Trying to decide how to handle the post-death process and the remains of a loved one can be a perplexing and stressful situation. But once you start understanding cremation, you may realize that it’s nothing to fear.
You’ve probably heard of cremation as an alternative to burial, but what is cremation? How does it work? Is it expensive?
Let’s break it all down to understand whether or not a cremation is a good option for your situation. Once you have a better idea of what cremation entails, it will surely help ease some of your anxieties about the process.
What is Cremation? How Does it Work?
Before you decide to cremate a loved one or even yourself, you should have a thorough understanding of the process. This will help you feel more comfortable with your decision.
Let’s ensure that cremation is the right choice for you, your desires, and your budget.
Cremation is an alternative to burial when it comes to burying the deceased. In fact, in some areas, cremation has become more popular than traditional burial. This is due to how easy cremation is and the fact that it tends to be cheaper.
For a cost breakdown of cremation, be sure to check out our guide, “How to Break Down and Understand Cremation Costs” here.
How long does it take to cremate a body?
The actual cremation process (physically cremating the body) usually takes a mere 2-4 hours.
This time frame accounts for the time it takes for the cremation machine to completely break down a body into remains. Later on, we examine the cremation process in more detail.
The process of getting approved for, carrying out, and completing paperwork for cremation can take about 10-15 days. Before cremation occurs, a funeral home must receive the body of the deceased, work to obtain a death certificate, and follow other medical protocol.
The Cremation Process
Understanding cremation comes down to understanding the cremation process.
Cremation exposes the body to intense heat via open flames, reducing the body to what we often call “ashes.” In reality, these ashes are mainly bone fragments.
Cremated remains often weigh only 5-10 pounds. You can store them in an urn, scatter them somewhere special, bury them, make them into jewelry, art, and more. It’s a versatile option and allows the deceased’s family to come up with a personal way to commemorate their loved one.
Here is a slightly more detailed breakdown of how cremation works:
- The deceased is identified, and paperwork/authorization for cremation is completed
- The funeral home or crematory prepares the body of the deceased. Jewelry, medical equipment, and any other external devices are removed. Jewelry or other valuables are usually returned to the family unless they request that they are cremated with the body.
- The body is placed in a cremation container. These containers are made out of combustible material, but different options may be available at different locations. Be sure to speak to the funeral home you’re working with about this detail and more.
- Cremation occurs. They move the body to the cremation chamber. They raise the heat, and in a matter of hours, the remains are ready to be processed.
- A magnet removes any bits of metal that may have been left behind, and the other remains are ground.
- The funeral home places the remains in a container and gives them to the family.
All About Alkaline Hydrolysis (Aquamation, Water Cremation)
Many people are familiar with the traditional, flame-based cremation process. But what about water cremation? Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation, is a fairly new method for handling bodies of the deceased. Understanding cremation by water may show you that it can be a viable option for you or your loved one.
How does water cremation work?
Alkaline hydrolysis uses water, heat, and alkaline chemicals to speed up the natural decomposition process. It leaves behind bone fragment remains, just like traditional cremation, and a liquid called effluent.
Effluent is a sterile waste-water. It contains no tissue or DNA, just natural compounds like sugars and amino acids.
This means it can be safely returned to the sewage system along with other waste.
The remains of the body – bone fragments – are dried. They are then pulverized into ashes, just like traditional cremation. The only notable difference is that alkaline hydrolysis tends to produce more remains (in terms of weight, about 32% more) than flame-based cremation.
The Water Cremation Process
As we did with flame-based cremation, let’s break down the water cremation process down in more detail. This way, you can begin understanding cremation of all types, and decide which one is best for you.
What is the alkaline hydrolysis process like?
- The deceased is transported to the cremation facility
- Paperwork is finalized, services are planned, and the cremation is scheduled.
- Throughout the logistical process leading up to cremation, the body is stored in a safe, refrigerated place.
- Once all details are finalized, the cremation itself occurs.
- The alkaline hydrolysis machine is prepared. Its single chamber holds about one hundred gallons of liquid, which the body is inserted into.
- The chamber is sealed. Information about the deceased (sex, weight, etc.) is used to determine the correct amount of water and chemicals to use.
- The body may also be exposed to heat or pressure while in the chamber.
- The body is left to cremate and break down; this takes about 3-16 hours.
- The remains are processed and returned to the family.
Why choose water cremation?
There are several reasons someone might decide to go forward with a water cremation instead of flame-based cremation.
These might include:
- Water cremation is generally seen as a greener/more eco-friendly option. Water cremation uses less fuel than flame-based cremation, and it has a lower carbon footprint.
- It also has a lower carbon footprint than burial!
- Water is sometimes viewed as a gentler, more approachable option than flame for some individuals.
- The process leaves behind more remains.
- This might be important if you plan to do something special with the remains of a loved one, or if you just simply like the idea of being close to as much of them as possible.
- The price is about the same as traditional cremation.
Is water cremation legal?
Unfortunately, water cremation/alkaline hydrolysis is not yet legal in all 50 U.S. states. The process is still relatively new to the market, and some states have yet to put up legislation to allow water cremation as a post-death option.
Here is a list of states that currently allow water cremation:
- Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine
- Note: Alkaline hydrolysis legislation is currently under consideration in Texas.
The pace at which water cremation is legalized is accelerating as more information is made public about it.
The first water cremations in the funeral industry happened in 2011, so the process still has a long way to go in terms of acceptability and accessibility.
What can I do with cremated remains?
An important part of the cremation and post-death process for many is handling the remains of a loved one.
The most traditional way to go about this is to keep the remains in an urn in your home. This is a great option if you’d like to have a physical reminder of your loved one close by, or something you can physically see and interact with.
If this option doesn’t really appeal to you, or if you’d like to do something more personal with your loved one’s remains, there are lots of ideas available!
Below are some of the more traditional things to do with cremated remains:
- Store the remains in a container, or an urn. As discussed, this is generally the main option people associate with cremation; it’s low-cost, easy, and a great keepsake to hold on to for as long as you’d like.
- Scatter the remains somewhere. This is a great, symbolic way to allow your loved ones to return to a place that made them happy.
- Note: Scattering remains in some public spaces, private property, and even water can land you in legal trouble. Be sure to obtain permission if you’d like to scatter ashes somewhere specific, and do your research before you make any decisions.
Exploring Creative Ideas for Cremated Remains
If urn-storage or scattering remains doesn’t sound right to you or to loved ones, don’t worry. Now that you’ve made moves toward understanding cremation, you can start to play with your options. There are lots of ways to commemorate your loved one, and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
Here are some fun, creative ideas that you might want to consider.
If you’d like art or jewelry:
- Have your loved one’s remains made into a necklace, bracelet, etc. that you can wear! Jewelers of all sorts provide options for storing and wearing cremated remains. They may have the remains embedded in stone or come with a fillable locket that you can place ashes in.
- Have your loved one’s remains become a part of your tattoo! Some studios offer custom ink that can contain a small amount of cremated remains to be tattooed onto your body.
- Look into cremation portraits or other forms of art. Cremated remains can be made into art themselves, or they can be mixed with artistic materials like paint to literally become a part of a masterpiece.
- Consider seeking out services that add cremation remains to sculptures or china. This is another great way to allow your loved one to become a beautiful part of your home.
If you’d like to be involved with nature:
- Plant your loved one as a tree. Biodegradable urns are now available on the market, and they are specially designed to safely break down into the earth. If you don’t want to actually plant or bury the remains, you might also consider simply planting a tree in memory of your loved one.
- Bury the ashes. This is another option that might require some research into legal logistics, but burying cremated remains is still an option. This might be a nice alternative to scattering ashes.
- Scatter ashes at sea. As we discussed before, there may be legal restrictions preventing the spreading of ashes in some bodies of water, so it is always a good idea to seek out information regarding the specific location you’re interested in.
If you want something totally unique:
- Create a vinyl record. Did you know that cremated remains can be compressed into a vinyl record for family and loved ones to listen to? These records can contain recordings of your choice. This option is a great way to incorporate your loved one into your daily life going into the future.
- Create a time capsule. You can incorporate your loved one’s remains as well as special objects. You might bury it or store it away for a while, or you can display it as a unique way to commemorate the life of the person you’ve lost.
- Purchase a customized urn. This can go beyond simply having a basic urn engraved. There are shaped urns on the market, urns of different colors, and other containers that you can use to store cremated remains. This allows you to incorporate a little bit of personality into your decision while also remaining cost-efficient.
Conclusion: Understanding Cremation
A cremation is a great option for just about anyone, especially those looking to spend less money than they might on burial.
Cremation is a safe and relatively simple process, and it’s one that you can participate in by keeping and storing the remains of a loved one.
It can be difficult to think about post-death care, and it’s understandably a hard conversation to have.
Now that you’ve taken some serious steps towards understanding cremation and how it might work for you, you can make the best decision for yourself, your loved ones, and anyone else impacted by the passing of someone special.
- Alkaline Hydrolysis, Cremation Association of North America, https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/alkalinehydrolysis
- Cremation Process, Cremation Association of North America, https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/CremationProcess
- How Long Does the Entire Cremation Process Take?, National Cremation, https://www.nationalcremation.com/ask-a-funeral-director/how-long-does-the-entire-cremation-process-take#:~:text=Depending%20on%20location%2C%20the%20cremation,takes%20another%201%2D2%20hours.