How Cremation Works

Making a big decision about a process you don’t understand can be difficult.

Even though you may not know all the details that goes into a traditional burial, it's pretty easy to imagine what it looks like from what's depicted in movies and on T.V. However, that may not be easily true when it comes to the cremation process. Cremation has been around for some 2,000 years but no matter how long it's been around, there's a lot to it that many don't even know. Understanding the behind the scenes can help ease the anxiety that many feel when it comes to choosing cremation as part of you pre-planning.

Today’s modern crematories use industrial furnaces designed just for cremation. SO no worries, it isn't some sort of campfire. The process takes about 2-3 hours to complete. Along the way, the crematory will take care to make sure that:

  • The deceased is properly identified

  • The operator is safe

  • Care and respect are used

Many facilities allow the family of the deceased to witness the cremation, althought some may not be able to bear witness. Space is often limited so it is best to check with the cremation facility to find out how many people can attend so as not to overcrowd.

Step-by-Step: Cremation Process

Cremation reduces the body to its basic elements through a process that exposes it to open flames, intense heat and evaporation. This is done in a specially designed furnace called a cremation chamber or retort, which may require a container for the body such as a casket appropriate for cremation or a rigid cardboard container.

Cremated remains are commonly referred to as “ashes,” however, in reality, they consist primarily of bone fragments. It is important to recognize that the cremated remains of the body are commingled with any remains of the container as well as any other incidental by-products of the incineration. Cremation produces 3 to 9 pounds of remains, depending on the size of the body and the process used by the crematory.

"The cremation process consists of five basic steps."

  • The deceased is identified and proper authorization is obtained

  • The body is prepared and placed into a proper container

  • The container with the body is moved to the “retort” or cremation chamber

  • After cremation, the remaining metal is removed and the remains are ground.

  • The “ashes” are transferred to either a temporary container or in an urn provided by the family to be secured at a cemetery or in their home

Identifying the Body

To make sure your loved one’s remains are properly handled, reputable crematories have strict procedures such as ensuring they have permission to take care of the cremation. Identification regulations vary by state. In most cases, you complete paperwork that provides the crematory with your authorization. The form will also ask for information such as who will pick up the remains and what type of container to use.

The facility you use defines the specific identification procedures based on industry recommendations. A typical identification procedure will include having a family member confirm the identity. Next, some sort of metal ID tag is placed on the body. This will remain throughout the process. Following the cremation, the identification tag is put with the remains.

Preparing the Body

Normally the body is bathed, cleaned, and dressed before identification. Unless you have a public viewing or you request it, the body is not embalmed.

Next, jewelry or other items that you would like to keep are removed. 

Medical devices and prosthetics that are mechanical or contain batteries are also removed. This is to prevent reaction during the cremation process. Items such as pins, screws, and joints remain in place. Recycling policies for medical devices vary by facility but in no case are the devices reused as is. They are disassembled, melted down, or disposed of in some other responsible method.

Cremation Container

There are special caskets made for cremation or you can use a simple cardboard box. The key rule is that the container must be sturdy enough to hold the body and it must be combustible.

Cremation Chamber

A cremation chamber is an industrial furnace that is large enough to hold one body. Fire resistant bricks line the chamber and can withstand temperatures up to 2000 degrees. Modern cremation furnaces follow according to strict environmental and air quality standards. Natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel the furnaces. They are also automated and computerized.

After Incineration

The remains are cooled right after. The operator inspects the remains for remnants of metal left behind and removes them by hand or with strong magnets. The metal is often sent to a recycler.

The Remains

We refer to cremated remains as ashes but what is left behind is actually bits of bone. After cremation, a special processor grinds the fragments into what we call “cremains.” This is what we mean when we refer to ashes.

Remains Container

After grinding, the ashes are placed in a plastic bag. The bag is placed in the urn that the family provides or in a temporary container. The urn or container with the ashes is returned to the family or directed to the cemetery of choice to safe guard in a special niche of some sort.

Both cremation and in-ground burial involve similar processes that work on the body. In cremation, heat is the process. In burial, the process is decomposition. Deciding which is right for you or your loved one depends on many factors. Cost, your religious beliefs, and your family traditions should all be considered. In the end, only you can decide which is right for your circumstances. We hope that having a basic understanding of the process will help you decide and understand the options you and your loved ones have when pre-planning or at-need.