Are Cremated Ashes Really of the Person? (& More Cremation Myths)

Cremation myths abound. With the surging popularity of cremation as a the most popular option for final disposition (see #9, below), the myths about cremation are slowly being dispelled.

Today, we’re going to identify and debunk nine of the most common cremation myths.

Cremation Myths

Here are some of the most common myths about cremation.

Myth #1: Cremation is cheaper than burial

If you compare average costs, this statement is true. The cost of a large plot, fancy casket, embalming, gravesite maintenance and more generally makes traditional ground burial the more expensive option.

But depending on what services you select, what you choose to forego, and what you can do yourself, burial can be just as affordable or even more so than cremation.

For instance, the average cost of cremation ranges from $1500-3000 (depending on your area and options selected).

But if you skip the funeral home ($0), don’t embalm ($0), make your own coffin ($25-150, depending on materials) get an affordable headstone ($500-700), clarify costs at the cemetery ($850 and up), and have a DIY memorial service ($100-500, perhaps even less), a burial can match the lowest-priced cremation options.

If you can arrange to have your loved one buried on private property, such as a family farm or ranch, you can lower those costs even further.

More info:

Myth #2: Cremation results in ashes

Although the term “ashes” is used often, even by those of us within the funeral and cremation industry, what is left after cremation is not ashes. The proper term is “cremated remains,” which consist of pulverized bone matter.

Everything else other than the bones are incinerated during the cremation process, and the remaining skeletal material is ground down into a fine, grainy powder.

The remains themselves look something like coarse sand, with an off-white color leaning towards gray. You can learn more here.

Further reading:

Myth #3: You might get someone else’s remains

People often wonder, are cremated ashes really of the person?

A common concern, and the punchline to most cremation jokes, but nonetheless a myth. Here is what the ICCFA (International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association) has written as guidelines for its members and as a model for state regulations:

The crematory authority should not simultaneously cremate more than one human remains in the same cremation chamber unless it has written authorization to do so by the authorizing agent of each human remains to be cremated.

Most funeral homes and crematoriums are members of the ICCFA, NFDA (National Funeral Director’s Association), or other local associations. These groups all have similar guidelines, which have been incorporated into various state laws and regulations that govern the funeral industry.

Additionally, every funeral home and crematorium has protocols in place that ensure the identity of each body and the resulting cremated remains are never in doubt.

The kernel of truth in this myth comes from a very few instances of shady, disreputable individuals years ago who cut corners and swindle their customers. You can make sure that you avoid this rare exception by taking two simple precautions:

  1. Ask the funeral director or crematorium staff about how they maintain identity
  2. Be present for the actual cremation

It is your right to watch the cremation, and doing so helps alleviate the fear that many people have that their loved one’s ashes will be mixed up (or mixed with) another person’s remains.

You may not need or want to view the cremation, so another option is to ask about how they handle the remains throughout the process.

Most funeral homes and crematoriums are very transparent and wish to give you peace of mind in all aspects of their service, and they will welcome the questions and address your concerns.

Myth #4: Cremation is eco-friendly

A partial truth is concealed in this flat-out falsehood. The cremation process itself is not eco-friendly in the least.

Crematoriums use quite a bit of fossil fuels in each cremation, emitting harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and more.

However, there are secondary environmental benefits once you’re past the actual cremation. Since there is no body to bury, there is no land used for burial. You can easily forego the formaldehyde used in most traditional burials, and you also skip the casket, grave liner, and long-term cemetery maintenance.

One solution to this problem is when crematoria install filters in their ventilation systems. This way there will be less impact on the environment but the carbon output is still significant. An eco-friendly alternative is bio-cremation, in which the remains are dissolved by an emission-free chemical and liquid process.

Lastly, the harm to the environment caused by the cremation process may be different than what you might think: Roughly the environmental equivalent of a 500-mile car ride. Depending on your perspective, that may be more or less harmful than you are comfortable with, and the eco-friendly benefits of cremation may or may not outweigh those of traditional burial.

More info:

Myth #5: You can’t have a traditional funeral with cremation

Choosing cremation doesn’t preclude a traditional-style funeral. You can certainly bury a cremation urn, so the only differences will be the size of the container being buried and no viewing immediately prior to the burial.

You can even have an open-casket viewing and memorial service prior to the cremation; you’ll just need to wait a few days for the cremation to be complete before the burial. All other aspects of the funeral and memorial can be the same.

On a practical note, here are some cremation urns designed for burial, along with a guide on using burial vaults to bury and protect the urn.

Related: Weird Things to Do With Ashes

Myth #6: Scattering ashes is illegal

No, scattering ashes is perfectly legal. But you need to seek permission from the land owner prior to scattering. From Knoji:

Many people express the wish to have their cremains scattered at a meaningful location as a way of becoming a part of that environment. State laws about burying or scattering cremains vary, though it is usually legal to dispose of them on your own property or with permission of a property owner. The Environmental Protection Agency does stipulate that cremains should be released 3 miles away from shore. However, since cremains are not toxic, scattering someone’s ashes anywhere will not be a danger to public health. Veterans are entitled to have their cremains scattered at sea by the Navy or Coast Guard.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is common for families to scatter remains at a favorite hiking, camping, or fishing spot. The regulations for just about any publicly owned land can be summarized by “pack in, pack out.” In other words, don’t litter: don’t take anything into the forest or on the hiking trails that you don’t bring back out again.

The purpose of these type of regulations is to protect and preserve the land. Again, since cremated remains are not toxic and not harmful to the environment, most agencies will grant permission when asked. Contact your local city, state, or county offices for more information.

More resources on scattering ashes:

Myth #7: You have to purchase an urn from the funeral home

No, you can purchase an urn from anywhere and bring it to the funeral home or crematorium. According to the FTC’s Funeral Rule, “the funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket [or urn] you bought elsewhere.”

We wrote an entire blog post on this topic, linked below plus some more resources:

Myth #8: Cremation is different for pets and humans

There is little to no difference between cremation for humans and for pets. Both use the same type of equipment and similar processes, and some crematoriums work with both pets and humans.

Check with your local veterinarian, pet cemetery, or crematorium for more information about pet cremation. For human cremation, check out local listings for funeral homes and crematoriums.

Related: Everything to Know About Pet Cremation

Myth #9: Cremation is an “alternative” disposition method

This used to be the case, but it simply isn’t true anymore. Cremation is mainstream in many countries all over the world, averaging about 50% in most developed regions.

In the USA, cremation is chosen in more than 47% of deaths, ranging from just under 20% in Mississippi to 75% in Nevada. The average across Canada is 65%, in the United Kingdom it is 77%, Australia 69%, China is at 48% and rising, India at about 85%, and Japan leads all nations with cremation rates at 99.97%.  Here is the Wikipedia article on cremation rates around the world.

Since cremation is so common throughout the world, it shouldn’t be described as an “alternative” disposition method any longer. It is one of two common basic choices (burial being the other) for disposition methods.

The Truth About Cremation

The truth about cremation is that it is a common, normalized practice.

It can be much cheaper than burial with all the add-ons, but a simple burial can be slightly more affordable depending on the options you choose.

Even with a cremation, you can still have a traditional funeral service, or something more creative like a celebration of life.

The industry is well-regulated, and you can be sure that the remains you receive are those of your loved one. You can witness the cremation if you so choose, and you can also use the urn of your choice – you don’t have to buy what the funeral home or crematorium offers.

The cremation process for humans and pets is essentially the same. Cremation uses less land than a traditional burial, but the process itself involves fossil fuels and emissions so it can’t be considered fully “eco-friendly.”

The cremated remains – which are technically not “ashes” but are often called that – are non-toxic and can be safely scattered anywhere you have permission to scatter, including the ocean. You can also keep your loved one’s remains at home in a beautiful cremation urn.

Cremation is a respectful choice for the final disposition of your loved one.

Read Next: Weird Questions About Cremation (and Their Answers)

cremation myths - pin it image
Photo of author


Daniel Szczesniak

Daniel has been working in the funeral industry since 2010, speaking directly to grieving families as they made funeral arrangements. He began researching and publishing funeral articles on this website as part of his role as product and marketing manager...

21 thoughts on “Are Cremated Ashes Really of the Person? (& More Cremation Myths)”

  1. It’s interesting that people are starting to choose cremation more commonly throughout the world. Especially in countries with a higher population density like Japan and India, it makes sense to cremate instead of bury. I also like the idea of having a reminder of your loved one at home instead of just a tombstone.

  2. I really need to know that the ashes are really those of your loved ones and not mixed up with somebody elses.

  3. Interesting article! Two points:

    The “bio-cremation” referred to in #4 is alkaline hydrolysis. Essentially a lye solution liquefies the soft tissue and is then flushed down into the sewer system. Less emissions, yes. Less eco-friendly, maybe? But might be offensive to some to dump mom’s remains in the sewer.

    Another Myth (#10?): Cremation is simpler.
    Seems simple, right? After the cremation, we just get the cremated body back in an urn and can keep it close at home. But many people fail to make long term plans for the urn. More news stories are cropping up around third or fourth generations who inherit great-grandma by default and aren’t sure what to do. Worse, the urns are sometimes left in sold homes, vacated apartments, or even popping up at antique stores. If you make arrangements to cremate, make sure there is a “final” disposition. Don’t just pass the decision down the road. Make a plan to inter at a cemetery, scatter, etc. and then communicate it to your loved ones.

    Oh, yeah. Those ceremonies, rituals, and gatherings we’re fond of avoiding because they seem too depressing? If we ignore them, it turns out we may be depriving ourselves of the healthy, therapeutic benefits of dealing with death and loss.

  4. I like that you explained the importance of asking for permission before scattering ashes in a certain area. My grandfather and I enjoyed fishing together every weekend in a lake near his home, and I would like to scatter his ashes there once he is cremated since that place was special to both of us. I’ll see if I can ask for permission after he is cremated.

  5. Hi guys
    I have a question,its bothering me so much.
    Ok il start at the start,my grandpa passed away on 25th November 2020 and was cremated on 8th December 2020 we got his remains from the funeral place 2 days later.
    I opened the wooden casket with the remains in,and saw that his remains is little in a small bag. I saw on YouTube and on TV and other places that the remains is more,why is my grandpa’s remains less,is it normal?
    I’ve been thinking maby the crematorium didn’t give us all of his remains back.
    And I must say before he was cremated I told my parents that I think my grandfather’s remains wil be more than a normal amount of human remains because he was very tall,and unfortunately I was wrong his remains is less than the normal human amount of remains.

    I hope you can help

  6. Hi Dylan,

    Good questions! The amount of remains can vary quite a bit depending on the individual and the conditions of cremation (the machine, settings, temperature, etc). All estimates are just that – an estimate, and may not reflect what actually results. You should have an amount that more or less fills a small box measuring 8.5″ x 6.5″ x 4.5″ (that is the standard size of a temporary urn). I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask the crematorium any questions you have, and you can read this resource as well.

  7. When my friend was cremated against his will and his wishes. I had a debate with his mother and they having been his significant other and lived with him for years. She would not share a drop of his remains and the director of the crematorium told me that the remains in the urn or not just his he said we cremate a lot of people one right after the other and it’s because of the cost of heating up the furnace as a practical Financial convenience. He said not to worry that it wasn’t worth worrying about because it could be ashes from several people. That’s from the man himself. I can’t see why he would comfort me with lie. Your article might be comforting but I find it controversial depending on each individual crematorium. With covid-19 they are running 12 hour shifts and cremating nearly 30 people or more a day there is no way to separate the ashes as they are called remains

  8. Hi Nicole,

    Thanks for your comment! Sorry to hear about your experience. As for the crematorium, that is a bad, unethical business and you should report them to your state’s licensing board.

  9. This isn’t related to the myths really, but someone told me that you could just walk into a crematorium and get random ashes. I have a feeling they are completely wrong but I need clarification

  10. Hi Pho,

    No, you typically wouldn’t be allowed to simply walk into a crematorium and get random (aka unclaimed) ashes. The crematorium works closely with the family to ensure that the ashes are given to the proper family member, and most states have laws about unclaimed ashes.

  11. This is for Daniel.. Why on earth would you open an Urn in the first place! To me, that is interrupting their final rest

  12. Hi Stacey,

    Great question! There are many reasons to open an urn. Sometimes the decedent left instructions, or the spouse/family would like to do something special, or there are circumstances that require it.

    This might include:
    Scatter some of the remains
    Commingle the remains with a spouse
    – Put keepsakes (or retrieve keepsakes from) inside the urn
    – Get some of the remains to make a diamond ring keepsake
    – Transfer the remains from a temporary urn, or an urn they don’t like, into a better or more appropriate urn
    – The urn broke and must be replaced
    – Moving across country and flying with the remains, and they need to be placed into a different container to make it through TSA screenings

    I’ve spoken to many, many people on the phone and by email about this over the years. It’s more common than you might think!

  13. Is 8 lbs for cremains normal or does it seem I have two people. The amount equals about 12 cups. Individual was a man about 67 inches tall and weighed about 216lbs

  14. Hi Lynn,

    That sounds exactly right! The rule of thumb we use to make sure the remains fit into an urn is that 1 lbs of body weight will require 1 cubic inch of space in the urn (or less). A 216 lbs man will require less than 216 cubic inches, and 8 cups comes out to 173 cubic inches, so that sounds perfectly accurate. Also, remains will weigh between 4-8 lbs depending on the size of the person, so 8 lbs also sounds right in your case. Hope this helps!

  15. Correction to above question (Lynn). My relative weight was 216 lbs and he was 5 ft 7 inches tall
    His cremains actually weighed 8lbs 6 oz and equaled almost 9 cups.
    I was concerned because he was cremated in another state and some people told me when I received them that it was alot for his size.

  16. Hi Lynn,

    Thanks for clarifying. Again, that’s still well within a reasonable amount. 9 cubs is approximately 130 cubic inches. A 5’7″ male has a “healthy body weight” of about 140-160 lbs, which would result in around 140-160 cubic inches (see here for more info on that).

    Again, these are general rules of thumb, so 130 cubic inches is pretty close, and actually on the low end. Based on the information you provided, we’re really, really confident that you have the correct remains and that the cremation and handling of the ashes was done correctly and appropriately.

    Hope this helps!

  17. What eventually happens with the remains that are scattered in your back yard? I could see some of them for a short time and then they were gone….

  18. Hi Mary Ann,

    The remains return to the earth, mixing in with the soil and grass and anything else in the yard where you scattered them. It’s a beautiful way to link your home to the memory of your loved one!

Leave a Comment