A step-by-step guide to planning for a cremation

Cremation is the process by which a body is reduced via fire to ash and bone fragments. It takes place at a crematorium, which may be affiliated with a funeral home or cemetery or may be an independent facility.

Cremation has risen in popularity very quickly. Twenty years ago, only a little more than a quarter of Americans were cremated. Today, it has surpassed burial as the most common method of body disposition in the United States.

One reason more people are choosing cremation today is cost. Cremation can cost substantially less than a traditional 20th-century American-style burial. 

Environmental concerns are also a factor: Cremation is typically seen as more environmentally friendly than burying an embalmed body with casket and burial vault or grave liner. (Cremation does still have an environmental impact, as fuel is used to run the crematorium and there are carbon emissions as a result of the process.) And many religions today allow cremation, including most Christian denominations, though there are guidelines and exceptions. (Islam and Orthodox Judaism do not permit cremation.)

If you're planning a funeral for a loved one who wished to be cremated, or pre-planning for yourself with cremation in mind, here's a look at what the process entails. 

1. Choose whether you want a funeral before cremation, or a memorial service after

Your funeral options with cremation are basically the same as they are with burial. You can have a traditional funeral service with the body present prior to cremation, even including a visitation.

Or you can choose to have a memorial service after the cremation, remembering your loved one with photos and perhaps an urn with the ashes included. (The ashes don't have to be present in order for you to have a memorial service, though.) You can even hold a graveside service if you choose to have the ashes buried in a cemetery. 

If you're opting for a funeral with the body present prior to cremation, the body can be embalmed if you wish in order to preserve its appearance for services. Cremation is still okay if the body has been embalmed. Another option is to choose refrigeration for more natural preservation of the body. You may be able to rent a casket from the funeral home to use for the services, for a lower price than if you purchased one.

2. Decide whether to embalm before cremating

Whether you have your loved one's body embalmed is simply a matter of personal preference. Embalming is not a requirement prior to cremation, and it's against the law for a funeral director to tell you it is.

If you're planning on having a funeral and visitation with the body displayed prior to cremation, you may want to choose embalming in order to preserve the body's appearance. But if cremation will take place with no viewing, embalming is an unnecessary expense. The body can be preserved until the cremation via refrigeration.

3. Acquire a container for the body during cremation

Generally, a body will be cremated in a container of some kind. You don't have to buy an expensive casket for this purpose. The container can be as simple and inexpensive as an unvarnished pine box or even a cardboard box. These choices are both more affordable and more environmentally friendly than cremating a fancier casket that includes paints and varnishes, polyester fabric and batting, and so on.

If you're planning on having a viewing of the body prior to cremation, you should be able to rent a more attractive casket for this short-term purpose, then have the body transferred to a simpler container for cremation.

4. Choose an urn (or alternative) to hold the ashes 

There are many options for cremation urns. You can buy an urn from your funeral home or from another seller — for instance, there are urn providers that can be found online and they may have the exact thing you want.

You don't have to buy an urn at all, either; one option is to make an urn using whatever crafting skill you have (woodworking, pottery, etc). Or you can buy a container that you think is pretty, whether it's intended to be an urn or not, as long as it's an appropriate size and has a lid. 

In any case, be sure to check with the funeral home to make sure you're making or buying an urn that's big enough to hold your loved one's ashes. A basic rule of thumb you can follow is that an average adult's cremated remains should fit in a container that's roughly the size of a one-gallon paint can.

If you're planning to scatter the ashes, you don't need to buy an urn at all. Either way, whether you are keeping the ashes in an urn you provide, or scattering them after receiving them, the funeral home can give the ashes to you in a cardboard or other simple box, and they can't charge you a fee for choosing not to buy an urn from them.

There are many options for ashes if you prefer not to keep an urn on the mantle but you don't want to scatter them. One option is to bury them at a cemetery, where you can have a headstone you can visit regularly, just like any other grave. You may also want to put them in a columbarium, which is a structure at a cemetery in which ashes are placed.

There are many companies that provide creative memorials made to hold or incorporate ashes, such as jewelry and other keepsakes. Some are as unusual as having ashes pressed into a vinyl record or placed inside useable bullets. Other companies offer ways for ashes to be shot into space or added to a coral reef. (See: 20 Creative Ways to Honor a Loved One's Memory)

If you're planning on inurning the ashes in a columbarium or urn vault, you should check with the cemetery to find out if they have any specific guidelines for types of urns that are permitted in their structures.

5. Choose whether to cremate with clothes and/or jewelry

Typically, a body will be cremated in either the clothes that were chosen for the funeral, or the clothes in which the person died if there's no funeral prior to cremation. But this is up to you, and if there's a special outfit you want your loved one to be cremated in, you can request that. Keep in mind that any clothing on the deceased at the time of cremation will be burned and cannot be salvaged.

While it's usually okay to leave jewelry on a body that will be cremated, the jewelry will be burned and most likely completely destroyed. Instead of having it cremated, you might consider an option like adding the jewelry to the urn that holds your loved one's ashes.

If you do decide you want to have jewelry or another sentimental item cremated along with your loved one, be sure to ask your funeral director if that particular item is safe to be cremated. While most things are, there are items like pacemakers that must be removed as they can be explosive.

6. Determine when the cremation should take place

This depends on where you live, as some states require a waiting period before cremation, and this varies from state to state. In Texas, the law requires a 48-hour wait, while in Illinois, it's 24 hours. Your funeral director can tell you what the law for your state is.

But cremation doesn't have to happen as soon as it's legally possible. If you want to have a funeral and/or viewing with the body present, you can absolutely hold off on cremation until after that is complete.

7. Decide whether the family should be present at the cremation

This is typically up to your personal preference. You don't have to be there for the cremation if you don't want to. Or you can be present just before the body is cremated, to say a final goodbye, and then leave before the actual cremation.

If you do want to be present during the cremation, that may be an option, but keep in mind that it does take several hours. Be sure to make a plan with your funeral director if you wish to be there prior to or during cremation. Some funeral homes have a crematorium on the premises, where cremations take place for the people they're serving. Other funeral homes work with a local crematory operator in another location.

8. Receive your loved one's ashes following cremation

The ashes should be returned to the family within seven to 10 days after the cremation takes place. You can go to the funeral home to pick up the ashes once they're ready, or you may be able to arrange to have them delivered to you in person. Another option is to have them sent by mail — it's legal to ship cremated remains via the U.S. Postal Service, as long as certain guidelines are followed.

If you have bought an urn from the funeral home or provided an urn to them prior to the cremation, the ashes will probably be returned to you in that urn. If you haven't provided an urn, they will probably be in a cardboard box labeled with your loved one's name. They are likely to be in a plastic bag within the box or urn.

Some people are surprised to find that cremated remains don't look like what we think of as ash. They're not a uniform gray powder, like campfire ashes. Instead, you'll see particles of varying sizes, which are mostly fragments of bone. Typically all the fragments will be fairly small and should not be recognizable as individual bones.

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