Since the beginning of civilization, societies have had to find ways to efficiently and respectfully dispose of dead bodies. As this post will cover, cremation has long been a popular choice, even if it seems to be a newer method.
That’s an important point. For many, cremation appears to be an alternative in every sense of the word when compared to such methods as burial. It’s an option, but it’s not a default choice.
(We’ll also cover how that may be a misconception.)
That means there’s a lot that people don’t know about cremation. If you’re interested in this topic, keep reading. The following are just a few of the most interesting, significant, and in some cases, downright bizarre cremation facts worth knowing about.
1. Cremation doesn’t exclude funerals
It’s worth starting off the list with this fact because it highlights the way many of us make assumptions about cremation. Because we often associate burials with funerals, many mistakenly assume that when you cremate someone, you opt out of a traditional funeral service.
This isn’t true. Although some people choose to cremate loved ones without holding large funerals, it’s not at all uncommon for people to hold funerals before or after a cremation.
2. “Ashes” aren’t really ashes
We commonly refer to the remains a family takes home in an urn or scatters after someone’s cremation as “ashes.” Many naturally assume that’s exactly what they are.
This isn’t the case. They only resemble ashes. The remains are actually ground-up bones of the deceased.
Taking a deeper dive into cremation facts like this one can also give you a better appreciation for the very nature of the cremation process. For example, cremation isn’t simply a matter of burning a body until nothing is left but dust. Crematoriums leverage extremely high temperatures to burn away all tissues of a body thoroughly.
When someone’s cremation is over, nothing should remain but bones. Crematorium workers will then use powerful grinding machines to break these bones down before giving them to the deceased’s loved ones.
3. It’s replacing burials
Across many nations and world countries, it’s been a default assumption for quite some time that, even if cremation is an option, burial is the traditional “go-to” means of disposing of a dead body.
That’s changing. Cremation is fast becoming increasingly popular. In fact, 2015 was the first year in which Americans opted for cremation at a higher rate than burial.
There are many potential explanations for this trend. Rising funeral costs is one. All other factors being equal, burial tends to be more expensive than cremation.
Shifts in regards to what religions allow cremation may also explain why people are becoming more comfortable with this option. For example, because traditional Catholic beliefs hold that the body is sacred and not just an impermanent vessel for the soul, Catholic teachings have long stated that cremation is improper.
However, over the past few decades, the Vatican has become more lenient on the topic. This has made Catholics feel more comfortable cremating deceased loved ones.
An increased focus on sustainability might be another factor. Due to the fact that cremation uses fewer resources than burial in the long run, it may be the more eco-friendly method.
4. It’s extremely old
The fact that some consider the rise of cremation to be a new phenomenon is somewhat ironic when you consider how old cremation actually is.
Although exact methods for how cremation works have changed dramatically over time, cremation being a fairly widespread method of body disposal in the Western world dates back to 1,000 BCE. Other cultures may have been cremating bodies in some capacity for thousands of years before that as well.
You can read the history of cremation for more.
5. Cremation temperatures are very high
You likely understand that temperatures need to be fairly high in cremation chambers for them to completely destroy bodies. You may not realize how high.
To ensure a body fully disintegrates, temperatures of between 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit to 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit are required. Despite this, the cremation process doesn’t immediately incinerate a body. The full process can take hours.
Join Cake's monthly newsletter.
Learn all you need to know about end-of-life.
6. Japan leads the world in cremations by a wide margin
Research indicates the rate of cremation in Japan may be as high as 99.9%. No other country in the world cremates their dead at a rate as high as Japan’s.
The popularity of cremation in Japan essentially comes down to practical realities. Although it wasn’t too long ago that cremation was still the subject of a legal, religious, and cultural debate in Japan, over time, cremation became vastly more common than burial due to Japan not having enough space to accommodate the bodies of the dead.
7. Cremains have been in space
Although in some instances laws don’t allow for burying or scattering cremains in certain areas (usually due to environmental concerns), people still have many options from which to choose when deciding what to do with a deceased person’s cremains.
In fact, after the passing of James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty on the original “Star Trek,” a rocket carried his cremains into space. The rocket also carried the cremains of astronaut Gordon Cooper and hundreds of others.
Eugene Merle Shoemaker is another figure whose cremains have been to space. To honor the planetary geologist who discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, NASA sent a portion of his cremains to the moon, where they remain to this day.
8. You can do some interesting things with cremains
Storing cremains in a traditional urn or scattering them are by no means the only options you have when you bring a loved one’s cremains home.
Contrary to what some believe, unless local laws forbid it, you can choose to bury cremains.
If you're looking for something very unique (think a game, their motorcycle, or instrument of choice), you can custom order an urn from a store like Foreverence. Some companies, like Eterneva, also have the tools to turn cremains into diamonds.
If turning a loved one’s cremains into a diamond is too costly for your budget, you can instead buy small urns to wear as jewelry. One company (with the wonderfully appropriate name Holy Smokes) will even load cremated remains into shotgun shells.
Another affordable option is transforming your loved one's ashes into stones you can hold in your hand and keep forever with Parting Stone.
9. Cremation isn't just for humans
It may be a simple point, but many people don’t stop to consider that cremation isn’t just for people. Pet cremation is also a relatively popular means of disposing of a pet’s body. As with human cremains, you can store a pet’s cremains in an urn on your property, turn them into diamonds, and much more.
10. That urban legend about Disneyland and cremains is true
What was up until recently just an urban legend is, it turns out, a very disturbing (or, depending on how you look at it, amusing) fact.
For years, legend had it that when certain special members of the custodial staff at Disneyland received a message with the code words “HEPA Cleanup,” that meant one thing: someone had scattered a loved one’s cremains in the park.
A Wall Street Journal report confirmed the rumors in 2018. Apparently, people have scattered cremains of deceased Disney obsessives all over the park, including on rides. It’s perhaps appropriate that The Haunted Mansion ride appears to be the most popular spot for depositing cremains.
Don’t get any ideas if you’re trying to figure out what to do with the cremains of a loved one who was also a big Disney fan! Disney has strict rules against this behavior. If they catch you doing it, they’ll escort you off the property. Disney also has a long history of permanently banning guests who violate certain rules.
11. Certain items can’t be cremated
A crematorium’s staff has to confirm that certain items aren’t in a person’s body before cremating them.
For example, if a person relied on a pacemaker, the crematorium staff will remove it first before the cremation. If they don’t, the heat may cause the batteries in the pacemaker to explode, which could damage the facility.
12. Celebrities have done some interesting things with ashes
Many people have unique ideas when choosing what to do with a loved one’s cremains, or when specifying what they’d like others to do with their own cremains after they pass.
However, most of the interesting examples we know of come from celebrities, given that we naturally know more about their deaths than those of people we’ve never met or heard of.
For example, when gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson died, his friends and family honored his unique life and personality with a ceremony that involved blasting his cremains into the sky in the form of fireworks.
Even stranger may be the confession on the part of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who stated in an interview that he once snorted his father’s cremains and insisted the man would not have cared. Richards may have been joking, but he’s stuck by the story for years. Members of the Outlawz have also confirmed that they smoked Tupac Shakur’s ashes. (Note: Don’t do this!)
Cremation Facts: Full of Surprises
These certainly aren’t all the fascinating cremation facts worth learning about. These examples merely remind us that cremation is in many ways vastly different from other body disposal methods, and yet in other ways, very similar.
- “Ashes of Hunter S. Thompson blown into sky.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 21 August 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/world/americas/ashes-of-hunter-s-thompson-blown-into-sky.html#:~:text=Thompson%20blown%20into%20sky,-Aug.&text=WOODY%20CREEK%2C%20Colorado%20%E2%80%94%20With%20a,founder%20of%20%22gonzo%20journalism.%22
- “Ashes of "Star Trek"s Scotty found after space ride.” Reuters, Reuters, 18 May 2007, www.reuters.com/article/us-scotty/ashes-of-star-treks-scotty-found-after-space-ride-idUSN1823270020070518
- “Cremation.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/cremation
- “How Is A Body Cremated?” Cremation Resource, Cremation Resource, www.cremationresource.org/cremation/how-is-a-body-cremated.html
- Lamotte, Sandee. “Cremation has replaced traditional burials in popularity in America and people are getting creative with those ashes.” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 January 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/01/22/health/cremation-trends-wellness/index.html
- “Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker.” NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 6 January 1998, www2.jpl.nasa.gov/sl9/news82.html#:~:text=Tonight%2C%20the%20ashes%20of%20Eugene,mounted%20deep%20inside%20the%20spacecraft.
- Rao, Mallika. “Outlawz Confirm They Smoked Tupac’s Ashes. So How Bad Was It For Them?” The Huffington Post, Verizon Media, 30 August 2011, www.huffpost.com/entry/outlawz-confirm-they-smoked-tupacs-ashes_n_942106
- “Rolling Stone Richards "snorted father's ashes".” Reuters, Reuters, 3 April 2007, www.reuters.com/article/us-richards/rolling-stone-richards-snorted-fathers-ashes-idUSKUA38219920070403
- Sorrel, Charlie. “‘Holy Smokes’ Loads Cremation Ashes Into Shotgun Shells.” Wired, Advance Publications, 14 October 2011, www.wired.com/2011/10/holy-smokes-loads-cremation-ashes-into-shotgun-shells/
- Starr, Michelle. “A Really Creepy Myth About Disneyland Just Got Confirmed to Be True.” Science Alert, ScienceAlert Pty Ltd, 30 October 2018, www.sciencealert.com/disneyland-bereaved-death-scattering-cremains-hepa-cleanup-environment