Understanding the Cremation Process: What You Need to Know
Have you recently lost a loved one?
Trying to decide between cremation or burial for yourself?
Do you want to preserve your loved one’s remains?
Data from the 2018 Cremation and Burial Report shows that over the next 20 years, the cremation rate will rise by nearly 30% easily outpacing burial rates. For whatever the reasons—personal preference, religious beliefs or costs—cremation is apparently on the rise. Cremation can be a sensitive subject for some, while it makes complete sense to others. Choosing cremation is ultimately a personal decision. We hope that this guide to cremation helps you in your decision making, either for yourself or for a loved one.
How to Plan for a Cremation
When planning a cremation, you want to be sure to keep the deceased’s wishes top of mind. If they had specific instructions for how they would like their body to be handled after death, it’s best to abide by their wishes to the best of your ability.
If your loved one hasn’t already made their own decision, try to include all close family members and friends in the decision-making process. You may want all of the ashes to be placed into a single cremation urn, or the ashes can be divided among several urns for different family members to keep.
In addition to normal funeral arrangements, funeral homes can also help you plan a cremation service and a memorial ceremony, as well as recommend any reliable local crematoriums. Your funeral director or cremation provider can also help you make sure that all local rules and regulations are followed when storing, transporting, and cremating your loved one’s body. In addition, they can help coordinate all necessary paperwork, including a cremation authorization form. Any required paperwork varies from state to state and can also be vastly different in separate cities and municipalities. (Some states may allow you to make arrangements directly with a crematory.)
Generally, a cremation will be less costly than a traditional burial since you are not paying for embalming, a viewing, a casket, or burial staff and equipment. The cost of cremation will include all or some the following items, depending on your plans.
- Cremation casket
- Burial vault / grave liner
- Headstone / grave marker
- Funeral director and home services
- Transportation of the body
- Any staff assistance
- Any necessary equipment (vehicles, etc.)
- Ground burial plot / columbarium niche
- Headstone installation
- Endowment fees
How Does Cremation Work?
Cremation takes place at a crematorium. It is the process of burning a human body at very high temperatures until only brittle, calcified bones are left. The crematorium then reduces the remaining bone into ashes, which may still contain tiny pieces of bone fragments.
Before cremation, the body is stored in a cool, temperature-controlled room. Once cremation is approved, the body is prepared by removing pacemakers (which can explode under heat) prostheses, and silicone implants. Any implanted or injected radioactive cancer treatments are also removed.
The body is placed into a casket or container that is made of flammable materials (pine, plywood or cardboard). Jewelry, glasses, and other items may be removed. The incinerator is preheated to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (593 degrees Celsius). The mechanical doors open, and the container is slid into the cremation chamber on a rolling rack. In some cases, family members can watch through a window or press the ‘start’ button. (If this is your preference, you will need to make arrangements with the crematory in advance.)
The cremation process takes between two to three hours. Each body is burned individually to preserve the integrity of the ashes, though there can be some minute mixing from previous residue in the cremation chamber. The amount of ashes left behind, also referred to as ‘cremains’ or cremated remains, depends more on bone structure than on stature.
You or your loved one may choose to have the ashes kept in an urn, scattered or spread or incorporated into another object or work of art.
As an alternative, alkaline hydrolysis, which is also referred to as biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation or water cremation, is another option other than traditional cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis is a process to dispose of the human body using lye and heat instead of the traditional means of cremation.
Religious Considerations Regarding Cremation
Many cultures and religions have strict views on cremation. Some religions prohibit cremation, some require it, while other religions are accommodating to the deceased or the family’s wishes. If you plan to observe any cultural or religious traditions, any applicable rules may influence your choices regarding the disposition of the body and any traditional funeral, ceremony or memorial arrangements. If you have any questions about how your culture, religion or congregation views cremation, speak with your local religious or cultural leader for definitive answers.
Here is a quick guide to how some religions view cremation. Always check with your local celebrant or religious leader before making any disposition arrangements.
Anglican/Episcopalian – Cremation is acceptable.
Baptist – Cremation may take place either before or after the funeral service.
Buddhist – Cremation is acceptable in Buddhism. Monks may be present at the crematorium to lead chanting.
Catholic – Cremation is acceptable. Most churches prefer that the human body be present for the traditional funeral mass. So, cremation should occur after the mass.
Eastern Orthodox – Cremation is prohibited.
Hindu – Traditionally, all Hindus—except babies, children, and saints—are cremated.
Jewish – Cremation preferences vary depending on the degree of orthodoxy of the deceased. Cremation is not acceptable for Orthodox Jews. For Reform Jews, cremation is becoming an increasingly common practice.
Lutheran – Cremation is acceptable.
Methodist – Cremation is acceptable.
Mormon – Cremation is not prohibited, but not encouraged. The Church prefers that bodies be buried.
Muslim – Cremation is forbidden.
Presbyterian – Cremation is generally not supported.
Quaker – Cremation is acceptable.
Where You Can Legally Scatter Your Loved One’s Ashes
Is a scattering of ashes in your plans? Many families prefer to spread all or part of their loved one’s ashes in a special place. It can be comforting to know that a part of your loved one is in a place they enjoyed.
If you’re planning on scattering your loved one’s ashes, or at least a portion of them, you ‘ll want to be sure that you are doing so while following all local and federal regulations. It’s certainly legal to spread ashes in some areas and may not be permissible in others. In some cases, you may need a permit in advance. Let’s take a quick look at some common places to spread ashes.
It’s always legal to spread ashes in the following areas:
- Your own property (If you move you will be leaving your loved one behind, and you will need to inform the new homeowners that there are human remains on the property.)
- Private property (with permission—preferably written—of the property owner)
- Ocean (You must be at least three nautical miles from shore. Check with local authorities for specific regulations.)
You may need a permit to scatter ashes on any of these sites:
- Public property (park, forest, beach, golf course, etc.)
- National park
- Lake, pond, river, stream
Be sure to ask for written permission before spreading ashes in any of these areas:
- Amusement park
- Any place of business
If in doubt about whether you need permission of whether an area is public or private property, always check with local officials first. It’s better to be safe than sorry or to offend a property owner.
A Few More Tips on Spreading Ashes
Find a quiet spot that is out of the way of normal traffic. Ashes are not always a fine powder; they may contain small bone fragments. You wouldn’t want a hiker walking across your loved one’s cremated remains, nor would they be pleased to stumble upon them on their outing.
In addition, keep the wind direction in mind when you are scattering the ashes. It would be unpleasant to say the least for your loved one’s ashes to blow back in your face or to land on others in attendance or any bystanders (or in the plane, if you are dropping ashes from an airplane). You may want to bring a damp cloth to clean your hands afterward.
Above all, be sure that all family members are in agreement with the plan. And if anyone would like to have a portion of the cremated remains for themselves, it would be thoughtful to honor their request.
Finally, remember that it may take some time to get the proper permissions or permit to spread a deceased person’s ashes. Often, this occasion may happen several months after the death of your loved one. If you are unable to obtain documented permission to spread your loved one’s ashes in a specific area, it is absolutely not acceptable to scatter their ashes anyway. You’ll need to find another place to do so.
Other Ways to Preserve Your Loved One’s Ashes
If you’re looking for a unique way to save, scatter or preserve a loved one’s remains, you’ll find many new and interesting options available today. Among the nearly endless possibilities, here are a few ideas you may want to consider.
Teddy Bear – Your loved one’s ashes can be placed in a sealed bag inside of a stuffed animal.
Plant a Tree – You can place your loved one’s ashes in a special burial container that’s designed to grow into a tree. This type of green burial is becoming more popular today.
Natural Reef – This option combines your loved one’s ashes and the urn, all placed into a concrete block that will be part of a natural reef.
Gemstones – Your loved one’s ashes can be compressed to create a gemstone that can be either displayed or worn.
Art – Your loved one’s ashes can be combined with another medium (clay, sand, etc.) to make a sculpture, paperweight or work of art.
Painting – A few artists may be willing to mix your loved one’s ashes with paint to make a painting of them or of their favorite place.
Tattoos – Some tattoo artists will mix a very small amount of your loved one’s ashes with the tattoo ink.
Fireworks – You can have your loved one’s ashes placed into firework shells to be set off on the back of a boat or in a field.
Ammunition – If your loved one was an avid hunter, they may want their ashes preserved in shell casings to be fired or kept.
Vinyl Record – You may want to have your loved one’s ashes mixed into a vinyl record if they were a big music fan.
Outer Space – Your loved one’s ashes can take a round trip to space and back or be sent on their own orbit around the moon or into deep space.
Planning a Ceremony Before and/or after a Cremation Service
The religious beliefs of the deceased may play a large part in what types of ceremonies may be acceptable either before or after a cremation service. Some religions will require a church ceremony before or after the cremation, a burial or internment ceremony after cremation, or both. Services typically accompany the interment of ashes into a columbarium niche, which provides a final resting place for a cremation urn.
You may have a church ceremony soon after death, then hold a burial, internment or ash scattering ceremony days, weeks or months later. Unless your religion has specific guidelines, there are not time limits on when the ashes need to be scattered.
If you are holding any type of ceremony or memorial service, you’ll want to include some of the traditional elements of a funeral service or mass. You may want to ask someone (or more than one person) who was close to the deceased person to write and perform a eulogy to those in attendance. It can still be a time to mourn and/or celebrate the life of the deceased. It may also be appropriate to display pictures or video of your loved one as well as the things they loved and enjoyed.
An End-of-Life Planning Checklist
At Lastly.com, we understand that this is a stressful and sorrowful time in your life. We hope that this guide on how to plan a cremation or a cremation service has been helpful.
An end-of-life checklist will help you plan most things you will need to consider either before or after your loved one’s death. It’s usually best to discuss your plans with your own loved ones before death. Any lack of written plans can create ambiguity, stress, potential arguments, and frustration after your death.
Considering that your family will be grieving, you may want to make as many decisions and arrangements beforehand, so that their grief is not compounded by multiple decisions that must be made in a short time frame. An estate plan may be your best course of action—it's easy to argue that everyone should have an estate plan and it's never too early!
Decide What You Want
- Determine the type of service you want.
- Decide on the disposition of your body or cremated remains.
- Choose where your ashes should be scattered.
- Select any charities that you would like to receive donations.
- Specify where any other donations in your name can be made.
- Legally designate who will care for any dependents.
- Make arrangements for the care of your pet(s).
- Ask someone (or more than one person) to write and perform your eulogy.
- Legally designate an executor of your will and estate (someone who will make all legal decisions after your death or when you are incapacitated).
- Choose a backup executor in case the designated person is not able to perform their duties.
- Create a contact list of people who should be notified upon your death.
- Decide where you’d like obituary and memorial information to appear.
- Let you executor know where your will and other important documents are located (banking information, usernames and passwords, safe deposits, keys, access codes, etc.)
- List safe deposit boxes and locations of other valuable or important assets.
- Prepare a list of account information: bank accounts, credit cards, online accounts, social media passwords, retirement accounts, security codes, insurance policies, and any other relevant accounts that will need to be notified in the event of your death.
- Create a list of contact information for utilities, telephone services, weekly or monthly subscription services, medications, and newspaper or magazine deliveries that need to be canceled.
- Write your obituary or at least record information that should be included.
- Update your will. (You don’t want the state deciding what happens to your children, your home or your belongings.)
- Prepare the appropriate powers of attorney, including documents for a health care surrogate, a living will, and a financial power of attorney, so that your desires can be followed after death or when you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself.
- Create an end-of-life plan, including plans for burial or cremation services.
Review all documents, lists, etc. at least once a year to be sure all information is up to date. Be sure to store all documents in a safe place. Let your executor and/or other trusted family members know where they can find the paperwork when needed. We also recommend that you keep a backup of all documentation in a separate place in the event of a fire or other natural disaster.