Despite the practice of cremation being around for over 2,000 years, there is still some mystery surrounding the process. It is not a common conversation and most people never see what happens behind the scenes. It may be helpful as you seek to decide for yourself or a loved one to understand how the cremation process works.
We have demystified the cremation process through an infographic, as well as answered commonly asked questions around how cremation works.
Firstly, what is cremation?
Cremation is a method of disposition where the body is reduced to its basic chemical compounds of gases, ashes and mineral fragments, through an incineration process in an industrial furnace known as a cremation chamber. The cremated remains, or ashes, are given to the deceased’s family who may choose to scatter them, house them in an urn or place them at a memorial site.
In recent years, cremation has risen in popularity due to it being seen as a more affordable option, compared to a traditional burial. There are many other reasons for selecting cremation as the burial option for a loved one such as personal preference, requiring more time to plan and prepare a ceremony, religious and environmental reasons.
How does cremation work? Step by step process
The cremation process itself consists of 5 essential steps and takes 2-3 hours to complete. Most Crematoriums can have the packaged ashes ready for collection within 48 hours.
- The deceased is identified and proper authorisation is obtained.
Crematoriums have strict procedures in place to ensure your loved one’s remains are properly handled. To identify the body paperwork is required to be completed that gives the crematorium authorisation to cremate the body. The paperwork will seek information around who will pick up the remains and what type of container to use. The name plate on the Casket or Coffin will be placed on the cremator as the cremation begins and will travel with the remains throughout the process.
- The body is prepared and placed into a proper container.
Prior to identification the body can be cleaned and dressed. Jewellery and medical devices are removed to prevent any reactions during the process. The body is then placed inside a cremation container – usually a Casket or Coffin provided by the Funeral Director.
- The container with the body is moved to the “retort” or cremation chamber.
The door to the furnace opens and the container is quickly moved into the cremation chamber and then the door shuts. Temperature inside the furnace is increased to approximately 800 – 1000 degrees Celsius. Within a few hours all organic matter will have been evaporated or consumed by heat. Most coffin handles are combustible and will be cremated with the body. Metal handles are removed at the crematorium prior to the cremation as they do not combust.
- After cremation, the remaining metal is removed and the remains are ground.
After the incineration is complete the remains are all removed from the chamber and cooled. The cooled remains are inspected for remnants of metal and these are removed by hand or with a large magnet. A special processor then grinds the remaining fragments into cremated remains, or ashes.
- The “ashes” are transferred to either a temporary container or in an urn provided by the family.
Cremated remains are commonly referred to as “ashes”. However, technically there are no ashes, what is left are the fragile calcified bone fragments. The ashes are transferred into an urn or container and is then returned to the family.
- The deceased is identified and proper authorisation is obtained.
Commonly Asked Questions around the Cremation Process
- How is a body prepared for cremation?
The body is bathed, cleaned, dressed and embalmed (if necessary). If there are any jewellery or clothing items that the family would like to keep, these are removed and returned to the family. Medical devices like pacemakers, prosthetics, mechanics and batteries are also removed to prevent any reactions during the cremation process. If the body contains screws or pins, these remain and are collected after the cremation process to be disassembled, melted down and recycled or disposed of in an appropriate method.
- When will the cremation occur?
The cremation will generally be carried out on the same day as the funeral service but, in accordance with Health Department Regulations, can occur up to 48 hours later. If the cremation is not to occur immediately, the coffin is held in a refrigerated holding room.
- How long does it take?
The time taken to cremate a body will depend on many factors including body mass, bone density and the materials from which the coffin is manufactured. The average time for an adult cremation is 90 minutes. On average from insertion to final cooling and transferring to an urn, the entire cremation process may take up to four hours.
- What is the temperature required to cremate a body?
The temperature to cremate a body is between 800 and 1000 degrees Celsius. The intense heat within the industrial furnace, known as the cremation chamber, ensures disintegration of the body as it reduces the body to its basic chemical compounds of gases, ashes and mineral fragments.
- Does the coffin get cremated with the body?
The coffin or casket is cremated with the body during the cremation process. A body is never placed into the chamber on its own. The body is placed in the coffin or casket and once prepared the coffin is inserted into the chamber via a sliding tray or rack. Coffins or caskets are never reused. Depending on the style of coffin handles that do not combust will be removed prior to entering the chamber.
- How long after cremation are ashes ready?
Once the body has been cremated the remaining calcified bone fragments known as ashes are collected and allowed to cool down, sometimes with the assistance of an instruction fan to speed the process. Once cooled, the ashes are processed in a special grinder that turns the ashes into cremains which are ready to be placed into a container or urn. There will then be labeling, documentation and procedures to follow as per the crematorium’s regulations. Most crematoriums have a 48 hour turn-around time for collection of ashes as standard. Some crematoriums offer 24-hour processing of ashes and may charge an extra fee for this.
- How much do the ashes weigh?
A container of adult human ashes can be heavier than expected. Unlike a box of wood ashes, an average container of human cremains weighs between 1.3 Kg to 4kg kilograms and is denser due to bone fragments. This weight can depend on the person’s body size, the container used throughout the cremation and the process used by the crematorium.
- What do the ashes look like?
Cremated remains are called “ashes” and despite the name are primarily calcified bone fragments which are ground into a dust. The appearance is a pale to dark grey colour, with a similar texture to coarse sand compared to the expectation of wood ash.
When deciding if cremation is the appropriate burial choice for yourself or a family member you may also like to consider where the ashes will be stored or scattered. There are many ideas around what to do with cremated remains and we have explored these in our blog called Scattering Ashes: Everything you need to know. For memorial urns we have created a comprehensive urn catalogue to find a memorial style to suit you and your loved ones.