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The Cremation Process: How Cremation Works

by Linnea Crowther

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.

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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. 

Cremating the human body 

Before a body can be cremated, a few preparations must take place. The body doesn’t need to be embalmed before cremation, though it can be. Pacemakers, prostheses, and silicone implants are removed before cremation. So are any radioactive isotopes that may have been implanted in the body as part of cancer treatment. The body is placed in a container, such as a casket or box.  

The cremation chamber, also known as a retort, is prepared by heating it to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit – though it can get up to 2,000 degrees during the cremation process. The container with the body is placed on a device from which it can be rolled into the retort. Typically, only one body can be cremated at a time, and most retorts are just large enough for one body, lined with heat-retaining fiber bricks. Modern cremation chambers tend to be powered by natural gas, propane, or diesel. 

The process of cremation 

Cremation of a human body typically takes two to three hours to complete. During this time, the liquid in the body turns to vapor before the remaining tissue and bones burn. It takes longest for bones to be cremated. After cremation is complete, the retort is cooled and the remains are removed.  

The bones generally won’t have completely burned, and they may still retain the shape of the skeleton. Before being returned to the family, the remains are crushed in a device called a cremulator, which reduces them to ash and small bone fragments. Any metal fragments, like dental fillings and surgical plates, will be removed with a magnet before the remains are put through the cremulator. Most adult human cremations will produce three to nine pounds of ash. Finally, the remains are placed in an urn and returned to the family. 

What to do with the ashes 

Cremation offers many options for final disposition of the body, allowing for traditional solutions or creative memorials. Some people choose to keep the ashes at home in a decorative urn, placing them on the mantle or another prominent location. Others bury the ashes in a cemetery or place them in a cemetery’s columbarium, a building intended to house many people’s ashes in urns. Ashes can be scattered in a special place, or divided and scattered in a number of places.  

There’s a growing industry around memorials incorporating ashes, ranging from sentimental keepsakes to flashy sendoffs. Ashes can be swirled into a blown-glass objet d’art, stored in a locket, or mixed into tattoo ink. They can be mixed with concrete and formed into an artificial coral reef that’s lowered into the ocean, or placed in fireworks that light up the night. Some people have even had their ashes sent to outer space. 

Is cremation right for me? 

Though cremation is now slightly more popular in the U.S. than traditional burial, it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone. But there are several reasons that might lead you to choose cremation for yourself or a loved one. One is money. Cremation tends to be substantially less expensive that traditional burial, and it may save you or your family thousands of dollars over the alternatives. Cremation is also more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, and it’s a space-saving alternative that’s attractive in areas where space for cemeteries is at a premium. 

The main arguments against cremation are religious and aesthetic ones. Though most religions do permit cremation, some don’t, such as Islam and Orthodox Judaism. If it’s against your religion and you’re a devout believer, then cremation is not the right choice for you. Some people also feel an aversion to the idea of being burned after death, and would prefer their body remain intact and be buried. And others prefer the traditional ceremonies surrounding an open-casket viewing, funeral, and burial of the body in the ground. 

History of cremation 

Though cremation has only recently become popular in the U.S., it’s far from a new practice around the world. Ancient societies burned the bodies of their dead – some evidence points to cremation in Chinese culture as far back as 8,000 B.C. We might be most familiar with the Viking funeral, in which a warrior was burned on a boat set adrift, and ancient Romans, Greeks, and Buddhists across certain parts of Asia also sometimes practiced cremation. 

As Christianity arose in Europe, cremation became generally frowned upon, but it came back in modern times with the invention of the first modern cremation chambers in the 19th century. They were touted as hygienic alternatives to burial. Though modern cremation was introduced in the U.S. as far back as 1873, it was slow to catch on. As late as the 1970s, only about five percent of Americans chose cremation, and it wasn’t until the 21st century that it became a common choice. 

Cremation and religion 

The world’s religions don’t agree on cremation. Some forbid it, while others use it as their primary method of body disposition. And some religions fall somewhere in between, allowing cremation but not requiring it. Most Christian denominations are the latter. Cremation was forbidden by Roman Catholicism until the 1960s, but now it’s permitted. Protestant denominations have generally allowed and even encouraged cremation for longer, while the LDS Church frowns on cremation but allows it when it’s culturally appropriate. 

In the Hindu faith, cremation is the standard, required by religious law as the way to usher the soul into its next life. Other eastern religions, including Jainism and Sikhism, are also proponents of cremation, though they don’t require it like Hinduism does. However, in Islam and Orthodox Judaism, cremation is forbidden by religious law. Less strict Jewish congregations have no prohibition against cremation, though as with Christianity, it’s not always the popular choice.

Questions About the Cremation Process Answered

1. Should I have 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. Is it normal to embalm before cremation?

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. What kind of container should I use for 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. How do I choose an urn for cremation?

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. 

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.

4. What happens to clothes and/or jewelry during cremation?

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.

5. When should cremation 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.

6. Should family 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.

7. How are the ashes returned to loved ones?

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.


Learn whether funeral pre-planning could help protect your family


 

More on Cremation

How Much Does Cremation Cost?
Cremation Memorials
Choosing Burial or Cremation
Arranging the Interment of Ashes

 

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