Are you thinking about cremation as a disposition option but curious about what the whole process entails? It can be difficult making a decision about something that you may not clearly understand, or have questions about. As more families consider cremation as a death-care alternative, we have put together this guide to explain everything you need to know about the cremation process.
The Funeral Home and/or crematory receiving the deceased
When the funeral home or crematory receive the deceased into their care they will require the family to complete a Personal Details Form. This provides the funeral director with all the vital statistics he or she requires to begin the process of applying for the death certificate, and enables the funeral home to provide shelter for the deceased with all the correct ID information.
How the deceased’s identify is verified throughout the cremation process
All funeral homes and crematories adhere to strict guidelines and rules. This especially pertains to ensuring the verification of ID throughout the process.
When a body is received into a funeral home or crematory, it is an imperative step that the body is identified by a family member, and ID tagged. A form of metal tag is generated, and this remains with the body throughout the process. After the cremation, the metal ID tag is put with the cremated remains.
Most funeral facilities use some kind of project management system to keep track of their cases and what stage in the process they are at. In some facilities, this may be as simple as a whiteboard and a case file system. More modern facilities may use bespoke software systems to track and coordinate cases.
Preparing the body for cremation
The funeral home will remove any items that the family do not wish to be cremated with the deceased, such as jewelry. The deceased can be prepared in whatever clothes the family decide are befitting, similar to the preparation for a funeral.
If the family wish to hold a viewing prior to the cremation, the deceased will be prepared for the family to visit and say their last goodbyes. As a basic cremation container is used for the purposes of cremation, if a viewing is held, some funeral homes offer rental caskets or a viewing bed.
If the deceased had a pace-maker or other type of medical device, this would need to be removed to prevent it exploding during the cremation process.
What is a ‘cremation container’?
A casket is not required for cremation, although some funeral homes will offer a wooden cremation casket. More often a standard reinforced cardboard box with a plywood base is used to hold the body. This is called a ‘cremation container’ and burns easily during the cremation process.
Preparation of permits, authorization and paperwork – the legal aspects of cremation
As I mentioned, there is strict legislation that governs the operation of human cremation, and this includes the submission of legal documents for processing. A Cremation Authorization Form must be signed by the immediate legal next-of-kin. A cremation cannot proceed without this form. If there is more than one next-of-kin (for example: 2 or more siblings), then all siblings must sign the authorization form.
The funeral director will submit to the county office for the death certificate, using the data provided by the family from the Personal Details Form. If required, he or she will also request the Permit to cremate the deceased. Some counties require a permit before a cremation, and charge for it, whereas in some counties this is not required.
The charge for the cremation permit varies significantly by county. Most charge between $10.00 to $60.00 for a permit, but Wisconsin has some of the highest cremation permit fees in the country, with Milwaukee county charging $357 for the coroner’s cremation release fee.
As cremation is such a final disposition, there is also a legal mandatory wait period after the death occurs before a cremation can go ahead. This varies by state, but ranges from 24-72 hours.
This means that even if the family have signed all the legal paperwork, and a permit is issued, the cremation cannot be conducted until the mandatory period has expired. Generally, it will take 2-3 days for all the formal details to be completed anyway prior to the cremation being scheduled. During this time, the deceased is stored in a refrigerated storage unit, similar to how morgue’s store bodies as embalming is not required for cremation.
How does the cremation chamber or cremation retort operate?
A cremation chamber is otherwise referred to as a cremation retort. It is an industrial type furnace that can hold one body and incinerate at high temperature. There are many different types of retorts, and today there are modern and very efficient cremation machines that can be operated by computer and automated. Most are fueled by gas or propane.
The chamber has a door at one end and the cremation container is loaded into the retort via the door. This is then sealed and the cremation process begins. This can be manually or automatically.
The chamber is constructed of fire resistant bricks and special masonry that can withstand very high temperatures and is generally housed in a stainless-steel casing. The temperature within the retort reaches between 1800? F – 2000? F. The process takes around 2 hours to completely reduce the body to bones and ash. Some older cremation machines may take up to 3-1/2 hours to cremate. When a cremation retort has reached full heat, subsequent cremation can take less time.
Once the incineration process is complete, a tray containing the bone fragments and ashes is extracted for the next part of the process. A cool down period of approximately 30 – 60 minutes is required before the bones and ashes can be processed.
How are the cremation ashes processed?
The bone fragments and cremation ash is first ‘filtered’ to check for any metal debris. This is items such as surgical pins, screws, titanium joints/limbs and metal dental fillings. Depending on the sophistication of the crematory, this will be done by hand, with a magnet, or with an automated filtering system. Many crematories are now recycling the metal debris they extract from cremation cases.
The remaining bone fragments are then put into a processing unit that is basically like a grinder. This unit pulverizes the bone fragments to a fine powder, known as the cremated remains or ashes, that are placed in the cremation urn. The ID tag will have stayed with the body throughout the cremation process, and this is then placed with the urn in readiness for returning the ashes to the family.
Who can conduct a cremation?
Most funeral homes and crematories employ crematory operatives to run their cremation machines and process their cremation cases. Sometimes the funeral director may personally handle cases, but a trained crematory operative is versant in the specialized knowledge of safely operating a crematory and handling the deceased for cremation.
How long does it take from the funeral home receiving the deceased to the family receiving the cremated remains back?
The time-frame can vary depending on several criteria. Firstly, the cremation cannot proceed until all the legal requirements have been met. Secondly, depending on the crematory, there may be a schedule for cremation. It is fair to say that it will generally take at least 7 days but quite possibly up to 10 days from the deceased being delivered into the care of the funeral home, until the cremated remains are ready.
However, there are cases where an expedited cremation may be required, which can be facilitated if all the permits and authorizations are in order, but may incur an additional charge. Likewise, I have known of cases that have taken 21-28 days (or longer) to process a cremation. This is typically where there is some discrepancy over the issuing of a permit and family consent in the authorization of cremation.
Other Frequently Asked Questions about cremation
How long does it take for a body to be cremated?
It takes anywhere between 1-1/2 to 3/1/2 hours to cremate an adult body. It can depend on the time of day the cremation is conducted (i.e. the retort needs to reach full heat to cremate faster) and the type of cremation machine.
Do you have clothes on when you are cremated?
Yes, the deceased is clothed when placed in the cremation container, and the clothes burn with the body.
Can other personal items be cremated with the deceased?
It is generally acceptable to place a small personal item in the cremation container with the deceased prior to cremation, so long as it is a combustible item, such as flowers or soft toys.
What happens to teeth during a cremation?
Any teeth that do not burn during the process are ground down with the bone fragments during the processing of the ashes. If the deceased had any gold teeth, the family can decide if they wish to have these removed prior to cremation.
Can an obese or overweight body be cremated?
Yes, many crematories offer barometric cremations. Larger cremation retorts are required to hold and cremate a body over 600 pounds. Due to the increase in obesity, some crematories have replaced their standard retort doors with wider doors to be better able to fit a larger body through.
An obese body is likely to burn faster as it contains more fat, but it can be more dangerous to manage the retort and observe the incineration process. Handling of a body over 350 pounds requires additional equipment and a reinforced cremation container. For these reasons many crematories will charge a barometric cremation fee. This will be anywhere between an additional $100 – $400.
How much do cremated remains weigh?
A standard adult cremation will produce an average of 3 to 9 pounds (1.4 to 4.1 kilograms) of cremated remains. The volume of cremation ashes usually depends on the bone structure and density of the person, and not so much their actual weight.
What happens to unclaimed cremated remains?
Not all families choose to collect cremated remains. Some families do not know what to do with the cremated remains. They may not want to inter the remains, and do not want to keep them at home. Some have opted for cremation as a final disposition, and just do not want the remains.
So, unclaimed remains are becoming a growing concern for funeral homes, especially as the direct cremation rate grows.
Some cremation providers are offering incremental scattering services as a simple add-on to a cremation package, so that they can scatter remains in a scattering garden, with the families’ consent. This alleviates the funeral home of the issue of storing remains indefinitely.
Some cremation providers are now adding clauses to a cremation contract that stipulates if the cremated remains are not collected within 90 days, they have the right to dispose of the remains. Historically, with a lower cremation rate, a funeral home would store any cremation urns not collected by the family. There was concern that a family member could turn up years down the line, wanting to retrieve the remains. But with the rise in cremation, this now has the potential to become a storage nightmare!
Cremated remains that remain unclaimed from indigent funerals are generally held for a period and then a mass interment or scattering is conducted by the county authorities.
Cultural differences in the cremation process
Our cultural attitudes to cremation differ. In countries across Europe and in Japan, the cremation rate is over 80%. It is an accepted practice that cremation is a better solution for disposition. In some countries, this has been driven by a less faith-driven approach to death-care, and by available space for body burial.
Cremation, in some cultures and religions, has been sacred for thousands of years. There is documented evidence of cremation practice among early Phoenician and Persian culture. But over time this was replaced with mummifying and burial.
In Hinduism, it is a tradition to cremate the deceased. Their concept of death being a transition to the next existence, gives them a different perspective on the notion of the body. Other Indian religions such as Sikhism and Jainism also mandate cremation.
Some crematories that cater to faith’s, like Hinduism, who have specific cremation rituals, will facilitate the rites of cremation that are practiced. For example, Hindus are required to begin the cremation, and see the deceased enter the cremation chamber. So, a crematory may have a special viewing area with a control button, and a family member can observe the cremation container entering and start the machine. Where possible, they will help the family observe the rituals that are a sacred part of the funeral rites.
What does cremation cost?
The cost for a cremation varies. This depends on the type of cremation service selected, and also the cremation service provider you use. The most affordable cremation service is a direct cremation. This is a cremation without any ceremony provided by the funeral service provider. Direct cremation is growing in popularity as it is an efficient and cost-effective disposition alternative. Families who choose direct cremation can still conduct a memorial service when they have the cremated remains returned to them. But this does not have to be done immediately, so can allow for a family to plan their own memorial or ash-scattering service at a time that suits them.