Cremation is a popular type of final disposition for a variety of reasons. It costs less than a burial, and it’s simpler in many ways. And if you want to be more involved in the process, you can even witness a loved one’s cremation.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens When Family or Friends Watch a Cremation?
- Why Do People Want to Watch the Cremation Process?
- How (and Who) Do You Ask If You Want to Witness a Cremation?
Not all crematories and funeral homes offer cremation witnessing, but most of them do. In this article, we’ll go over some of the basics of what happens when you watch a cremation. We’ll also talk about why people choose to witness cremations, as well as who you should ask about witnessing a loved one’s cremation.
What Happens When Family or Friends Watch a Cremation?
If you’re considering whether or not you should witness a cremation, or you want your family to witness your cremation, it’s a good idea to understand how the process works. Here’s a step-by-step outline of what you can expect when you witness a cremation.
Learning about cremation
When you request a cremation viewing, the cremation director (or funeral director, if you’re working with a funeral home) should walk you through how cremation works.
After all, it’s the process you’ll be witnessing (in part) if you attend a cremation viewing. It’s important that, during the process, you have an understanding of exactly what’s going on and why.
Holding a memorial
Before witnessing the cremation, the family often holds a small, intimate memorial service. It can take place anywhere, including a nearby chapel, an outdoor space, or in the cremation viewing room itself.
A funeral director can lead a simple service, or you can invite a religious leader to help. Family and friends and take this opportunity to share eulogies and readings to commemorate the deceased.
Tip: Read our guide on cremation ceremony ideas so you can hold a personalized ceremony.
Decorating the casket
Sometimes, family members decorate the casket with drawings, notes, and signatures before the cremation takes place.
It’s important to ask the cremation director beforehand if this is something you’re interested in doing; they might not allow it, or they might have a list of acceptable materials.
Entering the viewing area
Most cremation facilities and funeral homes have viewing areas where the witnesses can sit or stand. This cremation area is often separated from the actual cremation room by a pane of glass.
Cremation viewing rooms are typically comfortable and pleasantly decorated, similar to a funeral home, to help guests feel at ease.
Placing the body in the retort
Once the witnesses are in the viewing area and ready to begin, they let the cremation operator know. The operator then takes the casket or cremation container, which contains the body, and loads it into the retort.
What is a cremation retort? The retort is the chamber of the machine, which heats up to the high temperatures necessary for cremation.
A retort or crematory is a concrete chamber, often lined with stainless steel on the exterior, with a square door that opens in the front. A retort looks similar to a large, long oven.
Closing and sealing the machine
Once the body in its casket is loaded into the retort, the door of the machine is closed and sealed. Some contemporary crematories have a button located in or near the viewing area to close the retort.
A family member can press the button to seal the machine, which can help the family feel more involved in the process.
Starting the cremation
When the retort is closed and sealed, it’s finally time for the cremation process to begin. But from the witness’ point of view, things will look much the same.
“Cremation witnessing” is actually a misnomer; you don’t see the body being physically cremated within the retort. Instead, witnesses see the body going into the retort, and they see the cremation operator starting the machine.
Completing the process
The incineration process usually takes more than four hours. And more time is required for the remains to be processed after coming out of the retort.
As a witness to the cremation, you most likely won’t stay for that entire time. In fact, most crematories don’t allow witnesses to stick around through the duration.
Once the machine starts running, you’ll have some time for quiet contemplation and closing words. Then, the director will gently escort all of the witnesses out of the viewing area and into the lobby.
Receiving the ashes
Some crematories return cremains within the same day. Most often, however, it takes several days to receive the cremated ashes. You’ll return to the cremation facility to pick up your loved one’s ashes.
If you bring an urn, the crematory staff can inurn the ashes for you while you wait. It usually takes just a few minutes. Otherwise, they’ll give the ashes to you in a plastic bag within a temporary urn or box. You can then scatter the ashes or place them in an urn yourself later on.
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. Another unique option is solidifying your loved one's ashes into stones you can hold in your hand, with Parting Stone.
Why Do People Want to Watch the Cremation Process?
Many people picture the cremation process as sterile and industrial. They picture it taking place in a cold environment like a hospital or morgue, which isn’t ideal for final goodbyes.
But cremation’s bad rep is rapidly changing as it becomes more popular in the US. More and more, people want to understand cremation and be part of the process. And sometimes, that includes witnessing the cremation themselves.
There are several reasons why people choose to witness a cremation, including the reasons below.
A last goodbye
With burials, it’s common for family members and friends to watch a loved one’s casket as it’s lowered into the ground. They may even throw handfuls of dirt on top to begin the grave-closing.
Witnessing the burial in this way lets family members lay their loved one to rest. It gives them a chance to say a final goodbye. For many people, witnessing the cremation serves the same purpose.
Another reason people choose to witness a cremation is to make sure the staff is adhering to best practices.
Cremation operators take precautions to make sure they correctly identify each body and each set of remains throughout the entire process. Most cremation facilities use steel toe-tags, which can withstand the cremation process and include the deceased’s vital information.
But many people have heard about cremation facilities that didn’t follow these standard procedures and ended up mistreating the deceased or mixing up remains. Witnessing the cremation can help a family rest assured that their loved one was treated with dignity and respect and that they’re receiving the correct ashes.
Religious beliefs and requirements.
Finally, some religions, such as Hinduism, require cremations to be witnessed by family and relatives.
How (and Who) Do You Ask If You Want to Witness a Cremation?
If you want to witness a cremation, here’s who you should ask and how.
Your funeral director
If you’re working with a funeral home, which is usually the case, ask the funeral director about cremation witnessing.
Usually, funeral homes contract with local cremation facilities. But sometimes, funeral homes have their own crematories on-site. Either way, the funeral director will be able to tell you whether or not you’ll be able to witness the cremation.
If it’s essential or very important to you to witness the cremation, ask if you can have your loved one’s body transferred to a cremation facility that offers the service. You might have to pay an additional fee for transportation, but it may be worth the added cost.
The cremation director
If your loved one’s body has already arrived at the cremation facility, call the cremation director directly and ask whether or not you can witness the cremation.
They might have an established cremation witness service and a viewing room, or they might not. Even if they don’t, you might be able to witness the start of the cremation anyway. The key is to ask, and to explain that it’s important to you to be present, if only for a moment.
Fees for cremation witnessing
Some cremation facilities and funeral homes charge a fee for cremation witnessing.
This covers the cost of using their facilities, such as a viewing room, as well as possibly the services of a funeral director for a service. The fee to witness a cremation is usually minimal.
What to Do Before and After Your Witness a Cremation
Witnessing a cremation can be an immensely emotional and meaningful event. Before the cremation and after, you might want to spend some quality time connecting with family and friends.
A family often holds a small, intimate memorial service immediately before witnessing the cremation. And afterward, you could hold an inurnment ceremony, where you place the ashes inside a cremains container, hold an ash scattering ceremony, or you could make a memorial diamond with a company like Eterneva.
Whatever you choose to do with a loved one’s ashes, you don’t have to do it right away. But holding a memorial beforehand and a reception after witnessing a cremation can help you pay respects to the departed and find support during a trying time.
If you're looking for more on cremation, read our guides on urns for ashes and how to hold a cremation ceremony.
- Braatz, Heather. “Can I get a witness (cremation)?” Cremation Association of North America. 13 July 2020. https://www.cremationassociation.org/blogpost/776820/352072/Can-I-Get-a-Witness-Cremation