9 Myths About Cremation

9 Cremation Myths That Everyone Thinks Are True

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

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 or 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:

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 see a photo of cremated remains here.

Further reading:

3. You might get someone else’s remains

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.

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.

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.

Some insight on the cremation process from Kern:

Though cremation process is better for the environment since it does not use up so much space, yet the actual process of cremation cannot be considered as eco-friendly. For cremation to take place large amounts of fossil fuels are required which in turn releases several harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. These harmful chemicals include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrofluoric acid, and mercury.

One solution to this problem is to make 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:

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.

6. Scattering ashes is illegal

No, but you should 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:

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:

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.

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 33% of deaths, ranging from just under 10% in Mississippi to 68% in Nevada. The average across Canada is 65%, in the United Kingdom it is 73%, Australia 65%, China is at 45% 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.

Myths about Cremation

5 thoughts on “9 Cremation Myths That Everyone Thinks Are True”

  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. Chris Makowske

    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.

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