Not to state the obvious, but the first step is that somebody has to pass away to start the whole process. Otherwise, it’s not so much a cremation as it is arson, and the law frowns upon that. It does matter who died and how though, as certain faiths don’t permit cremation as a means of burial.
Confirming who is deceased
Once a body has been collected and stored, a family member will identify the body and confirm who they are. This is often very traumatic for the person who is identifying the body. As a result, they will often be accompanied by another family member or friend to provide them with emotional support.
The bodies are tagged
Once they have been identified, a tag gets affixed to the body. You will have seen these in countless cop and crime shows, usually wrapped around their toe. They’re called toe tags exactly for this reason, though due to hygiene concerns they are now placed on the wrist. They contain a name, case number, and physical description.
The paperwork and permissions
To continue with the cremation, the person who is organizing the final arrangements must also sign documents to confirm what is to happen with the body. This consists of deciding if the body is being cremated or buried, what container the crematory should use, and who will pick up the remains.
The family decides on the details
A cremation service can be as involved or as expeditious as the family wants, much like any funeral. Some things will require advanced notice, like open-casket services that would require them to embalm the body before display. They will also have a share of legal work to filter through for any belongings.
Getting the body ready
Preparing the deceased is a necessary step in making them look their best for their final goodbyes. The family will make the style decisions, from the clothes to the make-up of their loved one. It’s also important anything be removed from the body that might cause a reaction in the furnace, such as prosthetics or mechanical devices.
The body is placed into a coffin
Yes, even for cremations it’s standard practice that the body be placed in a coffin. This is also down to the family’s prerogative, who may have one pre-prepared. They won’t be placed inside the crematorium until after the final service has taken place, so these are also used as storage while the body awaits its burial.
The family enters the crematorium
The chamber, often called a retort, reaches temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure total immolation. The time it takes to complete a cremation varies wildly based on the person’s size, the methods of the specific crematorium, and the time of day. Morning cremations usually take longer, as the furnace is still warming up.
The different types of cremation
There are three ways to cremate a body. The first is direct cremation, during which the remains are directly taken to the chamber, without a funeral service. Alternatively, there’s liquid cremation, using alkaline hydrolysis rather than a flame. Finally, there is a green cremation, which is similar but the solution can be recycled.
Are the bodies burned immediately?
While they have the delicate task of dealing with the department, crematoriums are still a business, and as such do have busy periods. It varies from state to state, but some facilities are given up to a few days to cremate a body after a funeral service. There is no risk of decomposition within these time frames and somewhat sterile conditions.
Are multiple bodies burned together?
Perhaps you heard a schoolyard rumor as a child about how crematoriums burn bodies together and scoop the ashes indiscriminately? Well, while this would likely save time and money, it would be illegal in the US. The only exceptions are, extremely sadly, for mothers and infants who passed together. Cardboard coffins are an option to help with price concerns.
Inspection of the remains
The remains are checked for any leftover metal parts that might be left behind, either by hand or using a special magnet. This can consist of screws or metal implants that may have been surgically placed within the deceased earlier in life that may inhibit the refining process as the remains are then ground down.
Can something fail to be cremated?
Contrary to the common view of the process, the body is not completely burned into ash like wood. The fire doesn’t touch the body in most cases, the ambient temperature in the furnace does all the work. Teeth have been known to survive the process partially, as the harder enamel can withstand the heat.
Your head definitely doesn’t explode
This is another myth surrounding cremation that has no bearing in reality. The logic is, probably, that much like a grape in the microwave, expanding gasses have nowhere to go in the extreme heat. That misunderstands grapes, microwaves, heat, heads, and even logic itself. That would be a nice add-on service though.
How much remains of a person?
Considering the average American weight is 180 pounds, you might think you get a decent harvest of ashes from the process. Before everything is processed to filter out debris and grind down bones, there are around three to nine pounds of a person left. That’s a pretty dramatic decrease, but we are mostly water after all!
Can anybody see inside the chamber?
There is usually a small peephole in the machine that allows staff to peep inside the furnace, however, it’s only positioned to see if the flames have completely died out. Nobody can look inside, and it’s illegal to open a chamber once cremation has started. Even pedantic law nerds couldn’t think of reasonable exceptions for that.
Does the body move during cremation?
Historically it has been documented that bodies move around during creation, due to chemical reactions and escaping gasses. Cremation used to take an awful long longer than it does now, however. The temperature at which modern machines burn is far higher than a fire pit, so even if you could look in you wouldn’t see very much.
There could be a switch-up
It’s incredibly rare, but there can be mistakes in a cremation. There are a lot of guidelines in place to keep things on track, due to the emotionally intense nature of the process. In 2022, a Texas family was shocked when presented with a stranger’s body in place of their sons. The actual body had been cremated, which was against the family’s religious beliefs.
The handing over of the ashes
Once everything has been taken care of, the remains are bagged and placed inside the urn for the family. From here, crematoriums offer a scattering service within the grounds, or of course, the family can take them and spread them wherever they wish. This is often the most emotional moment in the process.
You may be placed in a Columbarium
This quite frankly magnificent word comes from the Latin word for the tiny houses they kept doves in. The compartmentalized buildings date back to the first century and were public buildings to house the ashes of the deceased. They’re found all over the world, with each country having its traditions surrounding them.
You can be cremated and buried
There is nothing other than the temperament of the religious institution leader stopping you from being both burned and buried. Many churches, even those against cremation, will permit the burial in their grounds of somebody who has been through the process. Many have graveyards specifically for monuments.
How long will your ashes remain?
On their own, human ashes won’t degrade within our lifetime since they’re mostly inorganic. However, the bulk of the collected remains are made of calcium sulfite from the powdered bones, which are absorbed into the earth. It’s naturally occurring in salt, which of course the ground is full of. Within a few days, there should be little trace left.
Why do so many people get cremated?
Cremation is the most popular choice of burial across much of the world and has been for centuries. An overall decline in religion is thought to have caused a significant increase in its popularity, as well as the high price attached to a formal funeral. People also like the idea of their ashes being spread in unique places
You can send your ashes into space
People come up with all sorts of ideas about where they would like to be scattered, and several specialized funeral services have popped up over the years. One of the more extravagant ideas involves using smart balloons to scatter your ashes into the upper atmosphere, where over around eight months your ashes will have spread across the globe.
The very earliest cremation
We don’t know how long humans have had rituals specifically surrounding death, but the earliest cremation dates back at least 17,000 years. The remains of a woman nicknamed the Mongo Lady were found in Lake Mungo, Australia. She was found in 1968, and after reports were taken her remains were given back to the Aboriginal people she is thought to have been a part of.
Where is the first crematorium in the world?
After a very long period of misunderstanding how fire kills bacteria, people came back around to the idea in the 1800s. Charles William Siemens invented the first modern body furnace in the 1850s, using bricks heated by flame and airflow to reach temperatures that could melt steel. In 1876, the first crematorium opened in Milan.
You can still visit
The Monumental Cemetery of Milan, where the Western world’s first crematorium was opened, still stands as a gorgeous and melancholic museum of death. Many famous names were laid to rest here, including former Formula One champion Alberto Ascari, and the legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
Where is America’s first crematorium?
The LeMoyne Crematory opened in 1876, the same year as the first in the world. Francis Julius LeMoyne had it built on his land in Washington, Pennsylvania, and was the third person it ever cremated there. He correctly assumed that cremation was a more hygienic method of burial, and would avoid contaminating drinking water.
The Aztecs practiced cremation
This canvas depicts Ahuitzotl, a pre-Columbian Meso-American ruler of the Aztec people. He is known as one of the most celebrated military leaders in history, having more than doubled the size of his empire through his campaigns. The artwork shows jade beads food offered as tribute, and the water possum with which he shared his name.
A man has attended his cremation
In 2018, a man in Jaipur, India, managed to attend his cremation. Vijay Prakash, a known drinker and a drifter, was identified by his family in the hospital after being found dead outside a department store. He returned home as his family was leaving to attend the service, and they went to watch a similar-looking man’s cremation instead.
A British MEP was cremated twice
In 2015, a Member of the European Parliament, Phillip Bradbourn, was cremated at a ceremony in Wolverhampton. A month later, his family was informed that there had been a mistake at the mortuary. A man named Philip Bradburn had passed at a different hospital, but was taken to the same facility, and was cremated in his place.
Japan has the highest cremation rate
A staggering 99.97% of all people are cremated upon death in Japan. The main reason behind this is access to viable funeral space, as Japan is made up of thousands of smaller islands that lack the facilities. There are a few things to consider when planning a graveyard but, obviously, they require you to actually have the space to bury bodies.
A lot of ashes are spread at Disney Land
Not surprisingly, Disney Land is a lot of people’s favorite place in the world. So much so they would like to be blowing down Main Street for all eternity. Equally unsurprisingly, Disney really does not like people spreading powdered human around their park. The most popular spot is Haunted Mansion, and staff have a signal for the clean-up. No, it’s not a 2319!
Alternative uses for remains
Scattering a loved one into the wind is a popular choice, but others choose something more tangible. Ashes of any kind can be pressed into jewelry, like rings or necklaces, to be worn with by their loved ones. This process doesn’t use all of the remains, as only a small amount is needed, so they can still be scattered as desired.
They’re only getting more popular
2015 was the first year that more Americans were cremated than had a traditional burial. This number is expected to continue growing in the future, which is pretty dismal news for funeral companies. Although, their line of work demands they say they’re “projecting a boom in the death market” during a pandemic, so maybe they deserve it.
A Star Trek actor’s ashes went to space twice
In 2006, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was scheduled to carry the ashes of over 150 people into orbit. Among them was James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Scottie in Star Trek. It wouldn’t launch until 2012, but the actor’s son also gave some of his ashes to Richard Garriott, one of the first private citizens in space. He hid them on the International Space Station.
You can have your ashes spread via fireworks
This particularly explosive way to depart was popularized by famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. He lived a very unique and eccentric life, which his family and friends honored by loading his ashes into a mini-rocket. Most of the phosphate will burn up in the first ignition, but the calcium will burn an orange-brown.
Legal exemptions for open-air burning
When the eccentric 19th-century Welsh physician Dr. William Price’s son died, he gave him what he understood to be a druidic burial. Price himself was an Archdruid and was attacked and arrested after performing the open-air cremation. He won his court case, and would later be cremated similarly in front of an audience of 20,000.
You can already start paying for it
In this glistening utopia, we have created for ourselves, even the humble Joe Everyman can put a down payment on his eventual death. While funerals can run up into the tens of thousands, cremations only run up to a couple of hundred on average. That even the cheaper option, the cleansing flame, can be settled in easy installments via Klarna, is an indictment.
Burial at sea
Those who often live their lives at sea, like fishermen, sailors, and coastguards, sometimes choose to be buried at sea too. It is legal to scatter ashes at sea in the US, but there are some rules. You have to be further than three nautical miles from land, around 3.5 miles, and it must be registered with the EPA within 30 days of dispersal.