How Is Cremation Done?

Some cremation chambers carry religious designs.
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While some cultural and religions traditions favor cremation, others ban it outright. The Cremation Association of North America notes that cremation is gaining in popularity not only because it is often cheaper than a traditional interment, but also because it is arguably a “greener” practice that requires less land. In the U.S., nearly half of all burial wishes include cremation: The National Funeral Directors Association says that in 2012, cremation, or the processing of human remains into ash, played a part in more than 43 percent of postmortem arrangements.

1 Preparing the Body

Cremation takes place after any religious or social rituals, such as a wake or viewing, have been completed. The funeral director ask about mechanical and even radioactive elements in the body, which can be combustible and which will need to be removed before the cremation. For example, pacemakers and prosthetics can be dangerous if introduced to extreme heat. The bereaved also can have precious metals that are in the body, like dental gold, removed and saved. If they decline, it is up to the facility to dispose of these items.

2 Picking a Casket

The funeral director places the deceased in a combustible and leakproof container, which may be either a casket or other approved, durable encasement. The Cremation Association of America confirms that 90 percent of cremation in the U.S. are done without a casket. Depending on state law, a metal casket may or may not be suitable. If it is allowed, whatever remains of the metal casket after cremation will be disposed of by the facility.

3 Witnessing the Cremation

The bereaved may be present when the body is put into the cremation chamber for incineration -- this is called “witnessing” and some mourners find this a useful part of the grieving process. Rules regarding witnessing differ by crematories, but you need to notify your funeral director in advance of this request.

4 The Actual Event

The actual cremation process takes between one-and-a-half to three hours and only only one individual's remains at a time can be in a single container. Temperatures reach 1,400 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, sufficient to incinerate organic remains, except for some bone fragments. Any metals or prostheses which were not removed during preparation will also remain, and likely be removed.

5 Processing the Remains

After a brief cooling period, the crematorium staff removes cremated remains from the chamber and sifts out nonorganic materials, such as metals, through visual inspection or by using magnets. They are then disposed of by the funeral facility. It is common for larger bone fragments to remain. Crematories often grind the bone fragments into a fine dust that is more consistent in texture with the ashes. The crematorium returns the remains to the family, either in an urn of the family’s choosing, or in a facility-provided container made of suitable material, ranging from plastic to unfinished wood, metal or cardboard.

Sabine McKellen began her career teaching English as a Second Language to adults from around the world. She has spent the past seven years in journalism, covering social issues, specifically in rural communities. Her work has appeared in community newspapers throughout southern California, and in various trade and educational magazines.