Last Updated on August 4, 2021
When your loved one is going to be cremated, it’s natural to wonder what is involved in the cremation process.
How does cremation work? What happens before and after? How long does it take? Is it really your loved one’s ashes in the box they give you?
Whether you are researching for end-of-life planning, preparing for a career in the funeral industry, or are simply curious, here’s what you need to know about the cremation process.
The Cremation Process
The purpose of cremation is to reduce the body’s organic elements to ash and bone by use of fire.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ve laid out the entire procedure for you here, step by step:
- The first and most important step in the process is identification of the deceased. Cremation authorization documents are also double-checked.
- The body placed in the retort, the chamber of the machine where cremation is to occur. If the body is in a non-metal casket or cremation container, that will also go in.
- Cremation begins. Depending on various factors of the body itself (such as weight), the entire process usually takes a couple of hours.
- The remains are removed from the retort and allowed time to cool. At this point, all that is left is bone material. Any metal pieces (such as silver teeth) are removed from the remains.
- Processing remains into ashes. The remaining bone fragments are pulverized into small particles, which are commonly called “ashes.”
- The ashes are respectfully transferred into a sturdy plastic bag, along with the metal tag, and then placed in their temporary or permanent urn.
- The next-of-kin is notified that cremation is complete.
We’ll cover these in more detail – read on!
How Does Cremation Work?
Before: What happens before cremation can take place?
Following a death, the funeral director will speak to the family about their wishes in regards to final disposition. If a family selects cremation, a date for cremation should be provided in conjunction to when the funeral will occur.
All necessary paperwork, including cremation authorization, will need approval before anything can happen. All relevant parties (next-of-kin who will be receiving the remains back) must provide signatures before anything can happen.
If you are going to hold a service with the body present, then you will plan and hold the funeral prior to cremation, about a week after death. Many families prefer the flexibility of having a memorial service or life celebration after the cremation takes place.
Learn about the different types of funerals and other services here.
Step 1: Identification established & maintained
Using any relevant documents as well as visual confirmation, the crematory operator will check and double-check identification of the decedent, as well as cremation authorization.
Throughout cremation, a metal ID tag bearing a unique number will accompany the decedent to ensure identity. This tag will not leave the remains thereafter and will even accompany it into the urn following cremation.
Step 2: Body placed into cremation chamber
The body will be in either the casket (non-metal caskets are acceptable for cremation) or a simple container – oftentimes a heavy cardboard – if direct cremation is to take place.
Step 3: Cremation begins
Once the operator places the casketed body into the retort, the they shut the cremation chamber and turn on the machine. They will have already heated the retort beforehand, so it shouldn’t take too long for the process to be complete.
As for how long the actual process takes, there are many important factors that can play into this, the main ones being:
- The decedent’s fat-to-muscle ratio. Fat typically burns faster than muscle and other tissues
- The temperature of the retort. Temperatures are usually between 1400-1800 degrees Fahrenheit, but can reach up to 2000.
With these points in mind, from start to finish, cremation generally takes 1-3 hours.
Step 4: Remains removed from the cremation chamber
Once cremation is complete, the crematory operator removes the ashes and remaining bone fragments (with the metal ID tag) from the retort.
Once cool, the operator will then gently and respectfully sift through the resulting bone material to remove any metal pieces (such as silver teeth) so that these items do not damage the machine that processes the remains.
Step 5: Remains processed & pulverized into ashes
The crematorium staff will then place the remains into a machine that carefully grinds the bone fragments into a powder-like consistency.
Step 6: Remains placed into an urn
Finally, they place the remains into a plastic bag. The bag is then place into either the urn the family has chosen, or what is known as a temporary cremation urn.
The cremation process is now complete. All that is left is for the family to come pick up the remains.
Step 7: Remains are returned to the family
The funeral home or crematorium will notify the next of kin that the cremation is complete. They will also let you know that the remains are ready for pick up.
You must provide your identification at pick-up to ensure that you are the one with legal authorization to do so.
At this time, you can bring the cremation urn of your choice (if you haven’t already) and the funeral director will transfer the ashes for you into the permanent urn. This can be done while you wait, as it will only take a few moments.
The Truth About Cremation
When you hear the word cremation, the first images that pop into your mind may not necessarily match those of reality. The real cremation process is nothing like what you’d find in a scary novel, or what some B horror movies would have us believe.
To get a clearer picture, it may help to actually define the term.
Cremation: The process by which a dead body is reduced to ashes by fire.
It’s really as simply as that. The purpose of the cremation process is to disintegrate the body’s organic elements until there is nothing left but bone matter (dried minerals and calcium phosphates).
Gases and other byproducts that are formed from the body during cremation are incinerated in the retort’s secondary chamber, then released outside. Any remaining bone fragments that remain in the retort will go through a pulverization process. There is essentially no remaining DNA.
Maybe you’re researching cremation with the intention of future planning. In this case it’s wise to be aware of any cremation packages that are available at your funeral home.
Many funeral homes offer “simple” or “direct” cremations. This is a nice way of saying “cremation only.” They may also offer cremation along with a traditional funeral service.
Sometimes the funeral home owns and operates their own crematorium. Other times, they outsource their cremations to an independent crematory. You can sometimes contact the crematorium directly for similar services at a more economical rate.
No matter the price factor, it’s important to do your research on any facility before you make a final decision. Reputation is everything, especially in funeral service!
Receiving the Ashes After Cremation
Once the cremation process is complete, the funeral home or crematory will present the next-of-kin (or other designated recipient) with the ashes.
Alternatively, If you have not yet selected an urn, or have a plan like scattering the ashes, the crematorium should return the ashes to you in a temporary (usually plastic) urn.
Once you have the permanent urn, the funeral home will be happy to take care of the transfer for you. You can also do the transfer yourself, if you wish to. For more information on how to do that, please see here.
Final Disposition of Ashes
At this point, you can decide what to do with your loved one’s cremated remains. Here are some of the most popular ways to memorialize someone following cremation:
- Urn display. Have the remains placed in a permanent urn and display them in a special place in your home, such as on a mantle or shelf. Here is a unique urn that actually is a floating shelf; you fill the inside with the remains then use the top of the shelf to display photos and keepsakes.
- Scatter the ashes. Scattering ashes can be a private family affair or a scattering ceremony can occur. Keeping in mind local laws, a family can scatter ashes over waterways, into the wind, at a place that was special to the deceased, etc.
- Get a tattoo. Seriously – you can use the remains in tattoo ink. These days, it’s becoming more and more popular to get a memorial tattoo, with the ashes of your loved one mixed into the ink.
- Divide. Split the ashes up among family members. Each member can take a small urn to keep, or the ashes can be placed into special jewelry. Again, the funeral home will be happy to do the transferring for you if you like.
Cremation Process FAQ
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about the cremation process.
How is the body identified during the cremation process?
Proper identification is the first and most important step in the cremation process. The crematory operator will carefully check that all documents match the decedent’s ID.
In addition, a metal tag bearing an ID number- associated only with that particular decedent – will accompany the decedent into the retort. This provides another layer of ID security.
Lastly, the operator will also double-check cremation authorization documents and compare them to any other relevant documents to ensure proper identification.
How long does it take to cremate a body?
The cremation process for a standard adult cremation usually takes about 2-3 hours.
However, there are several factors that effect the total time needed before you can get the remains back from the crematorium.
Often there is some prep work, other cremations ahead of your loved one, and time in between the processing of remains while crematorium staff works on other tasks. We’ll address this in the next question.
How long will it take for the ashes to get back to the family?
It can vary from location to location. From the time the crematory takes custody of the decedent, to the time the ashes are back with the family, can take anywhere from a few days to a week or longer. It’s a good idea to speak with the funeral director to get a better idea of what to expect.
Here are some of the factors affecting how long it will take for the ashes to get back to the family.
1. Legal Approval: 2-5 Days
There are some important legal steps that need to be taken before the cremation process can begin. These will vary by country, state, and even county or city.
Generally, the doctor has up to about 72 hours (3 days) to sign the death certificate. After that, the medical examiner may have up to 48 hours (2 days) to approve the cremation. Again, these matters will vary depending on the region, local regulations, and the schedules for the various offices involved. Talk with your local funeral director for more specific details.
2. Cremation: 2-3 hours
The crematory operator will consider the height and weight of the decedent as well as the temperature of the retort, which can reach up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because fat burns faster than other tissues, the crematory operator will consider the decedent’s fat-to-muscle ratio when determining how long the process will take.
3. Cooling: 1-2 hours
After the cremation, the retort holding remaining bone matter will need to be cooled for up to about 2 hours.
4. Processing the Remains: 1-2 hours
The final step is to get the remains from the retort, run a magnet over them (to pull out metal, for instance fillings or medical pins), pulverize the bone fragments into powder or “ashes,” then secure the remains into a container.
Does the body have clothes on during cremation?
Yes. Utmost care is taken to respect the dignity of the decedent throughout the funeral and cremation. The funeral director will advise the family so they can choose an appropriate outfit for the funeral service and/or cremation.
Alternatively, should the family want the decedent’s clothes back, staff can replace the clothes with a hospital-grade gown or other covering prior to cremation. Ultimately, the answer to this question is up to the family.
What happens to jewelry during cremation?
This is another question where the answer lies with the wishes of the family. A decedent can wear jewelry during cremation. The operator will simply withdraw any jewelry remains with the ashes once cremation is over. That said, the original states of any metal or stones will probably no longer exist due to the immense heat.
When the body is cremated what happens to the coffin?
Typically a body remains in its coffin for cremation. If there is no coffin, or if a rental casket was in use, the operator will still move the body into some sort of alternative container, whether it be wood or cardboard, before placing it in the retort.
If a family is planning for cremation following a funeral service, the funeral director will advise them on the appropriate casket options (for example, a metal casket would not be ideal because it does not allow for proper combustion).
Any metal components of a casket that are not incinerated along with everything else will be removed and set aside following the process.
Do they cremate multiple bodies at once?
No. There may be several retorts operating in a single room, but each machine cremates only one decedent at a time. The operator will remove all remains following any one cremation before another can begin.
Can the family watch the cremation?
Yes, depending on whether the cremation facilities are designed to accommodate a cremation viewing. When a family wishes to view the cremation as it occurs, it is known as a witness cremation.
Many mortuaries now have a designated witness area. This is a room with a window looking into the crematory for this purpose. Sometimes, it’s even possible for the next-of-kin or other family member to proverbially “push the button” to start the process.
Typically the facility furnishes the viewing area with chairs and space for a small group of family, friends and loved ones to observe as the casketed body is placed into the cremation retort.
Learn more about viewing or witnessing a cremation here.
Who gets the ashes after cremation?
Legally, the next-of-kin (commonly a spouse or parent) is the one who signs the cremation authorization and subsequently receives the remains.
Sometimes there is more than one next-of-kin, such as in the case of several adult children needing to sign for a parent. In this instance, legally every individual must sign the cremation authorization before the process can take place.
Upon completion of cremation, one individual may receive the ashes, or the funeral director may place the ashes into separate urns for each next-of-kin. But again, that is up to the family.
Do you have to take the ashes after cremation?
You certainly should – you’ve paid for the cremation to take place, and the funeral home or crematorium should not need to store the remains for more than a few days.
Plus, these are the remains of your family member. No matter the quality of your relationship, as a human being you should treat their remains with respect.
If you need time to arrange an urn, travel, or anything else, talk to the funeral home and they will make reasonable accommodations for you.
What do we do with the ashes after cremation?
Once you have received the cremated remains of your loved one back from the funeral home, you get to decide what to do with them.
Cremation Urn. A permanent urn provides a beautiful and dignified receptacle. You can keep it in either your home or in a columbarium niche, or even bury it. You can subsequently keep the urn in your family by passing it down from generation to generation.
Scattering. There are many ways and places to scatter the ashes, such as in the air or the ocean. See here for methods on how to do so.
Create a Keepsake. There are many ways to have cremated remains used in keepsake jewelry or art. Here are some ideas.
Grow a Tree from Ashes. Use them to plant a tree in your loved one’s memory
Unique Ideas. Incorporate the ashes into a tattoo, launch them in a spectacular fireworks display, put them in a family time capsule. Here is a big list of creative (and perhaps odd) things you can do with cremated remains. For practical advice on more traditional options for the ashes, see here.
More Questions About Cremation
If you have more questions, or aren’t even sure how to ask the questions you have, read these 25 Weird Questions That People Always Ask About Cremation.
Remember, if you are in search of a cremation urn for your loved one, at Urns Northwest we have a beautiful selection of quality memorials.
No matter what you’re looking for – wood urns, metal urns, glass urns, eco-friendly urns, or something involving your loved one’s specific hobby or interest – we’ll help you’ll find it. Click here to see some of our favorites.