Lighting a funeral pyre may seem like an odd way to dispose of a dead body, but a version of that is how we dispose of many dead bodies in the United States today. Cremation, or incineration of a deceased individual’s remains, is the second most popular way to say goodbye to the dead, after burials. The practice dates back to ancient times, and today is considered not only cost-effective but also environmentally friendly.
Step-By-Step Guide to Cremation
It might sound grim – and it is – but cremation involves more than simply lighting a match to someone. It’s actually a highly skilled art, which can only legally be carried out at a certified, licensed crematorium. Here are the (gruesome) steps involved…
The body is sent to the crematorium, which can be attached to a funeral home or cemetery or can be an entirely separate entity. Some crematoriums allow the body to be viewed without having been embalmed before it is cremated. You can choose to have the body embalmed before cremation if you prefer to hold a wake several days after death.
While most crematoriums require that bodies be cremated in containers, it can be as simple as a cardboard box or casket made from wooden planks. Some states allow people to be cremated without any container at all – each state has its own laws, so check first.
Only one body can be cremated at a time as crematoriums are made to only handle the weight of one individual. It is not possible to cremate two people together, although later you can co-mingle their ashes, if desired.
It takes about two-four hours for a body to be cremated at 1,5000 – 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on its size.
After the body is cremated, there will still be some remains which have not turned to ash, namely dental fillings, hip work, some bone fragments. They are swept back into the cremation chamber and put into a stainless steel cooling pan. Items like gold fillings can be given to the family, other things such as bone fragments are processed to size and mixed back with the ashes.
Urns are not required by law, although it may be preferable if you want your loved one’s ashes to be interred in a cemetery. If you do not choose to purchase an urn but want to keep the ashes, the crematorium will probably give them to you in a temporary plastic container (Tupperware sure has its uses!).
Be aware that not all religions are in favor of cremation. Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox religions and some fundamental Christians oppose cremation, while other faiths allow a choice between cremation and burial.
Unique Ways to Dispose of Ashes
People choose to dispose of their loved ones’ ashes in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are buried with a gravestone placed above, so that the family has a place to gather and grieve. Sometimes they are placed in a columbarium, or special niche for urns where ashes of the dead are on permanent display. Here are some more unique ways to use the ashes…
Make your own coral reef. Eternal Reefs, Inc, helps people memorialize their loved ones forever by replacing “cremation urns and ash scattering with a permanent environmental living legacy”. The ashes are mixed with concrete and used to help build underwater coral reefs, which both provide a funky memorial to the dead while helping the environment at the same time.
San Francisco company Creative Remains employs a team of artists to design unusual and unique housing for the ashes. With their help, you can turn your Great Aunt Mabel’s violin or Grandpa Henry’s favorite cigar case into a permanent home for their remains.
Art from Ashes, originally for dead pets only, reportedly now also makes art from human remains. They incorporate the ashes into everyday objects, such as paperweights, perfume bottles, and even knobs for walking sticks.
Perfect Memorials makes “cremation jewellery”. Their small teardrop necklace urns, for example, allow you to keep ashes, a lock of hair or even dried ceremonial flowers all together in one place as a lasting memory – and all for just $34.95 (engraveable). So keep Mom close to your heart forever – literally – with a beautiful necklace made from, umm, her!
Based in Redding, California, Hold Me Urns makes personalized teddy bears which have tiny velvet-lined pouches inside to hold ashes. The pouches can also be made from the clothes of a loved one. The bears don’t come cheap, however – they cost about $80 each.
Other uses for human remains include turning them into windchimes, clock, birdbaths, motorcycle gas tanks, firework displays and even sending them into outer space…
While cremation is naturally a straightforward process, sometimes things go wrong…
Silicone breast implants can cause problems during a cremation. Remains of the body can stick to it, meaning the body may be lumpy instead of turning to a fine ash.
In the past, unscrupulous crematorium personnel were known to occasionally steal lumps of gold and silver from dental fillings. Better checks now prohibit this, and also make sure that when you get Uncle Bernie’s ashes, you really are getting Uncle Bernie’s ashes (and not the ashes of crusty old Mr Cartwright from the nursing home next door).
Disneyland has reportedly become a popular place to surreptitiously scatter cremated remains, although this practice has resulted in rides being shut down and assiduous cleaning tactics employed by Magic Kingdom staff.
As the number of cremations in the United States rises, so does the number of abandoned urns, either lying unclaimed in funeral homes or found in attics and basements after relatives of the deceased have passed on themselves. Some states require funeral homes to store ashes for a minimum period of time, others have no laws. According to the Cremation Association of North America, only six percent of deaths resulted in cremation in 1974. In 2006, that number had reached almost 34 percent.
Cremation isn’t just for people who can’t afford burials. Proponents of cremation point out that while cremating a loved one can result in thousands of dollars in savings, it also is environmentally friendly and has no necessary merchandise or product orientation. It also makes sense for people who became very ill before death, and do not want friends and family seeing their bodies in a wasted state.
If you are considering cremation either for yourself or a loved one, it may be worth visiting a funeral home and/or crematorium to learn what your state laws are, and what will eventually take place after death. It’s best to know beforehand, than to leave it all up to chance.
You might also want to have a consultation about what to put in your will, to ensure that your preferred rite of passage will take place. What happens to the ashes of a loved one often depends on the written instructions they left behind, not the wishes of the living.