Cremation: What Is Cremation, and Is It Right for You?

There’s a lot of talk about cremation these days, at least in part because we’re becoming more comfortable with talking about death in general. Another reason we’re hearing a lot about cremation is the dramatic rise in the number of cremations performed in the U.S. over the past 25 years. In fact, the rate of cremation more than doubled from the late 1980s to 2005, and the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) predicts that by 2025, cremation will account for more than half of all final dispositions.

But what, exactly, is cremation? Why are more people choosing cremation instead of traditional burial? And is cremation right for you? Only you can answer the last question, but we hope that by exploring the first two, we will provide the facts you need to make an informed decision.

What is cremation?

Cremation is the process of disposing of a deceased individual’s remains by incineration. Although incineration methods have changed over the centuries, cremation as a means of final disposition has been around since ancient times. Today cremation takes place in a crematorium, a large incinerator in which the body is heated until it is reduced to bone fragments and ashes.

Before cremation can take place, the body must be prepared. Jewelry or other items the family wishes to keep are removed from the body, along with any medical devices, such as a pacemaker, which can explored during incineration and damage the cremation chamber.

Next, the body is placed in a rigid, combustible container. The choice of container is mainly a matter of personal preference and cost. Some people choose a traditional wooden casket, but a corrugated cardboard casket with a rigid bottom or a special casket liner made especially for cremation is perfectly acceptable and much less expensive.

After the body is prepared, it is transported by hearse from the funeral home to the crematorium, where it is lifted into the cremation chamber. There the body is incinerated at temperatures exceeding 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 minutes to two and one-half hours. The organs and soft tissue of the body are consumed or evaporated by exposure to the intense heat, leaving only bone fragments.

After the cremated remains have been allowed to cool, crematorium staff will sift them to remove bits of metal, such as dental fillings, surgical hardware or artificial joints and limbs. The bone fragments are then broken down into the ash-like particles that are the cremated remains, which are sometimes referred to as ashes or cremains.

In the final step of the cremation process, the cremated remains are transferred into a plastic liner and placed in a temporary container or a cremation urn, if one has been selected.

Why are more people choosing cremation today?

One of the primary reasons for the growing trend toward cremation is the lower cost, which is typically thousands of dollars less than a traditional burial. In a time when many families are struggling financially, the cost savings alone is often the deciding factor.

Environmental concerns are another reason some choose cremation. Many people view in-ground burial as an unnecessary use of finite land resources, while others are concerned about toxic embalming fluids seeping into burial soils and groundwater.

Finally, cremation offers families more choices than traditional burial. Burial in a cemetery is permanent, whereas families can select from a variety of options to keep or dispose of cremated remains. For example, families may:

  • Keep cremated remains in an urn at home or inurned in a columbarium niche.
  • Scatter the ashes in a place that was meaningful or sacred to the deceased.
  • Bury the cremains in the ground, as required by some religious traditions.
  • Divide the ashes among family members in ash pendants or keepsake urns.

For those who want something different, a number of unusual disposal methods have been introduced in recent years, such as launching cremains in fireworks or into outer space, compressing ashes into artificial gems, or incorporating them in artificial ocean reefs to support marine life.

Along with the number of cremations, the options for disposition of cremated remains are sure to grow in the coming years.

A final note

Although cremation is far more common than it was a few years ago, many people still don’t know exactly what happens when a body is cremated. If you’re making funeral arrangements for a loved one, consider sharing this article with other family members to start the discussion and involve them in the decision.

What are your thoughts on cremation? Is it right for you?

Discuss: Cremation: What Is Cremation, and Is It Right for You?

One Response
  • As an only child when my mom died she was cremated. I kept the ashes and have kept them in an box-type urn that has a place for pictures of her during her life. Cremation is the same choice I had made when she and I discussed end of life and our wishes for our remains.
    When my time ends I have no siblings, no children, no close family members so I wonder if her cremains and mine will be able to be together. So far I haven’t found out a way to find the answer.

    Cremation was the right way for both our choices because we wanted to be remembered as we were alive and not as “oh, poor things…they had such terrible pain and disease during their life…” and in the whispered voices of those behind, “doesn’t she look like she’s sleeping? she looks so natural…” ! We both suffer from the same diseases and it doesn’t look like a sweet sleeping body OR natural!

    If someone knows or could point me to the answer about our cremains being together when my life ends, please help send me information.

    Thank you and I just want to say that before I lose my train of thought from over-thinking the situation!

    Comment by Cheryl Whelchel — June 21, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

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