounts" of time to cool. (27-7426)

Birkenau Crematories

Lagacé testified that the plans for the Birkenau crematory indicated that it had been built to almost the exact specifications of the Bow Valley Crematorium. Using an overhead of the Birkenau plan, Lagacé pointed out the crematory's cremation chamber, the flame port, the smoke channel and settling chamber and the afterburner. He testified that it was obvious that the Germans were concerned with environmental effects. (27-7430)

Lagacé found the most amazing and unique part of the Birkenau crematory to be the stack, calculated to be 45 feet high, and therefore very similar to Bow Valley Crematorium's stack. In Lagacé's opinion, the rate of burn of the Birkenau unit would be as efficient but not more than his own unit in Calgary. (27-7432)

The only technology difference that Lagacé could see between his own crematory and those of Birkenau was the burner section. Lagacé's crematory used a natural gas burner while Birkenau used a stoking system with coal or something of a similar nature. The technology of Lagacé's crematory allowed him to shut the gas off for cooling. Coal was very cumbersome in that regard and this would affect the time limit since the operator could not go through a cooling cycle as quickly. (27-7450)

Lagacé was shown a photograph of one of the Birkenau crematories taken during the war and asked if the units looked familiar to his own crematory. Lagacé agreed that they were. He indicated, however, that the Birkenau retorts had been built in units of three with common walls between them. This would have eliminated the need for extra bricks and been much easier and quicker to construct. However, he noted, "should one of these need to be maintained or need any repairs, it would necessitate the shutdown of the other two [retorts]...attached to it, because you can't have temperatures of 2,000 degrees radiating into an area where you're working on another retort."

Lagacé believed that this design would never be used in a modern crematory simply because, as a business, it could not afford to have a shutdown of three units if one broke down. (27-7438, 7439)

Holocaust Claims of Numbers of Cremations at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Lagacé was asked to comment on the claims made by Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (2nd ed., page 978) with respect to the capacities of the 46 retorts in the four crematories at Birkenau. Hilberg claimed:

The theoretical daily capacity of the four Birkenau crematoria was somewhat over 4,400, but, with breakdowns and slowdowns, the practical limit was almost always lower.

Lagacé stated that this claim was "preposterous" and "beyond the realm of reality." To claim that 46 retorts could cremate over 4,400 bodies in a day was "ludicrous." Based on his own experience, Lagacé testified that it would only have been possible to cremate a maximum of 184 bodies a day at Birkenau. (27-7436, 7437, 7438)

Lagacé was referred to page 17 of Did Six Million Really Die? where Harwood stated:

Although Reitlinger's 6,000 a day would mean a total by October 1944 of over 5 million, all such estimates pale before the wild fantasies of Olga Lengyel in her book Five Chimneys (London, 1959). Claiming to be a former inmate of Auschwitz, she asserts that the camp cremated no less than "720 per hour, or 17,280 corpses per twenty-four hour shift." She also alleges that, in addition, 8,000 people were burned every day in the "death-pits", and that therefore "In round numbers, about 24,000 corpses were handled every day" (p. 80- 1). This, of course, would mean a yearly rate of over 8-1/2 million. Thus between March 1942 and October 1944 Auschwitz would finally have disposed of over 21 million people, six million more than the entire world Jewish population. Comment is superfluous.

Lagacé testified that from his own experience in cremating approximately 1,000 bodies, the figures cited by Reitlinger and Lengyel were not realistic. The person citing such figures, he said, was, "irresponsible... with his facts because this doesn't even begin to enter reality at all. It's just physically unrealistic." Lagacé said that even with present disaster plans, which provide for massive mobilization and the handling of large numbers of human remains, it would be "unimaginable" to cremate such numbers. (27-7447)

Under the disaster plans of Lagacé's association, bodies would be transported from a disaster scene to a local temporary morgue, which usually would be the nearest arena and the bodies placed on the ice. The person orchestrating the actions of the crematory managers would be the medical examiner. At his instructions, after he had completed any investigations, the bodies would be removed from the temporary facilities and normal funeralization would proceed. If all corpses were to be cremated, the bodies would have to be placed in refrigerated storage to allow time to cremate. (27-7448, 7449)

Lagacé referred to the 1985 issue of a statistical sheet compiled yearly by the Cremation Association of North America, showing the numbers of retorts located on the continent and the number of cremations done annually. The statistics indicated that in 1985, there were a total of 338,370 bodies cremated in 931 crematories in North America. In Canada alone, a total of 49,216 cremations were performed in 94 crematories. (27-7432, 7433, 7434)

Open Air Burning

Lagacé testified that he had observed the results of burning people in the open in a case involving a homicide where the murderer had attempted to burn the remains of his victim with gasoline in an open area in the woods of northern Ontario. He had been unable to do so. Human bodies did not burn completely in open spaces. In 90 percent of the cases, it would be the epidermis or the skin that would be charred; maybe perhaps the limbs would be burnt, but the torso was very difficult to cremate. It took high temperatures over a prolonged period of time in order to fully cremate a human being. (27-7441)

Moreover, an open air burning would require far more fuel. In a retort there was a controlled optimum atmosphere. In open air, heat constantly escaped so that it was very difficult to concentrate all the heat into one area. (27-7446)

Decomposition of Corpses and Handling of Typhus Infected Corpses

Lagacé testified that there would be a problem with decomposition if bodies were left for a period of one to two days. Upon death, the body's defence systems shut down, leaving any bacteria or viruses in the body "a free rein to wreak their havoc." There was a rise in the body temperature and gasses began to be produced. Within hours to a day, bloating caused by tissue gas would cause, for example, a leg to quadruple in its size. It would be an extremely unpleasant and dangerous situation if contagious diseases were involved. Tissue gas was highly contagious and adhered to any equipment such as the floor, the tables, any instruments used on the bodies. (27-7443, 7444)

Lagacé described the procedures enforced by the Alberta government in the case of corpses infected with typhus. At his discretion, the medical officer of health may step in before the body is even removed from the hospital and specify and order the funeral home to follow certain procedures in dealing with the body. These included the wearing of protective clothing when handling the remains, the destruction of that clothing and the containers that the body was placed in. In a case of typhus, the medical officer would likely order a direct cremation as this was the most effective way of dealing with something that volatile. If the body was buried, it had to be encased in a hermetically sealed container which would last over a prolonged period of time and only when the soil conditions allowed this, in order to avoid contamination of the water-table or underground streams. (27-7444, 7445)


In response to a question by Judge Thomas, Lagacé testified that there were six retorts in Calgary, a city with a population of about 650,000; the ratio thus being roughly one retort for every 100,000 persons. Crown counsel Pearson asked Lagacé that if this ratio was applied to the 46 retorts at Birkenau, the number would be 4.6 million. Lagacé agreed. (27-7452 to 7454)

Crown counsel suggested to Lagacé that when he ran his crematory he did so in conformity with Alberta law, conscious of ecology, operating the facility with the safety of employees as a paramount consideration with a view to maximizing profit and minimizing costs, and maximizing the life of the equipment by minimizing wear and tear. Lagacé agreed. He also agreed that he had no experience operating in a system that placed no legal restrictions on how many bodies could be cremated, that had as its goal, not profit, but simply disposing of as many bodies as possible. (27-7454 to 7456)

Wasn't it true, asked Pearson, that many facilities such as municipal garbage disposal facilities or blast furnaces had furnaces that ran continually? Lagacé replied that he was not familiar with blast furnaces or other such facilities and had not enquired into their operation.

As to his knowledge of ceramics, he testified that the thermocouple, a giant thermometer used in the crematory to record temperatures, was encased in ceramic but had to be changed about every 1,000 cremations because the ceramic would burn out. (27-7456, 7457)

Lagacé agreed that he was very surprised that the Birkenau crematory was a facility which rivalled the Calgary operation as far as efficiency and design were concerned. He agreed that Auschwitz was forty years ahead of its time when it came to cremating. (27-7458)

On re-examination, Lagacé testified that there had not been any typhus epidemics in Calgary recently. He agreed that any economic motivation he might have did not affect his capacity to complete cremations. (27-7458, 7459)

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