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Modern cremation chambers

What is Cremation?

Cremation is a process that prepares the remains of a deceased human body for final disposition. Cremation reduces a dead human body to 3-7 pounds of bone fragments and other organic and inorganic compounds. This reduction is accomplished, and the body returned to its natural elements, by exposing the remains to intense heat, open flame, by dehydration, evaporation, and mechanical processing.

The actual cremation is performed in a cremation chamber (sometimes referred to as a "retort"). The cremation chamber is housed in a building called a crematory or a crematorium. A crematory may house many cremation chambers.

Interior of cremation chamber

Some people frown on cremation and some religious groups ban the process outright because they consider it destruction of the body.

Whenever I participate in one of these spirited debates, I'm quick to point out a basic law of physics: "Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but can be converted from one to another form of Matter or Energy, or a combination of both, without loss or gain, so that the aggregate quantum of Matter + Energy is a constant in the Universe."

To me, cremation is transformation, not destruction, as destruction is physically impossible. Unfortunately, when religion enters a conversation, superstition oftentimes rears its head and the laws of physics, along with reasoning and logic, fly out the window.

Cremation is NOT the final disposition of the remains, nor is it a type of funeral or memorial service.

Cremation is an IRREVERSIBLE PROCESS. Okay, I realize that this is an obvious observation but I want to remind you of it nonetheless. A body that is interred in the ground can be exhumed at a later date but a cremated body can't be un-cremated. If there are any suspicions or other concerns about the cause of death, make sure all investigations are completed -- perhaps even a second, family-sponsored autopsy -- before the body is cremated.

DNA cannot be recovered from cremated remains.

After the arrangements have been made with the family, the cremation authorizations signed, and the state cremation permit has been issued and verified by crematory personnel, the body -- encased in either a casket or an alternative container -- will be placed into the cremation chamber.

Crematories exhibit remarkable diligence in maintaining the identification of the remains trusted to their care. They accomplish this by:

  • Placing a small numbered metal disk (or ceramic disk) on the floor of the cremation chamber prior to the cremation. This disk will accompany the remains completely through the cremation process: during the cremation itself and finally, when the bone fragments are processed before they're placed in a temporary container of an urn chosen by the family. [Note: If you scatter the cremated remains or you place the cremated remains in an urn yourself, do not be alarmed if you see this metal disk.]
  • In addition to a metal or ceramic disk, an index card containing the name of the decedent along with a unique number, is often affixed to the side of the cremation chamber during the cremation.

The unique number that is on the disk (or index card) will be typed on the label that's affixed to the temporary storage container and it will also be included on the cremation certificate that's prepared by the crematory after the cremation process.

The temperature of the cremation chamber ranges between 1,500 degrees to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The cremation can take between one and three hours to complete. The actual time depends on the efficiency of the cremation chamber, the construction materials of the alternative container or casket, and the physical size and weight of the body being cremated.

The cremation process is carefully monitored by highly-trained personnel. During the course of the cremation, the operator may be required to manually reposition the remains with various specially-designed instruments. Repositioning is required to insure the remains are thoroughly cremated.

Cremated remains

Dental gold will melt and fuse with the cremated remains due to the extreme heat of the cremation chamber. The same is true with jewelry. It's for this reason that I advise NOT cremating jewelry with the decedent. Small personal items such as wedding rings, bracelets, rosary beads, and other delicate items should be placed on top of the cremated remains AFTER they've been placed in the urn.

As you can imagine, after the cremation, the remains are quite hot. Consequently, there is a mandatory cooling-off period that generally takes two to four hours. The actual time varies.

Medically-implanted metal (or metal composite) devices such as artificial joints will be discarded after the cremation. These items have no monetary value because the extreme heat of the cremation will render their form and function useless.

A strong magnet will be passed over the remains after the cremation to attract metallic items (nails, latches, and hinges from the casket or alternative container, belt buckles, eyeglass frames, etc.) which are then disposed of by the cremation technician.

Cremated remains

The cremated remains -- essentially a mass of course ash along with bone fragments of various sizes at this point -- will now be processed in a machine that will pulverize the cremated remains to a uniform size. Multiple passes through the processing machine are possible; with each pass through this machine, the cremated remains become finer and softer in their consistency.

Processing cremated remains

Processed cremated remains -- approximately 3-7 pounds worth -- will vary in color. They can be dark grey or greyish-white or even a light black in color. The color of the cremated remains is in no way indicative of the race of the individual. The cremated remains of a Caucasian aren't white and the cremated remains of an African American aren't dark grey or black. The fuel (gas or oil) used for the cremation, the amount of air introduced into the cremation chamber during the cremation process, and the construction materials of the casket or alternative container will determine the final color of the cremated remains.

After the cremated remains have been processed by the cremation technician, they are generally placed in a temporary container. Most temporary containers are not meant to store cremated remains for a long period of time. The temporary container supplied by the crematory can be made of cardboard, plastic, or they can be small metal containers that resemble paint cans.

Naturally, if the family selected and purchased an urn, the cremated remains will be placed into the urn and returned to the funeral director.

Depending on the processing ability of the individual crematory, there MAY BE identifiable bone fragments in the temporary container or urn. Although these fragments will be small, you should exercise EXTREME CARE if you intend on scattering the cremated remains in a public place. Although you probably won't be arrested for your actions, a steep fine and unnecessary embarrassment could be the result.

Despite rapid and continuing advances in cremation technology and the best efforts of trained and dedicated crematory personnel, cremation will always be an imperfect process. With every cremation, there is an unavoidable commingling of MINUTE particulate matter -- mathematically so small that an exact amount cannot be reasonably determined -- from one cremation with matter from another. If this honest disclosure bothers you, there are two options: A) you can arrange for an in-gound burial or B) you can arrange an above-ground entombment of the whole body.

After the cremation, you will be required to make arrangements for the FINAL DISPOSITION of the cremated remains. Cremated remains can be interred in a family cemetery plot, scattered at sea or over land, they can be placed in a niche in a cemetery columbarium, or entombed in a cemetery community or private mausoleum. Yes, cremated remains can also be kept at hope but I strongly recommend doing this as you're simply postponing the inevitable as at some point in time, some person, perhaps a complete stranger, will be faced with disposing of the ashes.

Urns can be purchased at the funeral home, the direct disposer's establishment, the crematory, or online. Urns can be made of cast or sheet bronze, ceramic, glass, pottery, wood, plastic, marble, fiberglass, composites of resin and marble dust (called "imitation marble), or steel. Urns are an options item and are not included with a basic direct cremation service.

Here are three general guidelines to follow when purchasing an urn:

  • Although not required for sea scattering, many manufacturers now offer scattering urns that dissolve after they've been exposed to water for a few minutes. These are well worth the expense as wind can do interesting things to cremated remains when you're scattering them off the side of a boat or from a dock or pier.
  • If the cremated remains are going to be placed in a niche, be sure the exterior dimensions of the urn are well below the interior dimensions of the niche. Be careful of unusual sizes (a pyramid shape for example) as well.
  • If you want to use a common household vessel -- a favorite cookie jar or vase for example -- as an urn, be sure the container can be sealed and that it will accommodate ALL OF THE CREMATED REMAINS. Your cremation provider cannot tell how much cremated remains will be returned based on a visual inspection of the body prior to the cremation.

My advise? Always purchase an urn from the firm that is providing the cremation service for you. Personally, I have an affection for simple, bronze "Grecian-style" urns and there are many styles of these available.

Regarding urn construction, based on 25 years experience I've noticed that wood products blemish easily and the wood splits over time. Urns of glass, pottery, and ceramic can break very easily. Marble urns, although they appear durable, have microscopic, hairline cracks that can easily split further if subjected to a slight drop. Cast bronze can be expensive ($800.00 - $1,500.00), but it's classic, timeless, and lasts forever.

I hope this page of LowCostCremation.com has explained and helped you understand the cremation process. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via the Contact page.

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