The Cremation Process and How It Works
by Taylor Evans February 19, 2021 6 min read
For those who have never experienced a cremation or who are simply curious as to what happens within the cremation chamber - this article will delve into full detail on the cremation process itself. This is important information to know, especially since, annually, 53% of people in the United States are cremated (as of 2018), rising from just 3.56% in 1960.
Prior To Cremation
Keep in mind that a body does require a container, in most cases, which the person will be placed in prior to being cremated. While some high-end caskets may look nice, they’re often the least practical option for cremation.
Instead, the following materials are chosen because they don’t hinder the cremation process:
These are cremation-specific caskets and generally work the best for the cremation process. You can often rent a casket from the funeral home if you want to save money on the viewing. There's no sense for many people to spend a lot of money on a casket if it’s going to be incinerated anyway.
You'll also be able to choose between a variety of urns. Many families choose to share remains with other family members, and jewelry is often made from the ashes to keep a person’s loved one close to them.
Companion urns are also available that hold the ashes of more than one person.
Cremation: A Brief History
Cremation is a process that has been around for thousands of years but has evolved from something far different than what we consider to be modern cremation. There’s evidence of cremation being used over 10,000 years ago in China, by the Greeks, and even by the Vikings.
However, cremation seemingly disappeared with the rise of Christianity sometime around the fifth century BC.
In modern times, there were two records of cremation in North America before the 1800s, with the official Cremation Society of England being formed in 1874. In the United States, the first crematorium was built in 1876 in Pennsylvania.
Today's crematories have two main chambers where all of the actual cremation begins:
- Primary chamber, which reaches 1,400° to 2,000° and is where the body is placed.
- Secondary chamber, where all of the gases are funneled that is roughly 1,700°. Emissions, smoke and odor move through here before being released into the air.
The chamber is preheated, and the body will only be placed inside when the internal temperature is high enough. Due to heat loss being an issue, the body is transferred through a door to avoid potential heat loss. Older crematories may still have a manual process take place where the body is put into the chamber, but newer operations often have an automatic door for this process.Preparing the Body
Preparing the body itself means removing many of the items a person had implanted, used or acquired during their lifetime. A few of the items that will be taken off or out of the body because they won’t burn well or may cause an issue are:
- Medical devices (prosthetics, battery operated devices)
- Silicone Implants
If a person had breast enhancement surgery, the silicone implants will even be removed. Prosthetics and implants will actually melt and leave behind a sticky substance, which is obviously unpleasant to clean up and requires an immense amount of scraping to remove properly.
Certain medical devices, like a pacemaker, hinder the process because they contain batteries that can easily explode. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, so these items are removed.
What Happens to the Jewelry or Metals Removed?
Jewelry is given back to the family, but medical devices and any of the prosthetics are recycled. Policies on recycling depend on the policies in place and will vary from one location to the next. Teeth fillings and other items may be able to be melted down.
Once all of the metals, medical supplies and other items have been removed from the body, measures are taken to be able to identify the remains, even if there’s some sort of mix-up during the cremation process.
Safeguards for Identifying the Body
A lot of people are used to picking out their cremation urns, or the urns for their loved ones, but they often don’t realize that a metal tag is placed on the body prior to being cremated. The metal tag contains the identifying information of the deceased. This is integral part of the process because it gives you peace of mind that the remains you or your loved ones receive are the right ones.
Cremation: The Process
Finally, the actual cremation process occurs.
Note: Embalming is not part of the process. While it’s possible for the body to be cremated when embalming fluid is present, it’s only necessary if requested or you have a public viewing.
Additionally, most crematoriums will allow family members to watch the cremation process. There's often a viewing room where you can see through the door of the chamber to watch the process occurring.
Each crematorium is allowed to make their own policies, and some will charge an additional fee for watching the cremation take place.
What Happens During Cremation?
As you can imagine, the body isn’t designed to handle temperatures up to 2,000°. The body will quickly begin to break down at this point. The soft tissues in the body, which include fat, muscle and other tissues, vaporize.
The process takes 1 to 3 hours until all that’s left are chunks of brittle bones and ash.
During this one-to-two-hour period, the body will undergo a variety of changes, which take place in intervals of normally ten minutes or so. While every body and cremation may be slightly different, the following occurs in all successful cremations:
10 Minutes Into the Process
At this point, the body starts to char. The muscle, skin and other tissues will start to shrink as moisture is being removed from the body. For this part of the process, the person is still identifiable and rather intact.
20 Minutes Into the Process
A lot has happened at this point, and the skull has had most of the soft tissue removed aside from the cheeks, which may or may not have some tissue remaining. The body cavity will be well on its way to being vaporized, too.
The ribs may be able to show, and liquids may start coming out of the body’s cavity.
Since the liquids in the body are being evaporated, they have to go somewhere. Remember, at this point, the tissues and organs are shrinking, so there’s not much room for the liquids to go really anywhere but out of the body.
30 Minutes Into the Process
The 30-minute mark is where the ribs and abdomen have the bones exposed. There’s very little facial tissue, if any, remaining, and the top of the skull starts to pull apart. It's at this time when many of the bones in the body begin to move.
Any tissue that is left, such as some scarce tissue on the legs or arms, would disintegrate at this point.
50 Minutes Into the Process
A lot happens in this twenty-minute span. The extremities are mostly gone, the facial bones are almost non-existent and the person’s spinal column will collapse.
Organs have charred and blackened and have significantly shriveled up by this time.
60 Minutes Into the Process
By the time an hour has passed, the skull is in fragments and the organs are ash. The body can remain in the chamber for longer if necessary. It's a delicate process, but once the bones are fragmented enough, they will then be cooled.
The cooling process can take 30 to 60 minutes on its own.
Factors Impacting Cremation Time
Cremation time varies due to a lot of factors relating to the body and the heat in which the oven is operated. A few of the many factors that will dictate the time it takes to cremate a person include:
- Ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat
- Cremation equipment performance
For family members or loved ones of the deceased, it really doesn’t matter if it takes one or three hours for the cremation to take place. The ashes will still be added to the container or box and will be in the same condition.
In fact, after the cooling process, the bones will be put on a sheet where the remains will weigh three to seven pounds.
Of course, a lot of ash has been left behind, too. There is a final pass with a magnet that will remove any metals that may have gone undetected before the body was placed in the chamber.
But the process isn’t over just yet.
The remains still consist of large bone fragments and do not look like the typical “ashes” placed in an urn. To get the powdery consistency we know of with cremains, the bones will go into what’s called a cremulator.
What is a Cremulator?
The cremulator is where the remains that are left over from the cremation process are placed to reduce the fragments of bone to the fine consistency we recognize as “cremains.”
Finally, all of the ashes will be put in a box or into the urn that you’ve chosen. Now, you can take your loved one’s remains back home, or scatter them in a favorite location.
Cremation is on the rise, becoming more popular than ever for a variety of reasons. Taking the time to learn about the actual process a body goes through within the cremation chamber can be great for understanding the benefits of cremation. Reducing your loved one’s remains to ashes, opens up endless possibilities for laying your loved one to rest.
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