How Does Cremation Work?

Written by Kim Wilhelm

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Last Updated 14 Apr 2024

Cremation is one of the most popular choices of families at the time of the passing of their loved ones. Nearly 60% of families opted to cremate their loved ones in 2022, and by 2027, that number will reach 65.2%. 

Having said that, it's natural to have fears and concerns about the cremation process. Understanding exactly how the body is prepared for cremation, what happens to the human body during the cremation process, and how you or your loved one's ashes are handled can alleviate a lot of those fears.

In this article, we'll take a look at the entire cremation process from start to finish.


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Why Do So Many People Choose Cremation?

Cremation offers greater flexibility in terms of memorial services and final resting place. After cremation, the ashes of the deceased person can be kept in a cremation urn at home, scattered in a meaningful location, or buried in a cemetery. This allows families to personalize the memorialization process according to their wishes.

Cremation is also considered a more affordable option compared to traditional burial. Traditional burials involve costs such as purchasing a burial plot, casket, and headstone, whereas cremation typically requires fewer expenses. Most crematoriums have small chapels where a cremation service can be held, just like any traditional funeral, although some families choose to have a memorial service at their home or church instead.

Some people choose cremation due to its perceived environmental benefits. Cremation generally has a smaller ecological footprint compared to traditional burials, which involve embalming fluids, caskets, and land use for burial plots. Some individuals see cremation as a more eco-friendly option.

Cremation is also a good option for family members who are dispersed all over the country. Cremation provides the option to transport or ship the ashes to different places, allowing families to maintain a connection with their loved ones even if they are far away.

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How Does Cremation Work?

Cremation is a process that involves the high-temperature combustion of a deceased person's body, reducing it to ashes. It is an alternative to traditional burial and has been practiced for thousands of years in various cultures around the world.

The average cost of a cremation by itself is around $1,200-1,800, although this may vary depending on your location and the services you choose. Traditional funeral services/cremation services with a viewing, flowers, hearse, and other touches significantly add to the cost, usually costing families around $4,500-$6,500.

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The Cremation Process

The cremation process typically takes place in a specialized cremation facility called a crematorium.

Step 1. Identifying the Deceased

The family member confirms the identity of the deceased, and a metal ID tag is placed on the body for verification.

Step 2. Authorizing the Procedure

The crematory obtains official permission to proceed with the cremation through completed paperwork by the person responsible for final arrangements.

Step 3. Preparing the Body

Once the cremation has been authorized, the body is prepared for cremation. The body is cleaned and dressed, with the removal of jewelry and certain items, unless requested otherwise. Medical devices and prosthetics are also removed.

Step 4. Moving into the Cremation Chamber

The body is placed in a container, typically a cremation casket or a combustible vessel, and transferred to a specially designed cremation chamber.

Step 5. Incineration

The cremation chamber is heated to high temperatures, usually between 1,400 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat reduces the body to bone fragments through the process of combustion.

Step 6. Cooling and Processing

After incineration, the remains are allowed to cool down. Any remaining metal, such as implants or fillings, is removed, and the bone fragments are processed into a finer consistency.

Step 7. Finalizing the Remains

The processed remains, often called "cremated remains" or "ashes," are inspected for metal remnants, which are then typically recycled. The ashes are then ready for the next step.

Step 8. Transferring the Ashes

The cremated remains are placed in a temporary container, such as an urn, or transferred to a chosen urn provided by the family. Families may collect the cremated remains a few days after the cremation. The ashes can be kept at home, scattered in a meaningful location, buried in a cemetery, or used for other memorialization practices based on the family's preferences.

The entire cremation process takes place at the crematorium under the supervision of the crematorium staff and can take between 2-3 hours for traditional flame-based processes or up to 16 hours if the family or deceased person opts for liquid cremation. Friends and family are usually not present during the actual cremation process unless there is a special religious requirement.

Types of Cremation

Different types of cremation offer alternatives to traditional burial methods and can be chosen based on personal preferences and environmental considerations. Here are a few types of cremation:

Direct Cremation

This is a simple and cost-effective option where the body is transferred directly to a cremation center without a prior funeral service or viewing. It eliminates the need for embalming and can be followed by a memorial service at a later date.

Liquid Cremation (Alkaline Hydrolysis)

Liquid cremation is an alternative process that uses water, alkali, heat, and pressure to speed up decomposition. It leaves behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid solution. Liquid cremation is flameless and consumes minimal energy. It can be considered a more environmentally friendly option, as the resulting liquid can be recycled through wastewater treatment systems.

Green Cremation

Green cremation refers to the use of alkaline hydrolysis as a more environmentally conscious choice. It significantly reduces the carbon footprint compared to conventional flame-based cremation. Green cremation consumes less energy, eliminates concerns about mercury emissions, and reduces the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses.

It's important to note that the availability of these types of cremation can vary depending on state laws and regulations. While direct cremation is widely accepted, liquid cremation and green cremation may not be legal in all states. Before deciding on a specific type of cremation, it is essential to check the regulations in your state to ensure compliance.

What Happens To Your Body When You Are Cremated?

During the process of cremation, the human body undergoes specific changes depending on the type of cremation method used:

Flame-Based Cremation (Traditional Method)

In the traditional flame-based method, the body is placed in a cremation chamber. The chamber is heated to temperatures ranging from 1,400 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (760 to 1,090 degrees Celsius). The intense heat and flames cause the body to undergo combustion in two stages. In the primary combustion stage, tissues, organs, body fat, and some container materials are burned off as gasses. In the secondary combustion stage, the remaining inorganic particles, usually from the container, continue to undergo combustion. The gasses produced, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide and water vapor, are discharged from the chamber, leaving behind bone fragments. These bone fragments are then pulverized into ashes, which are the final remains.

Alkaline Hydrolysis (Liquid Cremation)

In alkaline hydrolysis, also known as liquid cremation or aquamation, the body is placed in a pressurized stainless steel chamber. The chamber is filled with a solution consisting of 95% water and 5% alkali, typically potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The temperature is raised to around 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius), which accelerates the natural decomposition process that would occur during burial over many years. The alkaline solution breaks down the chemical bonds in the body, converting them into basic chemicals. The bone fragments remain in the chamber and are processed into ash, similar to the flame-based method. The liquid portion contains tissue remnants such as water, salts, and amino acids. This liquid, which is sterile, is typically disposed of into the wastewater system after being treated in accordance with local regulations.

Specific processes and equipment used can vary between crematories and regions. The goal of both flame-based cremation and alkaline hydrolysis is to reduce the body to its basic elements, either bone fragments or a sterile liquid, depending on the method used. These remains can then be handled according to the family's wishes for final disposition or memorialization.

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Cremation FAQs

Do I have to pay for a casket if my loved one is cremated?

No, you generally do not need to purchase a casket if your loved one is being cremated. Cremation can be performed with a simple combustible container instead of a traditional casket, which can significantly reduce costs. However, some crematories may have specific requirements for the type of container used, so it's important to check with the crematory or funeral provider for their guidelines.

When can I collect the cremated remains?

The timing for collecting cremated remains can vary depending on various factors, including the specific crematory, paperwork processing, and any additional services requested. In general, cremated remains are typically available for collection within a few days to a week after the cremation process is completed. The crematory or funeral provider will coordinate with you to arrange a suitable time for collection.

Do I have to hire a funeral director to oversee the cremation process?

It usually depends on local laws and regulations. In some jurisdictions, it may be mandatory to engage a licensed funeral director to handle the necessary paperwork and coordinate the logistics of cremation. However, in certain places, you may have the option to work directly with a crematory or choose a funeral director's services based on your preferences.

Can we still have a ceremony or funeral service if my loved one is cremated?

Yes, absolutely. Cremation does not prevent you from having a ceremony or funeral service to honor and remember your loved one. In fact, many families choose to hold memorial services, celebrations of life, or funeral ceremonies even when their loved one is cremated. These events can take place before or after the cremation process and can be tailored to your preferences, incorporating religious, cultural, or personal elements to create a meaningful tribute.

Paying For Cremation

Even though cremation is a more affordable option than burial, it can still be expensive. The good news is that there are final expense life insurance policies that are designed specifically to cover end of life expenses, including cremations and burials.

Final expense insurance covers the costs associated with a person's funeral upon their death. It is often referred to as burial insurance or funeral insurance. The primary purpose of final expense insurance is to alleviate the financial burden placed on family members or loved ones when arranging and paying for funeral or cremation services. It provides a designated amount of coverage that can be used specifically for funeral-related expenses.

You can apply for final expense insurance at any age. Final expense insurance is generally easier to qualify for compared to traditional life insurance policies. These policies often have simplified underwriting processes, which means there is no medical exam or extensive health screenings required.

Call Final Expense Direct now and get protection in place for your family.

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