How Cremation Works

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Guest post by Jasmine Tanguay
Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant

Have questions about cremation? It has become an increasingly popular option across North America in recent decades, and it’s poised to become even more so (with additional technologies entering the mix). Interested in whether it might be the right path for you or a loved one? Read on!

What is Cremation?

Cremation is a dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments. Cremation also includes pulverization of the bone fragments into small pieces of cremated remains (more informally called "cremains" or "ashes"). Cremation is an alternative in place of burial or other forms of disposal in funeral practices.

Types of Cremation

  • Flame cremation
    The type of cremation familiar to most of us—and most widely available across the US—uses high temperatures (1400 to 2100 °F) to vaporize and oxidize soft tissue. A casket or box containing the body is placed in an incineration chamber known as a retort. Most of the details provided below refer to this type of cremation, although other technologies have many similarities.

  • Flameless cremation (water-based)
    Recently, an additional method of cremation known as “flameless” or “aqua” cremation has begun to become available in certain US states. Through a process called alkaline hydrolysis, the body is dissolved using alkaline chemicals, heat, agitation, and pressure to accelerate natural decomposition1.  Alkaline hydrolysis is a newer technology—and is currently only available in a few states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada. This process can be seen as a more "green" cremation alternative. If environmental impact is an issue dear to your heart, read more about making greener funeral decisions.

Urn-ing Its Place: Cremation Is Booming

Cremation has recently become the most common means of final disposition in the US. The number of cremations has steadily risen in the last few decades and in 2016 surpassed 50%.  By 2022, the US cremation rate is projected to reach 57.8%.2

There are several compelling reasons why cremation is chosen:

  • It is often less expensive than a traditional burial
  • It allows flexibility in the timing of funeral and memorial services
  • It requires little-to-no space in a cemetery
  • Family can keep ashes for remembrance

Also, our increasingly transient population and recently relaxed religious restrictions on the practice have also fueled growth in the cremation rate.  For those who desire a simpler, less-traditional funeral, cremation is a common choice.

Funeral services vary due to religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and other preferences—yet cremation can be integrated into many kinds of funerals. You can choose as much formality or as little as you want to have, and cremation offers the flexibility to schedule ceremonial elements during times that are meaningful and often more convenient for loved ones.

Some families prefer to have the deceased present at the funeral with cremation to follow, while others prefer that cremation take place prior to the funeral or memorial service. Ceremonies can also take place while interring or scattering ashes.

How to Arrange a Cremation

You can arrange through a funeral home, or in some cases, directly with the crematory. For a fee, funeral homes will make arrangements with the crematory, provide a cremation container, and provide transportation of the body/remains to/from the crematory.

Many states allow families to file a death certificate and obtain permits for transit and disposition without the help of a funeral director. Contact the crematory to confirm that they will accept the body directly from the family, as some crematories will only work through funeral homes.

At some crematories, you may also arrange to witness the cremation itself and/or push the button to ignite the chamber. Increasingly, crematories are recognizing the desire of families to be present at the cremation and are making their facilities more hospitable to the bereaved.

How Much Does Cremation Cost?

On average, cremation costs about 1/3 the price of burial, but costs for cremation vary a great deal. In some states, crematories must be non-profit or publicly owned; elsewhere, crematories can be owned by funeral homes. Flameless cremation appears to be cost-competitive, although in fewer markets.3

Charges for services provided by funeral homes across the US are required to be provided in writing on a General Price List. Transportation and other auxiliary services (such as obtaining a death certificate) are often bundled by the funeral home in a package billed separately from the fees of the crematory, making it hard to compare “apples to apples.”

A 2015 study by the Funeral Consumers Alliance found that more than 20% of funeral homes advertised cremation prices that do not include the crematory’s charges, which can be as much as $500 4 . Be sure that you confirm whether the funeral home’s quoted price includes the fee of the crematory as well.

How Long Is It Between Death and Cremation?

The time between death and cremation is generally at least 48 hours, but can be considerably longer in cases requiring autopsy, investigation, or other unusual circumstances. Before cremation, the deceased must be examined by a Medical Examiner (this is arranged by the funeral home or crematory). Due to the irreversible nature of cremation, a 48-hour waiting period is required in most states.

How Are Bodies Transferred for Cremation?

Most frequently, a funeral home is hired to transport the deceased from the place of death to their funeral home; sometimes they may be taken directly to the crematory. Transport across long distances is typically coordinated between the “sending” and “receiving” funeral homes. In many states, families can transport their own deceased so long as they obtain a transit permit and follow its conditions.

How Is a Body Prepared for Cremation?

Embalming is never required for cremation, although it may be performed in order to facilitate a viewing or if prolonged storage without refrigeration is necessary.  Non-combustible items (e.g., jewelry) and certain medical devices that can be dangerous to incinerate (e.g., pacemakers, dental fillings), are removed before cremation.

Although you are not required to purchase a formal casket for cremation, the body must be enclosed in a rigid, combustible container. Under federal law, all funeral providers must make available an inexpensive cremation container.

Green tip: Environmentally-friendly cardboard coffins are available through some outlets or you can make or furnish your own suitable container instead.

How Long Does Cremation Take?

The process usually takes 90 minutes to two hours, depending on body size. During the cremation process, organs and other soft tissues are vaporized and oxidized by the intense heat (1400 to 2100 °F). The gases released are discharged through the exhaust system

Green tip: Crematories vary in their level of emissions control, so choosing one with newer technology can reduce pollution.  

How Are Cremated Remains Returned to You?

After the cremation is complete, they are transferred to a strong plastic bag and placed in either an urn or temporary container labeled with identifying paperwork. If an urn has not been selected and you can transfer them to an urn at a later date if you wish. Some funeral homes will urge you to purchase a decorative urn, but you can simply use the container in which the ashes are returned from the crematory for burial, shipping, storing, or placing in a columbarium (a room or building with niches for urns to be stored).

The cremated remains are comprised of three to nine pounds of processed bone fragments. If they need to be transported, you can mail them in a secure and padded container or carry them on a plane in a non-metal box with the official documents attached.3

Things to Do With Cremated Remains

Traditionally, ashes have been buried, scattered, or kept by the family. Some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, require their burial or entombment. Cremation plots, columbarium niches, and shared burial plots allow for less expensive and more space-efficient options while still allowing a stone marker, for example.

But you do have a wide range of choices, and they seem to expand every day. And perhaps you don't have to choose only one: dividing ashes for different loved ones or for different purposes is common. Perhaps there's a meaningful site where you’d like to scatter the ashes. If you think an urn is the right path,  check out this guide to choosing an urn.

Other modern options include incorporating the ashes in jewelry, bullets, space rockets, coral reefs, or fireworks—even tattoo ink or paint for remembrance portraits.

Ensure Your Funeral Wishes Are Documented and Shared

If cremation is part of your wishes, be sure that your loved ones know specifically what you envision for your final disposition. Whether you’d like to return to a special place, become part of a beautiful memento, or have a permanent marker in a cemetery, your cremated remains can serve as a lasting remembrance of a life well lived.

Cake is a great way to explore and document simple or detailed plans—including wishes for what you might like done with your cremated remains. The options are limitless—but life is not, so update or create your free Cake account today!


Author Bio

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Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant
Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death, and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.


Sources

  1. Bromwich, Jonah Engel.  “An Alternative to Burial and Cremation Gains Popularity.” The New York Times. October 19, 2017.
  2. CANA Annual Statistics ReportCremation Association of North America, 2018.
  3. Cremation Explained” Funeral Consumers Alliance. December 2014.
  4. Slocum, Joshua, and Stephen Brobeck. “Cremation Services: Highly Variable and Misleading Pricing, Lack of Disclosure, and Violation of Federal Rules Report.” Funeral Consumers Alliance and Consumer Federation of America, September 2016.