Despite the clear preference for cremation in recent years (the US cremation rate topped 50% in 2016), many people still don’t know how the cremation process works. There are various myths floating around about cremation and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction in order to get a true understanding of the process.
The Cremation Process
The cremation process reduces human remains into bone fragments through the use of flame and heat (there is a water-based type of cremation known as alkaline hydrolysis, but flame-based cremation is the most popular method in current use). If you are contemplating this important end-of-life decision, here is a general overview of what you need to know about how cremation works.
- A cremation service is often held before the actual cremation takes place. This memorial service allows family and friends of the deceased to come together to honor and celebrate their loved one and say a final goodbye. The funeral director can plan the cremation ceremony and make the necessary arrangements to have the body present depending on the family’s wishes.
- The body is placed in a cremation casket made out of simple materials such as cardboard, plywood, or particle board which burn easily. However, some crematories do accept traditional wood caskets as long as they are combustible and non-toxic.
- Pacemakers, prosthetics and other implants are removed for safety purposes since they can explode and damage the cremation machine or injure personnel. Jewelry, watches, and other personal items are also removed although sometimes the family may request for these items to be cremated with the body.
- The body is tagged to identify the remains and maintain the chain of custody throughout the cremation process.
- There are two chambers in a cremation machine. The cremation container is placed into the primary chamber of the crematory and the cremation process begins with the touch of a button. The family can witness the process if they like, and some funeral homes and crematories have viewing rooms specially designed for this purpose. In some cases, a family member may even be allowed to initiate the cremation.
- Temperatures in the primary chamber range from 1,800 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit which facilitates the body’s combustion process. It takes approximately 1-2 hours for the tissues, organs, and bones to burn off as gases leaving 3-5 pounds of cremated remains (bone fragments and some ash).
- The gases and particulates go into the second chamber where they undergo more heat. This helps reduce total smoke and emission levels before eventual release into the atmosphere.
- The cremated remains are carefully swept out of the cremation machine and placed on a cooling tray. A magnet is then run over the remains to pick up any remaining pieces of metal that survived the heat, e.g., dental fillings, metallic implants, etc. These metal remnants can be recycled.
- The bone fragments are further crushed and ground in a Cremulator until they are approximately less than 1/8 inch in size. The final cremated remains, which are often called cremated ashes, are grayish-white in color and have a coarse texture that resembles sand.
- Lastly, the cremated ashes (along with the identification tag) are placed into a box or urn and returned to the family for final disposition.
As cremation continues to grow in popularity, so will the general public’s understanding of how the cremation process works. Ask your local funeral service provider for assistance in planning a cremation ceremony and organizing the cremation process. Different states have different requirements when it comes to cremation and funeral directors can help you navigate the cremation laws in your area.
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