Choosing Cremation as a Final Disposition

Cremation: An Ancient Practice Now Popular

Cremation, which is disposing of the body by fire, dates back more than 2,000 years. It was commonly practiced in ancient Greece, Rome and India. Christianity discouraged the custom in Europe, but as cities grew and cemeteries became crowded, it was revived as a practical alternative to burial. In fact, in England, where land is at a premium, more than seventy percent (70%) of all funerals end in cremation. Recently, cremation also has gained popularity in the United States. However, the practice is not sanctioned by certain religions. See our Funeral Customs section for more information.

The Cremation Process

Cremation reduces the body to its basic elements through a process that exposes it to open flames, intense heat and evaporation. This is done in a specially designed furnace called a cremation chamber or retort. Many crematories require a container for the body such as a casket appropriate for cremation or a rigid cardboard container.

Cremated remains are commonly referred to as "ashes," however, in reality they consist primarily of bone fragments. It is important to recognize that the cremated remains of the body are commingled with any remains of the container as well as any other incidental by-products of the incineration. Cremation produces 3 to 9 pounds of remains, depending upon the size of the body and the process used by the crematory.

What to do with the ashes

Bronze UrnAfter the body is cremated, ashes can be buried, scattered or kept in an urn. The crematory will deliver the remains either in a temporary container, such as a cardboard box, or in the permanent container. Cemeteries provide several options for interring cremated remains including plots for burial and "niches" in a columbarium. They also offer gardens for scattering. See Cemeteries for more on this. Tiny containers, designed to be worn as jewelry, are also available to hold only a small portion of ashes.

State and local laws govern the scattering of ashes in public and private lands, and at sea but private companies offer many scattering options. One can choose to be scattered over a favorite area or onto a tranquil body of water. A loved one’s cremated remains can also become an artificial reef that’s placed in the ocean. It’s even possible to scatter ashes into outer space.

Cremation Recycling

Increasingly, crematories are participating in programs to recycle non-combustible materials, i.e., implants (hip, knee, elbow and shoulder), dental bridgework, pins, screws and casket hardware. The crematory’s recycling process should be disclosed in the cremation authorization and disposition form. Be sure to ask the crematory about their handling of non-human remains (i.e., metals). For more information on cremation recycling visit Alternative Solutions USA.

Who is Choosing Cremation?

Choosing cremation is a matter of personal choice. Cremations are becoming increasingly accepted in the United States as an alternative to earth burial. In the U.S., cremations as a percentage of deaths have increased from approximately 5% in 1970 to approximately 32% today. Projections provided by the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) indicate that this upward trend will continue but at a reduced rate. CANA projects that the cremation rate in the U.S. could reach 36% by 2010. Some religious faiths remain opposed to cremation.

Cremation rates vary dramatically across regions of the United States, at least in part because of geographic differences in religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. In particular, cremation rates are significantly lower in many southern, mid-western, and non-metropolitan areas of the U.S. Cremation rates exceed 40% in the Pacific regions of the country.

A 2005 survey entitled Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization by The Wirthlin Group found that 33% of the respondents said they would definitely choose to be cremated, while another 14% were somewhat likely to choose to be cremated. This is still well below the practice in other countries, such as Japan where the cremation rate exceeds 98%, Great Britain at 70%, or Sweden at 69%.

Most states require specific authorizations to perform cremation and many require a 2-day waiting period following the death to allow time to obtain the necessary permits and authorizations.

Cremation and Funeral Ceremonies

Cremation does not preclude having a traditional funeral or memorial service. It is merely an alternative method of disposition of the body. Many experts advise that cremation should not be selected as a means of circumventing or hastening the grieving process. Some people choose cremation as a means of reducing funeral costs, in particular, the embalming, casket and cemetery costs.

See related topics:

Interment Arrangements
Preparation of Deceased
Embalming
DNA Sampling
Autopsy

Go to Funeral Guide — Index of Topics.