Last Updated on June 4, 2021
So, how does cremation work? What’s the cremation process like?
Whether you are researching for end-of-life planning, preparing for a career in the funeral industry, or are simply curious, you want to learn about the cremation process.
Today we’ll answer these questions and more.
In this article, you’ll learn more about the entire process of cremation, from start to finish. You’ll also discover some simple truths about it that you may not have heard before. We’ll discuss too the most popular frequently asked questions concerning the process, including:
- How is the body identified before, during, and after cremation?
- How long does the whole process take?
- What happens to any jewelry the deceased was wearing during cremation?
- Who gets the ashes once cremation is complete?
- What can we do with the ashes of our loved one following cremation?
- And more!
So, how does cremation work? And what do you need to know today to help you better plan for the future? Let’s find out.
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. Any metal pieces (such as silver teeth) are removed from the ashes. This is so that remaining bone fragments can be properly pulverized.
- 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.
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 start with the actual definition for the term.
Dictionary.com defines the term cremate as:
1 to reduce (a dead body) to ashes by fire, especially as a funeral rite
2 to consume by fire; burn.Dictionary.com
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 ashes (dried minerals and calcium phosphates) and sometimes very small bone fragments.
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 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.” (Learn more about direct cremation here.) They may also offer cremation along with a traditional funeral service.
Alternatively, a stand-alone crematory may offer 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!
Once the cremation process is complete, the funeral home or crematory will present the next-of-kin (or other designated recipient) with the ashes.
If you’ll be receiving the cremated remains of a loved one, and already selected an urn in which to permanently place them, the funeral home will have transferred them for you. 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 funeral urn, the funeral home will be happy to take care of the transfer for you. (Some permanent urns will actually hold a temporary urn… this way there is no disturbing the ashes.) You can also do the transfer yourself, if you wish to. For more information on how to do that, please see here.
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 the cremation process take?
You can generally expect for a standard adult cremation to take about 2-3 hours. But there are several things that play into the total time needed before you can get the remains back from the crematorium. 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.
Most modern or updated funeral homes and crematoriums include a designated witness area. This is a room with a window looking into the cremation facility. 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.
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.
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.
What else can you do with the ashes? Here are some ideas:
- Scatter the ashes, such as in the air or the ocean (see here for methods on how to do so)
- Have them turned into keepsake jewelry or art
- Use them to plant a tree in your loved one’s memory
- Incorporate the ashes into a tattoo
- Launch them in a spectacular fireworks display
- Put them in a family time capsule
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.