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What is Cremation?

The cremation process explained to help you determine if it's right for you

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Updated December 30, 2012

A sailor scattering cremated remains at sea

Cremated remains are often scattered at sea.

Photo © U.S. Navy by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau.

Cremation involves the use of intense heat and flame to reduce a dead body, whether human or animal, to bone fragments. Due to the rise of new methods of bodily disposal, such as alkaline hydrolysis or promession, however, the Cremation Association of North America has suggested a slightly broader definition: "The mechanical and/or thermal or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments."

Regardless, this article focuses specifically on flame-based cremation in order to help you determine if this method of final disposition is right for you or someone you love.

The Process
It is important to understand that cremation is neither an alternative to nor a rejection of a "traditional funeral" -- i.e., the casketed interment above or below ground of a deceased human following a visitation/wake and/or a religious or secular ceremony. Instead, cremation is merely one form of bodily disposition from which you can choose. In other words, if you select cremation for yourself or someone you love, you can still hold a wake/visitation and/or a religious or secular ceremony beforehand if you wish.

Thus, once the ceremonial/service options you have selected have concluded and the time arrives for the final disposition of the remains, the body is placed into a cremation chamber, also known as a cremator or retort -- an industrial furnace specifically designed and manufactured to reduce a corpse to bone fragments. A modern retort is typically fueled by propane or natural gas and can obtain temperatures of 870 – 980 °C (1600 – 1800 °F).

The purchase of a casket is not required in order to cremate an individual. (Please read "What is the Funeral Rule?" for greater detail on your rights as a consumer when purchasing funeral goods and/or services.) In the United States and elsewhere, you can rent a casket for use during the wake/visitation and/or a religious or secular ceremony. Afterward, the body of your loved one can be transferred to a cremation container -- an inexpensive corrugated-cardboard or wood box designed for this purpose. Crematories often require the use of a cremation container, at minimum, in order to facilitate the dignified handling of the deceased during the cremation process.

A growing number of cremation providers also allow immediate family members or other closed loved ones to watch the cremation itself in the crematory. If you are interested in arranging such a private viewing, speak to the funeral director or cremation provider with whom you are working.

Typically, it takes about 2 – 3 hours to cremate an average-size adult. Crematories perform each service individually, although some providers can accommodate multiple family members at one time, if authorized by the family.

Once the retort sufficiently cools, the crematory operator will sweep the ash and remaining bone fragments into a collection pan and let this material cool further. After using a powerful magnet to extract any metal, such as casket fittings, dental work, etc., the operator will crush or pulverize the material so that it is uniform in texture.

After processing, the "cremains" (industry jargon for "cremated remains") will be placed into the urn you selected during the arrangement process, an urn you purchased elsewhere and provided, or an inexpensive cremation urn made of cardboard or plastic. The purchase of an urn is not required in order to cremate an individual. (Again, please read "What is the Funeral Rule?" to learn more about your rights as a consumer when purchasing funeral goods and/or services.)

Generally, the cremation of an average-size adult results in cremated remains weighing 2.27 – 3.63 kilograms (5 – 8 pounds). These cremated remains generally require an urn that can hold up to 3,277 cubic centimeters (200 cubic inches).

Cremated remains resemble coarse beach sand and appear light gray to pale white in color. Moreover, the remains you receive should be uniform overall, i.e., you should not see or feel pieces significantly larger in size or significantly different in texture. If you do, you should mention this to your cremation provider or the funeral director with whom you worked.

Sources:
“Cremation FAQ” www.nfda.org. Retrieved December 23, 2012. http://www.nfda.org/planning-a-funeral/cremation/160.html

"What is Cremation?" www.cremationassociation.org. Retrieved December 26, 2012. http://www.cremationassociation.org/?page=WhatIsCremation

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