The practice of cremation has become as common as “traditional” burial in the United States. In fact, today, more than half of Americans choose cremation. By 2035, the National Funeral Directors Association estimates this figure will top 78 percent.
This rise in cremation procedures is a result of factors such as:
The following article will cover the process of cremation and provide considerations that can help you decide if it’s the right choice for you and your family.
Depending on your location and the services performed, cremation can range from $1,000 – $3,000 on the low end of the spectrum but can cost as much as $6,000 – $8,000. Having a traditional service beforehand can significantly increase your costs, particularly if there is a viewing or if a casket is needed.
Identification regulations vary from state to state. The individual facility defines its specific procedures based on industry recommendations, but identification typically involves a family member confirming the identity. Upon confirmation, a metal ID tag is placed on the body, which will remain throughout the process and then be put with the remains for final verification.
The crematory must have official permission to move forward with the cremation. Most require that the person(s) making the final arrangements completes paperwork that authorizes the crematory to proceed. (Remember that each state has its own rules about who is legally allowed to make these decisions.) The paperwork also asks for information regarding the type of container the crematory should use and who will be responsible for picking up the remains.
Preparing the body is something the individual facility can handle in its own way but usually involves cleaning and dressing. For typical cremation, the body is not embalmed unless the beneficiaries request this for a public viewing or other personal reason. Jewelry or other items are taken off for the loved ones to keep, except those requested to stay with the body, and medical devices and prosthetics that are mechanical or battery-operated are removed to avoid a reaction. Finally, the body is placed in a vessel that is combustible yet strong enough to hold the weight.
The cremation then takes place in a specially designed furnace, referred to as a cremation chamber or retort, and exposed to extreme temperatures – up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit – leaving behind only ashes. Following the procedure, a cooling period is required before the remains can be handled.
After cremation, the remains are inspected for any metal remnants left behind. This can be the result of items such as pins, screws, and joints the deceased had surgically placed during life. Metal is removed by hand or with strong magnets, and then it is often sent for recycling. The cremated remains are then ground down by a special processor into the final resulting ashes.
Unless specified otherwise, the remains are placed in an urn (or another container) and returned to the family.
Cremation is considered more efficient than traditional burials and can be completed in a shorter amount of time following a death. Depending on factors like the size and weight of the body, the type of container holding the body, and the efficiency of the equipment installed, the actual cremation procedure usually takes between 2-3 hours for flame-based processes and up to 16 hours for liquid cremation (see below).
Keep in mind the crematory has its own policies on how long it can take to have the remains ready for the bereaved. Seven to ten days is not an unusual turnaround time, and it all depends on the individual facility’s policies and procedures.
A cremation chamber, also known as a retort, is an industrial furnace designed to hold one body. Lined with fire-resistant bricks, the chamber can withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees. Modern cremation furnaces are automated and computerized, and they are fueled with natural gas, propane, or diesel. They must follow today’s environmental and air quality standards.
A crematorium is usually the term for the facility that houses a cremation chamber or retort. There may be multiple chambers in a crematorium. A crematorium can be a part of a funeral home, a church, or it can be a stand-alone facility. Crematoriums are usually regulated by the state.
Compared with traditional burial, cremation typically does not require embalming, and large burial plots are unnecessary. Cremation is also typically a less expensive arrangement than traditional burial.
There are a couple of different options for cremation.
Direct cremation is a process where the remains are transferred directly to a cremation center without a funeral service beforehand. Because this approach eliminates the need for a funeral service and a casket purchase, it’s often the cheapest type of cremation. Direct cremations typically don’t allow for a viewing, visitation, or wake beforehand. Most families will schedule a memorial service at a later date for friends and family to pay their respects.
The process of alkaline hydrolysis is an alternative to flame cremation. The combination of the water, alkali, heat, and pressure causes a reaction that speeds up decomposition and leaves behind only bone fragments and a sterile liquid. The flameless process results in about 30% more remains than flame-based cremation, which may require a larger vessel. This process may take three to sixteen hours, depending on body mass and equipment. Many medical devices, including pacemakers, do not need to be removed before the process as they do with conventional flame-based cremation.
Alkaline hydrolysis is considered a “green” alternative to burial. Once drained of remaining bone fragments, the resulting sterile solution can be recycled through the wastewater treatment system. Many environmentally conscious individuals are now opting for alkaline hydrolysis instead of the conventional procedure because of its environmental benefits. In addition to the ability to recycle the liquid byproduct, it is a green choice for several important reasons:
The different types of cremation use different technologies to affect the body. In the “traditional” flame-based method, the body is placed into a cremation chamber that reduces the body to bone fragments using flame and heat. Combustion occurs in two stages: Primary combustion burns off tissue, organs, body fat, and some container materials as gases, then secondary combustion continues to work on the remaining inorganic particles, usually from the container. The gases (mostly mainly carbon dioxide and water vapor) discharge, leaving bone fragments to be pulverized into ashes.
For alkaline hydrolysis, the body is placed in a pressurized stainless steel chamber that combines 95% water and 5% alkali and raises the temperature to 350 degrees to speed up the natural process that a body undergoes after burial, which can take up to 25 years. The alkaline breaks up the chemical bonds in the body and converts them into basic chemicals of calcium phosphate from bone fragments and sterile liquid containing tissue remnants such as water, salts, and amino acids. The bone is then processed into ash, and the liquid is disposed into the wastewater system.
While there are special caskets designed for cremation, the container can also be a simple cardboard box. The only requirements are that the container must be combustible, nontoxic, and sturdy enough to hold the weight of the body.
The crematorium will typically place the remains in a sealed, airtight bag or container. This can be placed inside virtually any receptacle. Just be sure to follow local burial regulations if you plan to bury the remains in the receptacle.
The procedure allows for more personalized storage than a traditional burial. Cremated remains can be moved easily, so if the deceased’s family relocates, the deceased can also be relocated. Some choices include:
Cremated remains consist mostly of bone fragments, along with any residue left from the container or other associated results of the incineration.
Depending on the size of the body and the specific process used by the crematory, there are usually 3 to 9 pounds of remains.
If a body is burned at a low enough temperature and quickly after death, movements are possible. Because of the efficiency of modern cremation chambers, however, the body immediately begins its dissolution, and movement is unlikely.
Most crematories allow the bereaved the option of dressing their loved one prior to cremation (or having a funeral professional dress the body), although clothing choices must be completely combustible. This is especially the case when there is a viewing or other ceremony prior to cremation. For direct cremation with no viewing, the body is usually cremated in either a sheet or the clothing the deceased was wearing upon arrival.
Yes, the coffin (or whatever type of container selected to hold the body) is burned along with the body.
No, all cremations are performed individually. In the United States, multiple-body cremation is illegal.
The views on cremation are as varied as the religions themselves. For many years, Christianity was opposed to cremation, although the past century has seen a greater acceptance of the practice. Even within Christianity, though, the practice is met with vastly different opinion: The Eastern Orthodox Church forbids cremation outright, while the American Episcopal Church has incorporated columbaria (public displays of cremation urns) into many parishes. Likewise, Orthodox Judaism remains opposed to cremation, while Reform Judaism has begun to allow it. Muslims are expressly forbidden from having themselves cremated or even participating in another’s cremation, while in contrast, Hinduism seems to encourage the practice.
Although cremations are less costly than traditional burials, they still come with significant costs. If you are considering cremation for yourself or a loved one, it’s important to think about how you’ll pay for the procedure. One solution is Final Expense Insurance – also called burial insurance or funeral insurance. It’s specifically designed to help cover end-of-life expenses, like funeral and cremation costs.
If you’re still unsure about whether cremation is right for you, we’ve put together an article that compares the features of cremations and burials. You’ll be able to compare the costs, procedures, and various benefits of each type of service below.