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cremation process

What is Cremation?

A part of cremation that is often not discussed is the actual cremation process and what happens. It is best to start with the definition of the word cremation so there is an understanding of the different types and cremation available in the US. This article goes into some details which some readers may find disturbing. Please read accordingly.

Cremation in the United States

The Cremation Association of North America defines the word cremation as “the mechanical, thermal, or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments.” We often refer to remains after cremation as “ashes” – and that has become a colloquial term that has been widely adopted, but in fact, cremated remains are actually bone fragments that remain after the cremation process has been completed.

There are only two legal forms of cremation recognized in the United States: traditional flame-based cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, with flame-based cremation being the most commonly available option at cremation providers across the US.

Cremation Process

Traditional flame-based cremation has been in use in the U.S. since 1876. However, at that time, no flames were used in the cremation process. Instead, the loved one was placed in a heated chamber that would thermally reduce the remains to bone fragments with only the use of intense heat. In the present, however, the body of the deceased person is placed in a heated chamber called a cremator and subjected to intense heat and flame – a process which purifies the remains, dissolves all the body’s soft tissues to be one with nature and leaves the purified bone fragments for the family to place in a memorial urn, preparing them for permanent placement.
what is cremation

During the cremation process, the temperature in the cremator where the process occurs reaches around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. All the soft tissues of the body dissolve during this process, their vapors further purified by heat before being released into the air that gave them life. When the process is complete the remains are bone fragments that vary in size from minute particles to 2-4” fragments. A strong magnet is passed over the remains to remove any metal objects that may have become part of the remains during the process (for instance, nails or staples from the casket, medical implants, etc.). Finally, they are placed in a machine that reduces their consistency to the remains that we call cremated remains, or, colloquially, ashes. The consistency of these remains can vary in size from minute particles to tiny pebble-sized fragments.

It is important to note that prior to this process, some mechanical devices like pacemakers must be removed. Their lithium batteries exposed to such heat can have very bad results.

Introducing Alkaline Hydrolysis

An emerging process that is now available in many states is called Alkaline Hydrolysis. Often referred to as water cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is the reduction of a deceased person to basic elements through a water-based dissolution process. This process uses alkaline chemicals, heat, agitation, and pressure to accelerate the natural decomposition process, leaving only bone fragments behind. During this process, the soft tissues are dissolved and converted to basic organic compounds. These harmless compounds, mainly salts and amino acids, are released with the water following the hydrolysis process.

The same process of inspecting and removing metal objects from the remains and further reducing the consistency of the remains follows just as with flame-based cremation.

Resulting Cremated Remains or 'Ashes'

In both types of cremation, the volume of the cremated or hydrolyzed remains that you receive depends primarily on the bone structure of the person who died. Because each person is different, even persons that seem to be the same size in life may have varying volume of cremated remains following the process. However, because this depends on bone density and there is no scientific way to predict the amount of bone fragments that remain after cremation, a standard size of 200 cubic inches was set for urns in North America.

Interestingly, following the process of alkaline hydrolysis, the bone fragments that remain have a different consistency and are much softer than the remains after flame-based cremation. Following the reduction in the size of these fragments, what remains is a very fine powder in a volume that is approximately 30% more than with flame-based cremation.

Memorial Services and Urn Options

cremation urn options

Following both types of cremation, after the remains have been properly placed in the container the family has chosen, the remains are presented during the memorial service, committal service, or directly to the family at the funeral home or their home.

Whether you choose to place most of the remains in one place, such as a cemetery plot, columbarium in a cemetery or church, veteran cemetery, or scattering in a favorite place, you may consider that small portions of the cremated remains can be separated from the main portion and placed in small keepsake urn containers. These often take the form of miniature urns, hearts, songbirds, or small works of art in ceramic, glass, or crystal, and each can hold a small portion of the loved one’s remains, creating a personal memorial to one you loved in life.

Whichever type of cremation is chosen, it is important to remember that the cremation process is only a beginning step to the ways in which you will remember your loved one in the long term. Being that there are so many options with cremation, there are countless ways to create a lasting memorial both for yourself and for future generations to reflect on your loved one’s life and their part in yours.

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