Common Questions and Answers About Cremation

Cremation has become a more popular alternative to traditional burials in recent years with as many as 50 percent of all final dispositions of remains now being cremated.  Cremation has become an increasingly favored alternative to traditional burial because it is more economical, flexible, simple and uses less of the earth’s natural resources.

If you’re considering cremation for a loved one or eventually for yourself, here are some things you should know about the process.

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What is Cremation?

Some people assume that creation is an actual funeral service or an action that completes the final disposition of a person’s remains.  That is not the case.  Cremation is simply the process of preparing human remains for final disposition by reducing the body to ashes and bone fragments using high heat and flame.

The process takes two to four hours in a sealed cremation chamber and then the remaining fragments are broken up even further to create a granular whitish grey texture (ashes).  The average adult’s cremated remains will weigh between four to six pounds.

Most religions allow cremation except Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, Eastern Orthodox and some fundamentalist Christian faiths.  The Catholic Church allows cremations as long as it is not chosen for reasons that are in conflict with Christian teachings.

What is the Process for Cremation?

 A casket is not required for cremation, but most states require that there is some kind of container that is either made of wood or cardboard that is cremated with the body.  Embalming is not required before cremation, but some people choose to have a body embalmed if they are going to have a funeral service before the body is cremated.

If there has been a traditional funeral service, the body is typically cremated in the clothing worn at the funeral.  Otherwise, a body is cremated in whatever clothing they were wearing when they passed away.  This may be a hospital gown, pajamas or just a sheet, whichever the family prefers.

Although a funeral home is involved most of the time, cremation is generally contracted out to a third-party provider at an offsite location.

After the body is transported to the crematory, jewelry is removed, and if the person had a pacemaker or other medical device, it is removed as well since this represents an explosion hazard.  The container is placed in a cremation chamber and the temperature is raised to between 1,400 and 1800 degrees resulting in all organic matter being consumed by the heat or by evaporation.

The remaining material is known as cremains which are carefully removed from the chamber.  A magnet is also used to collect any metal that was in the body such as metal joints, or bridgework.  Gold or silver teeth are vaporized during the cremation.  After the cremains are further pulverized, they are placed in a temporary container or in an urn provided by the family.

There are strict rules regarding operating policies and procedures to make sure that remains are clearly identified and there are no mix-ups when it comes to delivering cremains after the fact.

In addition, it is not only illegal to cremate more than one person at a time, it is also physically impossible, because most cremation chambers are only large enough to accommodate a single body at a time.

How Soon After Death Should Cremation be Done?

There are several steps that are part of the cremation process:

  • After a person passes away, their body is stored in a climate-controlled environment until a death certificate is processed. This takes about 48 to 72 hours in most states.
  • A burial transit permit will need to be issued in the county where the death took place so that the body can be transported to either the funeral home for services or directly to the crematory.
  • A medical examiner will need to approve the cremation which can take another two to three days depending on the laws of the state where the cremation is to take place.
  • The next of kin will also need to give written permission for the cremation unless the deceased gave cremation authorization prior to passing away.
  • After that, the cremation is generally completed in another three days.
  • Overall, the entire process will take between 10 and 15 days in most cases.

Where Should I go for Cremation Services?

In some states, only a licensed funeral director can make arrangements for a cremation.  Depending on the laws of your state, you may be able to work directly with a crematory or you may be required to work with a funeral home.  Some crematories will only work with a funeral home.

By law, all funeral homes and cremation businesses must quote their prices either over the phone or by providing you with a copy of their General Price List if you visit them in person.  You should either seek a referral from a trusted source or call several funeral homes or crematories to get pricing, see what services are provided and how they can assist you with all aspects of a cremation.  In some markets, the local Funeral Consumers Alliance will publish a price survey making it easy to compare pricing at a glance.

It should also be noted that no casket is required for a cremation, but most crematories require that a body be placed in a rigid and combustible container.  As a result, federal regulations require that funeral homes must provide these containers at a reasonable cost.

If you want to hold a service before you have your loved one cremated, funeral homes will also rent a nice casket that families can use for visitation or services.  Be aware that just renting a casket can cost as much as $800 for a single use, so if you’re trying to keep services within a reasonable budget, you may want to consider other alternatives.

Can the Family Watch the Cremation?

Generally, family members may be present when the body is placed into a cremation chamber.  Policies do vary from one crematory to another so it’s best to ask what those policies are when you are shopping around for a provider.

Can Cremation be Done After Embalming?

Yes, but in many cases, embalming may not even be required if a body is to be cremated.

Generally, people have a body embalmed when there is going to be a public viewing of the body or if the body is going to be transported a long distance, or if there will be a long time before the body is actually cremated.

Check with your local funeral director to find out the specific rules for your state before deciding on embalming or not.

Many people choose direct cremation, which is the most affordable cremation option.  Direct cremation takes place shortly after a person dies, without embalming or a viewing.

What Can I Do with the Cremated Remains?

Options vary from state to state, but there are many things a family can do with remains after a cremation has taken place. Cremains are sterile and pose no health hazard, so there are not a lot of heavy-handed regulations regarding their final disposition. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • You can scatter remains on land just about anywhere as long as you are discreet. Many people request scattering over places that have been special to them in their lives, and for the most part, scattering on land is legal in most jurisdictions.  If you want to scatter cremains on private property, the appropriate thing to do is to get permission from the owner beforehand.
  • Scattering at sea is also a popular option. Many people rent boats to hold a private service on the water.  Federal regulations require that cremains be scattered at least three miles out from shore, but the Environmental Protection Agency does not enforce this rule.  Scattering at sea is also popular for military personnel, retirees and their dependents.  The Navy or the Coast Guard will perform this service free of charge.  However, because a ship must be deployed in the ocean, no family members may be present.
  • Many people choose to place remains in an urn in a columbarium niche. These are located in mausoleums in cemeteries and provide a private and protected place where family members can return to pay their respects and honor their loved ones.  Some churches also have columbarium niches to place remains as well.
  • Burial in a cemetery is also an option. It is possible to either bury the remains in a regular grave or in a special urn section of a cemetery.  You may be able to bury two or three urns in a single grave site depending on the regulations of the cemetery, meaning that your loved ones will be together in perpetuity.
  • Some people choose to keep a loved one’s remains at their home. They may choose to place an urn on a mantel or bookcase, or have a special container created that reflects how the person is chosen to be remembered.
  • It is possible to also bury a person’s remains on land that you own or on another person’s private property, with their permission. The only caveat here is that the grave and the remains may be disturbed or possibly destroyed if the property is sold and used for other purposes.
  • Another option gaining popularity is memorializing a loved one through the creation of cremation jewelry. Cremation jewelry is either created using a small vessel that stores a small amount of the person’s remains and is then worn as jewelry or using the ashes to be transformed into glass beads, synthetic diamonds or other similar pieces.

What is Cremation Jewelry?

Cremation jewelry is also known as memorial jewelry, remembrance jewelry or funeral jewelry.  Although it has been around for quite a while, the idea behind cremation jewelry is new to many people.  Essentially, cremation jewelry allows family members to keep the memory of a loved one close at hand at all times by transforming a small amount of the deceased person’s remains into a permanent keepsake.

There are two types of cremation jewelry.  Cremated ashes can be placed in a small vessel which can then be worn like regular jewelry.  A small urn with a screw-off top is loaded with the ashes and then sealed.  Pendants are the most common form of this type of cremation jewelry.  The second type of cremation jewelry is made from the ashes of the deceased person.  Ashes can be mixed with glass or porcelain and then transformed into beads, crystals or even synthetic diamonds.  This is the more expensive option of the two and can take months to complete.

Many people love the idea of cremation jewelry for a variety of reasons.

  • Many people will spend thousands of dollars on a traditional funeral and while cremation is a less pricey alternative, there can still be expenses ranging into the hundreds of dollars if a traditional cremation urn is placed in a cemetery or a columbarium.  Cremation jewelry can cost as little as $50 per piece, providing a family with more financial flexibility when cost is a concern.
  • Cremation jewelry is also more portable and can easily be customized. With cremation jewelry, it is easy to carry a loved one’s memory with you at all times, and several people can honor a loved family member at the same time.  Each person can also choose a unique piece of jewelry that is special to them, making the memory even more personal.  There are a wide variety of jewelry options for both men and women to choose from creating maximum flexibility when it comes to making an important choice about what to wear.

Can I Use Veteran’s Benefits if I Choose Cremation?

All honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and minor children are eligible for interment in a national cemetery if they choose cremation.  There is no charge for the interment and cremated remains can be placed in an in-ground grave, garden niche, or in a columbarium based on the family’s preference.  It’s advisable to check in advance on these options because not all national cemeteries offer all three options.

If the interment takes place in a national cemetery, free military honors will be provided for eligible veterans if families request them.  This will include a funeral honor ceremony consisting of the folding and presentation of the American flag and the playing of Taps.  Free headstones and markers are also available.

The VA will reimburse honorably discharged veterans with up to $300 for expenses as long as they meet requirements.  Veterans who died during active duty or who were discharged due to a service related injury can receive up to $2,000.

For more information on burial and cremation benefits are available on this VA fact sheet.

Can Cremation Ashes be Mailed or Taken on an Airplane?

Cremains can be mailed or carried by hand to another destination.  If they are to be mailed, the remains must be placed in an inner container and sealed, and then surrounded by a padded outer container.

If you want to fly with cremated remains, the best thing to do is to contact an airline directly to see what their policies are regarding traveling with remains.  Some airlines will allow them to be carried on board or checked as baggage.  Other airlines will only allow remains to be sent as cargo.

When you take remains on a plane, it is best to just leave them in the container as they came from the crematory.  Keep in mind that they will be x-rayed so you must not place the remains in a metal container, such as an urn, prior to your flight.  Metal containers prevent officials from seeing what is inside.

If you have been issued a certificate of cremation, you should bring that with you on the flight to authenticate that you are indeed traveling with remains.  Some airlines may actually have this as a requirement before you can board the plane.  You might also let the funeral home know beforehand that you intend to travel with the remains on a plane or that you plan on mailing them, so that appropriate measures can be taken.

Which is Cheaper Cremation or Burial?

One of the things that will help determine if a cremation or a burial is better for your situation is price.

According to industry statistics, a traditional funeral will cost anywhere from six to eight times more than a direction cremation.

Cremation vs Burial Cost

Depending on the region of the country, a cremation will run from about $700 to $1,200.

The average burial costs can exceed $6,000 and may not include grave vaults or memorial markers and other add-ons that may be presented to you.

To get an accurate accounting of the costs associated for each, the FTC’s Funeral Rule requires providers to provide pricing up front and you must also be presented with a full range of options, not just the most expensive ones.

Which is Greener Cremation or Burial?

Cremation is considered a much greener form of final disposition than a burial.  Here’s why.

  • For starters, traditional burials usually mean embalming bodies with formaldehyde and it’s estimated that about 800,000 gallons are used in that process every year. When a body goes into the ground, so does that toxic chemical.  Burial plots and cemeteries also use large amounts of acreage, and also create an added problem of leaving unrecycled metals, concrete and other materials in the ground for a long period of time.
  • Although cremation uses more energy and releases greenhouse gases into the air, some state-of-the-art crematories have installed emission controls to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released. New filtering technologies and energy efficiencies are also being implemented to continue to abate pollution issues related to cremation.
  • If you are concerned about keeping a cremation as green as possible you can always choose a casket or container made of recycled cardboard, ask your crematory to recycle any medical devices or metals left over from the cremation process, or choose an energy efficient cremation provider.
  • You can also choose scattering on land or at sea instead of a permanent burial place or placing an urn in a columbarium, or opt for a direct cremation which will eliminate the need for using embalming fluid.

Some people are now also choosing bio-cremation which uses alkaline hydrolysis instead of high heat to dissolve a body.  It uses 1/8th of the energy used in a traditional cremation.  It is currently legal in 14 states and many others are considering approval to permit the process.

Is it possible to be cremated for free?

If a body is donated to science, then cremation can take place free of charge.

There are several organizations throughout the country that will work with families to donate a loved one’s body upon death for medical research purposes.  Generally, cremated remains are returned to family in about two to four weeks.  Not only are families helping the greater good, they can also save hundreds of dollars by going this route.

If this is a possible option for your family, it’s best to try and make arrangements in advance.  Here are some organizations that accept donated bodies:

Anatomy Gifts Registry – a Maryland nonprofit that supplies body specimens for research

Banner Sun Health Research Institute – an Arizona organization that specializes in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cardiovascular research

Science Care – the world’s largest accredited whole body donation program

Medcure – a whole body donation program for professionals engaged in anatomical study

Several medical schools also accept body donations to allow students to further their studies.  An online search should produce several additional possibilities if this is an avenue you would like to consider.