Whether you’ve already picked up a loved one’s cremains or you’re preparing for that day, you might be wondering what to expect. You might have noticed, or you might have heard, that cremated ashes can appear different in color from person to person. But why would that be?
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Below, you’ll discover whether cremated ashes can really appear different in color and consistency. You’ll also read about why that might occur and how the science of cremation can affect your remains.
Tip: If you're looking for something very unique to hold a loved one's ashes (think a game, their motorcycle, or instrument of choice), you can custom order an urn from a store like Foreverence. You submit a design idea or sketch, then the company designs and 3D prints your urn, so you get a 100% unique container.
Are Cremated Ashes Actually Different Colors?
Yes, cremated ashes range in color from light gray or pasty white to dark gray or gray-brown.
If you receive cremains of any color within the gray-to-beige color range, you can rest assured that everything is as it should be. If you receive cremains outside of this normal range, you might want to ask your cremation service why that is.
Aside from their color, cremated ashes also vary in other aspects, including their weight and coarseness. The average weight of cremated ashes for a human is about five pounds, but you might receive more or less depending on your loved one’s age and height.
The texture of cremains is typically uniform but coarse, like sand on the beach. And just like sand, cremated ashes can be slightly coarser or finer.
What Causes Ashes to Turn Different Colors?
We’re all made up of the same basic skeletal structure, so why would cremated ashes range in color?
The cremation process
First, it’s essential to understand how cremation works. Here’s a quick review:
- The funeral home places your loved one’s remains in a cremation casket or container, which must consist only of wood, wicker, or other fully-combustible materials (no metal or plastic).
- The cremation technician places the remains in a special crematorium unit called a retort, where it’s exposed to direct flames at temperatures of up to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three hours.
- After cremation in the retort, the body isn’t yet reduced to ashes. Instead, there remains a mixture of dust, bone fragments, and metal debris, such as dental implants. The crematorium staff first removes the metal debris and then gathers up the dust and bone fragments.
- The bone fragments are ground into a uniform “ash” consistency.
- Finally, the “ashes” are transferred to an urn or container and given to the family.
In the above breakdown of cremation, you might have noticed the word “ashes” in quotation marks. That’s because cremated remains aren’t entirely ashes. They might appear that way, but most of the content of cremains is the result of the grinding that takes place after cremation in the retort.
This is important when it comes to the color of ashes because many people assume that “ash” is always dark grey or even black. But when we’re talking about remains, we’re mainly talking about processed bone fragments.
Light vs. dark ashes
The critical difference in color between different cremains is between light and dark. Some ashes might be pearly white, while others are a dark, dusty gray. Now that we’ve gone over the cremation process and what ashes are made of, we can look at why that is.
First, the color of cremated remains depends on the chemical components present in every human body.
The human body is made up mainly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It also contains calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium, and other trace elements.
Some elements, like oxygen and hydrogen (which together form water), are found mainly in the organs and the blood. Others, like calcium and phosphorous, are primarily found in the bones.
The composition of cremains is mainly calcium and phosphorous. That’s because most of those other elements “boil away” as the body reaches high temps during cremation.
The bones become brittle and easy to grind down into “ashes” once the chemical bonds within them are weakened. Most importantly, phosphorous and calcium change color, from light to dark, and back to light, based on temperature. This process is explained more in detail below.
As mentioned above, an ideal cremation temperature is upwards of 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the body approaches that scorching temp, it goes through several changes:
- At approximately 572 degrees, the organic components in bone begin to carbonize, turning black or dusty brown.
- As the temperature reaches around 1400 degrees, the bones become darker black.
- At more than 1472 degrees, the calcium and phosphorus in the bones changes to light gray or white (depending on how long they remain at that temperature.
But if cremation technicians use the same temperatures for everyone, why do some cremains come out lighter or darker than others? In short, it’s because the temperature of a cremation retort depends on the size of the person inside.
A larger individual with a higher body-to-bone ratio will often have darker ashes than a thin individual with dense bones. The retort’s temperature fluctuates based on how large the individual is inside, and people with more adipose tissue (fat) or muscle require higher temperatures and more time in the retort to achieve the same results.
Cremation technicians often raise the temperature of the retort and give the body more time accordingly. But sometimes, the bone fragments still don’t reach the required temperature, for the required period of time, to achieve a lighter white color.
Alkaline hydrolysis (flameless cremation) ashes
Another factor that greatly affects the color of your loved one’s ashes is whether you chose standard cremation (as discussed above) or flameless cremation.
Flameless cremation is growing in popularity as an alternative, “green” method of final disposition. However, most cremation processes still involve high temperatures and a cremation retort.
If you choose alkaline hydrolysis cremation, the bone fragments and remains don’t go through the same chemical changes described above.
Rather than changing from light to dark and back to the light, the remains stay very close in color to their original shade. The remains you get back are typically white to creamy tan.
Does Cremation Ash Color Matter?
You might be wondering, does it matter whether my loved one’s ashes are light in color or dark? The good news is that no, the color of your loved one’s ashes doesn’t really matter. That is, it doesn’t affect how your cremation service treated your loved one throughout the cremation process.
Even if you were expecting white ashes and received dark gray ones, they still consist of the same cremains either way. And both light and dark ashes are equally safe to scatter or do whatever you have planned. You can even have a memorial diamond created from ashes with a company like Eterneva or turn your loved one's ashes into natural stones with Parting Stone.
- “10 Things You Don’t Know About Cremains: Our Experts Explain.” Cremation Institute. cremationinstitute.com/cremains-what-are-they/#:~:text=What%20do%20cremated%20remains%20look%20like%3F&text=They%20typically%20have%20a%20relatively,can%20be%20gray%20at%20times.
- Rubin, Gail. “The Composition of Human Cremated Remains.” A Good Goodbye. 10 June 2015. agoodgoodbye.com/guest-blog-posts/the-composition-of-human-cremated-remains/