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Cremation is the process of reducing human remains to basic chemical compounds in the form of gases and bone fragments. This is accomplished through high temperatures and vaporization.Contrary to popular belief, the cremated remains are not ashes in the usual sense, but rather dried bone fragments that have been pulverized in a device called an electric cremated remains processor. This leaves the bone in a fine sand like texture and colour, able to be scattered without any foreign matter.

Cremation may serve as a funeral or postfuneral rite that is an alternative to the interment of an intact body in a casket. Cremated remains, which are not a health risk, may be buried or immured in memorial sites or cemeteries, or they may be legally retained by relatives or dispersed in a variety of ways and locations.

In many countries cremation is usually done in a crematory but others may prefer different methods. An example is the common practice of open-air cremation in India.

Modern cremation process

The cadaver is checked to ensure jewelry has been removed.
This checking process is not done in the UK—see text below.

The cremation occurs in a crematory, consisting of one or more cremator furnaces or cremation retorts for the ashes. A cremator is an industrial furnace capable of generating temperatures of to ensure disintegration of the corpse. A crematorium may be part of chapel or a funeral home, or part of an independent facility or a service offered by a cemetery.

Modern cremator fuels include natural gas and propane. However, coal and coke were used until the early 1960s.

Modern cremators have adjustable control systems that monitor the furnace during cremation.

A cremation furnace is not designed to cremate more than one body at a time, something that is illegal in many countries, including the U.S. Exceptions are sometimes made in extreme cases, such as of a deceased mother and her still-born child or still-born twins, but in these cases the mother and child have to be placed in the same coffin.

The chamber where the body is placed is called the retort. It is lined with refractory bricks that resist the heat. The bricks are typically replaced every five years because of thermal fatigue.

Modern cremators are computer-controlled to ensure legal and safe use; e.g., the door cannot be opened until the cremator has reached operating temperature. The coffin is inserted (charged) into the retort as quickly as possible to avoid heat loss through the top-opening door. The coffin may be on a charger (motorised trolley) that can quickly insert the coffin, or one that can tilt and tip the coffin into the cremator.

Some crematoria allow relatives to view the charging. This is sometimes done for religious reasons, such as in traditional Hindu and Jain funerals.

Most cremators are a standard size. Typically, larger cities have access to an oversize cremator that can handle deceased in the + range. Most large crematoriums have a small cremator installed for the cremation of fetal and infant remains.

Body container

In the U.S., a body ready to be cremated must be placed in a container for cremation, which can be a simple corrugated cardboard box or a wooden casket. Most casket manufacturers provide a line of caskets specially built for cremation. Another option is a cardboard box that fits inside a wooden shell designed to look like a traditional casket. After the funeral service, the interior box is removed from the shell before cremation, permitting the shell to be reused. Funeral homes may also offer rental caskets, which are traditional caskets used only for the duration of the services, after which the body is transferred to another container for cremation. Rental caskets are sometimes designed with removable beds and liners, which are replaced after each use.

In the UK, the body is not removed from the coffin and is not placed into a container as described above. The body is cremated with the coffin, which is why all UK coffins that are to be used for cremation must be made of combustible material. The Code of Cremation Practice forbids the opening of the coffin once it has arrived at the crematorium, and rules stipulate it must be cremated within 72 hours of the funeral service. Thus, in the UK, bodies are cremated in the same coffin as they are placed in at the undertakers although the regulations allow the use of an approved 'cover' during the funeral service. It is recommended that jewellery be removed before the coffin is sealed for this reason. After the cremation process has been completed, the remains are passed through a magnetic field to remove any metal, which will be interred elsewhere in the crematorium grounds, or increasingly, recycled. The ashes are then given to relatives or loved ones or scattered in the Crematorium grounds where facilities exist.

In Australia, the deceased are cremated in a coffin supplied by the undertaker. Reusable or cardboard coffins are becoming popular with several manufacturers now supplying them. If cost is an issue, a plain, particle-board coffin (known in the trade as a "chippie") will be offered. Handles (if fitted) are plastic and approved for use in a cremator. Coffins vary from natural cardboard or unfinished particle board (covered with a velvet pall if there is a service) to solid timber; most are veneered particle board.

Cremations can be "delivery only," with no preceding chapel service at the crematorium (although a church service may have been held) or preceded by a service in one of the crematorium chapels. Delivery-only allows crematoriums to schedule cremations to make best use of the cremators, perhaps by holding the body overnight in a refrigerator. As a result, a lower fee is applicable. Delivery-only may be referred to in industry jargon as "west chapel service."

Burning and ashes collection

Remains with large pieces are put into a machine, the "cremulator," that grinds them down to finer bone fragments that somewhat resemble wood-ash in appearance, but of higher density.

The box containing the body is placed in the retort and incinerated at a temperature of 760° to 1150°C (1400° to 2100°F). During the cremation process, a large part of the body (especially the organs) and other soft tissue are vaporized and oxidized because of the heat, and the gases are discharged through the exhaust system. The entire process usually takes about two hours.

All that remains after cremation are dry bone fragments (mostly calcium phosphates and minor minerals). Their color is usually light grey. They represent very roughly 3.5% of the body's original mass (2.5% in children). Because the weight of dry bone fragments is so closely connected to skeletal mass, their weight varies greatly from person to person, although it is more closely connected with the person's height and sex than with their simple weight. The mean weight of adult cremated remains in a Florida, U.S. sample was 5.3 lb (approx. 2.4 kg) for adults (range ). This was found to be distributed bimodally according to sex, with the mean being for men (range ) and for women (range ). In this sample, generally all adult cremated remains over were from males, and those under were from females.

Jewelry, such as wristwatches and rings, are ordinarily removed and returned to the family. The only nonnatural item required to be removed is a pacemaker, because it could explode and damage the cremator. Also the mercury contained in a pacemaker's batteries poses an unacceptable risk of air pollution. In the United Kingdom, and possibly other countries, the undertaker is required to remove pacemakers prior to delivering the body to the crematorium, and sign a declaration stating that any pacemaker has been removed.

After the incineration is completed, the bone fragments are swept out of the retort and the operator uses a pulverizer called a cremulator to process them into what are known as cremated remains, which exhibit the appearance of grains of sand (note that this varies with the efficiency of the cremulator used, and recognizable chips of very dry bone may be seen in some final product cremated remains, depending on origin and facility). Cremulators usually use some kind of rotating or grinding mechanism to powder the bones, such as the heavy metal balls on older models.See also ball mill.

Bone-picking ceremony at a Japanese funeral
In a Japanese funeral and in Taiwanmarker, the bones are not pulverized unless requested beforehand, and are collected by the family.

This is one of the reasons cremated remains are called ashes, although a technical term sometimes used is "cremains", a portmanteau of "cremated" and "remains". (The Cremation Association of North America prefers the word "cremains" to not be used for referring to "human cremated remains." "Cremains" has no real connection with the deceased whereas a loved one's "cremated remains" has a human connection.)

The ashes are placed in a container, which can be anything from a simple cardboard box to a decorative urn. An unavoidable consequence of cremation is that a tiny residue of bodily remains is left in the chamber after cremation and mixes with subsequent cremations.

Not all that remains is bone. There may be melted metal lumps from missed jewelry; casket furniture; dental fillings; and surgical implants, such as hip replacements. Large items such as titanium hip replacements or casket hinges are usually removed before grinding, as they may damage the grinder. They may be returned to the family, or are more commonly sold as ferrous/non-ferrous scrap metal. After grinding, smaller bits of metal such as tooth fillings, and rings (commonly known as gleanings) are sieved out and may be later interred in common, consecrated ground in a remote area of the cemetery or sold as precious metal scrap.

Methods of keeping or disposing of the cremated remains

Cremated remains are boxed with a plastic liner for the family to do as they wish, or placed in an urn and sealed shut.

Cremated remains are returned to the next of kin in a rectangular plastic container, contained within a further cardboard box or velvet sack, or in an urn if the family had already purchased one. An official certificate of cremation prepared under the authority of the crematorium accompanies the remains, and if required by law, the permit for disposition of human remains, which must remain with the cremated remains.

Cremated remains can be kept in an urn, stored in a special memorial building (columbarium), buried in the ground at any location or sprinkled on a special field, mountain, in the sea. In addition, there are several services in which the cremated remains will be scattered in a variety of ways and locations. Some examples are via a helium balloon, through fireworks, shot from shotgun shells, or scattered from an airplane (this is not illegal in most jurisdictions, in part because laws prohibiting it would be difficult to enforce). One service sends a lipstick-tube sized sample of the cremated remains into low earth orbit, where they remain for years (but not permanently) before re-entering the atmosphere. Another company claims to turn part of the cremated remains into synthetic diamonds that can then be made into jewelry. Cremated remains may also be incorporated, with urn and cement, into part of an artificial reef, or they can also be mixed into paint and made into a portrait of the deceased. Cremated remains can be scattered in national parks in the U.S., with a special permit. They can also be scattered on private property, with the owner's permission. A portion of the cremated remains may be retained in a specially designed locket known as cremation jewelry. The cremated remains may also be entombed. Most cemeteries will grant permission for burial of cremated remains in occupied cemetery plots that have already been purchased or are in use by the families disposing of the cremated remains, without any additional charge or oversight.

The final disposition depends on the personal wishes of the deceased as well as their cultural and religious beliefs. Some religions will permit the cremated remains to be sprinkled or kept at home. Some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, insist on either burying or entombing the remains. Hinduism obliges the closest male relative (son, grandson, etc.) of the deceased to immerse the cremated remains in the holy river Gangesmarker, preferably at the holy city of Triveni Sangam, Allahabadmarker,or Varanasimarker or Haridwarmarker, Indiamarker. The Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus immerse the remains in Sutlejmarker, usually at Sri Harkiratpur. In southern India the ashes are immersed in the river Kaveri at Paschima vahini in Srirangapattanamarker at a stretch where the river flows from east to west, Depicting the life of a human being from sunrise to sunset. In Japan and Taiwan, the remaining bone fragments are given to the family and are used in a burial ritual before final interment (see Japanese funeral).

Reasons for choosing cremation

Cremation allows for very economical use of cemetery space.

Apart from religious reasons (discussed below), some people find they prefer cremation for personal reasons. It is because they are not attracted to traditional burial. The thought of a long, slow decomposition process is unappealing to some;many people find that they prefer cremation because it disposes of the body immediately.

Other people view cremation as a way of simplifying their funeral process. These people view a traditional burial as an unneeded complication of their funeral process, and thus choose cremation to make their services as simple as possible.

The cost factor tends to make cremation attractive. Generally speaking, cremation is cheaper than traditional burial services, especially if direct cremation is chosen, in which the body is cremated as soon as legally possible without any sort of services.

Cremated remains can be scattered or buried. Cremation plots or columbarium niches are usually cheaper than a traditional burial plot or mausoleum crypt, and require less space. Some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, require the burial or entombment of cremated remains, but burial of cremated remains may often be accomplished in the burial plot of another person, such as a family member, without any additional cost. It is also very common to scatter the remains in a place which was liked by the deceased such as the sea, a river, a beach or a park, following their last will. This is generally forbidden in public places but very easy to do. Richer persons can now also have their ashes scattered in space (known as space burial).

Environmental impact

Cremation might be preferable for environmental reasons. Burial is a known source of certain environmental contaminants, with the coffin itself being the major contaminant.Another concern is contamination from radioisotopes that have entered the body before death or burial, although cremation does not seem to be advantageous. For example, one possible source of isotopes is radiation therapy, although no accumulation of radiation occurs in the most common type of radiation therapy involving high energy photons. However, cremation has no effect on radioisotopes other than to return them to the environment more rapidly (beginning with some spread into the air).

Yet another environmental concern, of sorts, is that traditional burial takes up a great deal of space. In a traditional burial, the body is buried in a casket made from a variety of materials. In Americamarker, the casket is often placed inside a concrete vault or liner before burial in the ground. While individually this may not take much room, combined with other burials, it can over time cause serious space concerns. Many cemeteries, particularly in Japanmarkerand Europe as well as those in larger cities, have run out of permanent space. In Tokyomarker, for example, traditional burial plots are extremely scarce and expensive, Cremation was sometimes used by authorities as part of punishment for heretics, and this did not only include burning at the stake. For example, the body of John Wycliff was exhumed years after his death and cremated, with the ashes thrown in a river,explicitly as a posthumous punishment for his denial of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.On the other hand, mass cremations were often performed out of fear of contagious diseases, such as after a battle, pestilence, or famine. Retributory cremation continued into modern times. For example, after World War II, the bodies of the 12 men convicted of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trialsmarker were not returned to their families, but were instead cremated, then disposed of at a secret location as a specific part of a legal process intended to deny their use as a location for any sort of memorial.In Japan, however, erection of a memorial building for many executed war criminals, who were also cremated, was allowed for their remains.

The modern era

In 1873, Paduanmarker Professor Brunetti presented a cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. In Britain, the movement found the support of Queen Victoria's surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, who together with colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The first crematoria in Europe were built in 1878 in Wokingmarker, England and Gothamarker, Germany, the first in North America in 1876 by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne in Washington, Pennsylvaniamarker. The second cremation in the United States was that of Charles F. Winslow in Salt Lake City, Utahmarker on July 31, 1877. The first cremation in Britain took place on 26 March 1886 at Woking.

Cremation was declared as legal in England and Wales when Dr. William Price was prosecuted for cremating his son;formal legislation followed later with the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902 (this Act did not extend to Ireland), which imposed procedural requirements before a cremation could occur and restricted the practice to authorised places.Some of the various Protestant churches came to accept cremation, with the rationale being, "God can resurrect a bowl of ashes just as conveniently as he can resurrect a bowl of dust." The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia was critical about these efforts, referring to them as a "sinister movement" and associating them with Freemasonry, although it said that "there is nothing directly opposed to any dogma of the Church in the practice of cremation."In 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban on cremation,and in 1966 allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies.

Australia also started to establish modern cremation movements and societies. Australians had their first purpose-built modern crematorium and chapel in the West Terrace Cemeterymarker in the South Australianmarker capital of Adelaidemarker in 1901. This small building, resembling the buildings at Wokingmarker, remained largely unchanged from its 19th century style and was in full operation until the late 1950s. The oldest operating crematorium in Australia is at Rookwood Cemeterymarker, in Sydneymarker. It opened in 1925.

In the Netherlandsmarker, the foundation of the Association for Optional Cremation in 1874 ushered in a long debate about the merits and demerits of cremation. Laws against cremation were challenged and invalidated in 1915 (two years after the construction of the first crematorium in the Netherlands), though cremation did not become legally recognised until 1955.

Negative experiences with cremation in recent history

World War II

In addition to the atrocity of mass murder, the remains of Jews were thus disposed of by the Nazis in a manner deeply offensive to Orthodox Judaism, because Halakha, the Jewish law, forbids cremation and additionally holds that it is painful to the soul of a cremated person. This is because the soul of recently dead person is not fully aware that they died, and they experience seeing their body burnt (this is also one of the reasons autopsies are forbidden under normal circumstances). In a normal burial, as the body decays, slowly the soul moves "farther" from it. Since then, cremation has carried an extremely negative connotation for many Jews.

The Tri-State Crematory Incident

A recent controversial event, known as the Tri-State Crematory Incident, involved the failure to cremate. In early 2002, in the state of Georgiamarker in the United States, 334 corpses that were supposed to have been cremated in the previous few years at the Tri-State Crematory were found intact and decaying on the crematorium's grounds, having been dumped there by the crematorium's proprietor. Many of the corpses were beyond identification. In many cases, the "ashes" that were returned to the family were not human remains; they were made of wood and concrete dust.

Eventually Ray Brent Marsh—who was the operator at the time the bodies were discovered—had 787 criminal charges filed against him. On November 19, 2004, Marsh pleaded guilty to all charges. Marsh was sentenced to two 12-year prison sentences from both Georgiamarker and Tennesseemarker, which he is serving concurrently. Afterwards, he will be on probation for 75 years.

Civil suits were filed against the Marsh family as well as a number of funeral homes who shipped bodies to Tri-State; these suits were ultimately settled. The property of the Marsh family has been sold, but collection of the full $80-million judgment remains doubtful. Families have expressed the desire to return the former Tri-State crematory to a natural, parklike setting.

The Indian Ocean tsunamis

The magnitude 9.0–9.3 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquakemarker triggered a series of lethal tsunamis on December 26, 2004 that killed almost 300,000 people, making them the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history. The tsunamis killed people over an area ranging from the immediate vicinity of the quake in Indonesiamarker, Thailandmarker, and the northwestern coast of Malaysiamarker, to thousands of kilometers away in Bangladeshmarker, Indiamarker, Sri Lankamarker, the Maldivesmarker, and even as far as Somaliamarker, Kenyamarker, and Tanzania in eastern Africa.

Authorities had difficulties dealing with the large numbers of bodies, and as a result, thousands of bodies were cremated together. Local authorities believed that decaying bodies would be a vector for disease . Many of these bodies were not identified or viewed by relatives prior to cremation. A particular point of objection was that the bodies of Westerners were kept separate from those of Asian descent, who were mostly locals. This meant that the bodies of tourists from other Asian nations, such as Japanmarker and Koreamarker, were mass cremated, rather than being returned to their country of origin for funeral rites.

See also


  1. retrieved 26 November 2009
  2. retrieved 26 November 2009
  3. retrieved 26 November 2009
  4. In the Netherlands this is also done by either the undertaker or the hospital where the person died.
  5. Carlson, p. 80
  6. Sublette & Flagg, p. 53
  8. Dutch, Vereniging voor Facultatieve Lijkverbranding

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