What you Always Wanted to know about Cremation and Ashes but Never Asked
Cremation is an intriguing tradition that has been part of humanity for centuries and is growing in popularity to such an extent that it is now practiced in more than half of all deaths in the United States. Many experts predict it will eventually be practiced in up to 80 percent of deaths worldwide. Many people in today’s modern world see cremation as a practical alternative to burial because it can be less expensive and easier on the Earth’s environment. Further, cremation has been the tradition of choice for centuries among many practitioners the religions originating in the Eastern World, and, as faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism continue to see their influence grow across the rest of the world in the 21st century, the expert predictions seem more reasonable every year. But, despite its popularity, cremation can still be an uncomfortable topic filled with mystery and misunderstanding – especially for the many people in the Western World for whom cremation is a relatively new cultural tradition. This article and this website attempts to clear up some of the confusion that sometimes surrounds cremation.
We start our quest for reliable information about cremation with a brief but accurate overview of exactly what takes place at a crematory during cremation. It may come as a surprise to many people that cremation remains are, in fact, simply the surviving remnants of a body’s bones. All other parts of a body are burned entirely when exposed to heat of more than 1100 degrees Fahrenheit for more than an hour, but such heat is not enough to entirely break down the chemical structure of human bones. The heat does reduce the bones to tiny pieces, of course, but it may be surprising to discover that these pieces do not have the “ash like” texture that has come to be expected from cremation remains immediately upon the completion of the heating. Most crematories employ additional equipment to further pulverize the initial cremation remains into the ashes that are then returned to family members of the deceased. It is interesting to note also that a crematory staff member will also typically remove pace makers, implants and other medical devices before the cremation process begins. (These can be returned to the family or disposed of as any other medical waste.) Leaving these items in a body while it is heated to the extent that cremation requires has been known to cause damage to crematory equipment in several unfortunate cases.
Many who are new to the idea of cremation may wonder exactly how to go about finding a crematory to provide the service. The answer to this question is as close as one’s nearest funeral home. Many funeral homes provide crematory services directly at their location, but nearly all others have at least one independent crematory available on a contract basis and can arrange for the service to be done seamlessly. It is not necessary for grieving family members to negotiate terms of a cremation with anyone other than a funeral director who will usually professionally arrange all other death care services – from the memorial service to the obituary announcements – as well.
With the practice of cremation become more popular in the Western World the practical matter of what to do with the cremation remains is becoming a more and more important question. In the early years of cremation – in the days when cremations were normally conducted on large, outdoor pyres rather than in sterilized, indoor crematories – ashes were almost always left atop a pyre for days to simply scatter to the winds. Today, such a practice would likely be uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. So, while scattering of ashes is still fairly common, the ashes are typically first stored in a cremation urn and then taken to the scattering point later (sometimes many years later, in fact). But, that said, scattering of ashes is becoming more and more of a concern in this age of concern over property values. Scattering ashes over a particular spot can be a meaningful, spiritual thing to do for any family, but it also can lead to problems in the (often unanticipated) event that a family must sell the property on which the ashes have been spread. For this reason, many families have taken to simply storing ashes permanently in a cremation urn that can be easily moved to a new home as need arises. A large selection of cremation urns is available today, and these pieces can be surprisingly elaborate. Families can quite easily today find a cremation urn that is representative of many different aspects of their loved one’s life and personality. Many sports and hobbies – ranging from golf to knitting to horse racing – are represented in today’s amazingly varied selection of cremation urns available for families to choose from.
The discussion of cremation urns leads us to a discussion of ways in which cremation can be said to be the less expensive and easier on the earth than traditional burial. Simply put, burying a cremation urn requires much less cemetery space than a casket. So this means that a great deal of land that once would have been devoted to full-size caskets can now be used for other purposes because families are, now more than ever, choosing cremation. The environmental benefits of this are obvious when one thinks of the additional number of acres of land that cremation has made available for, say, parkland or wildlife preserves. And the same is true for cost benefits: burying two (or more!) cremation urns in a cemetery plot that is large enough for a casket can account for thousands of dollars returning to a family’s budget. As noted above, of course, many people who choose cremation also avoid the use of cemetery land all together by either storing an urn in a private residence or by scattering ashes over some special place (even if potential spots for such activity may be becoming more and more scarce thanks to laws related to urban zoning issues and commercial development). Such practices may be the least expensive and most environmentally friendly approaches to cremation, but, no matter how one accounts for them, the benefits of cremation almost always outweigh burial in terms of environmental issues and cost. A final cremation benefit commonly cited by today’s consumers searching for memorial products is the flexibility it allows for various memorial options. A number of interesting accessories related to cremation have come about in recent years, and these have helped to make cremation a more comfortable choice for modern mourners. Among these are cremation jewelry (also sometimes known as cremation pendants) and keepsake cremation urns.
Cremation jewelry is a unique type of necklaces and pendants that have hollow crevices in which tiny portions of cremation remains may be stored (or even, in some models, displayed prominently). These pieces are available in a huge variety of styles and designs – everything from glass to wood to sterling silver – and they can be worn privately underneath clothing or they can be made a prominent part of a person’s wardrobe design. Either way, cremation jewelry is, for many people who have lost a special family member, comforting way to keep precious memories close at hand for a lifetime. Many people who have initially been uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a slight portion of a loved one’s remains on their body have reported that, over time, they sometimes feel a very spiritual connection to the lost loved one when they contemplate the idea of cremation jewelry. Many families organize annual memorial ceremonies around special anniversaries, and one of the great benefits of cremation pendants is that they allow participants of these ceremonies to each share a portion of the remains in a pendant all of their own. In fact, many families whose members had greatly varied relationships with a deceased member – and therefore remember the loved one entirely differently from one another – will often take great comfort in the ability to pick different styles of cremation pendant so as to be able to remember the loved one in various manners, each relating to personal experiences with the deceased.
Keepsake urns are similar to cremation jewelry in that they allow small amounts of cremation ashes to be stored and displayed in separate places very economically and with great emotional effect for family members. These tiny urns are also like cremation pendants in that they are available in a great number of designs and styles and materials. Perhaps the only way that these two memorial accessories are not similar is in the obvious fact that keepsake urns are not intended to be worn. Interestingly enough, however, many keepsake jewelry pieces are designed with the idea that they will likely be displayed in a home as much as they will be worn, and it is for that reason that cremation jewelry can sometimes be found to be referred to as a keepsake urn itself. To highlight this property of cremation jewelry the memorial industry offers a variety of beautifully crafted glass display domes in which cremation jewelry can be displayed – just as with any urn – on a shelf in a home.
Reading about all of these benefits of cremation may cause one to wonder just why a modern family would choose traditional burial over cremation in any instance, and that question is worthy of consideration as we end this article. In short, burial still remains a vibrant and viable memorial option in today’s world because the idea of cremation remains unsettling to many who are deeply ingrained in the traditions of modern western culture. It has only been relatively recently, for example, that the Catholic Church, a Hallmark of modern Western Culture, has allowed cremation to be practiced among its faithful. And, even though cremation was adopted formally by the church in the 1960’s, it is still subject to a great deal of scrutiny – and even discouragement – in many parishes around the world. Many priests, for example, interpret rules from the Vatican as requiring that cremation be allowed only with the condition that ashes never be separated or otherwise disturbed beyond their final resting place, a single urn that is to be buried in a cemetery. While this interpretation is not universally enforced, and, in fact, many catholic families have been known to be among the most enthusiastic purchasers of cremation jewelry and cremation urns, it is evidence that cremation is not universally thought of as a comforting tradition. For this reason, no decision to be cremated should be taken slightly. Cremation should be ordered only after a thoughtful and respectful solicitation of the opinions of each person in a family. For some religions, cremation is simply not an option no matter what the plans for disposal of the remains. Jewish rabbis and leaders of Islam are equally adamant that those of their faith shall never be cremated. While some outsiders speculate that those attitudes may change over time – just as they did with the Catholics in the 1960s – there does not seem to be any trust worthy sign that those days are coming soon. Some who practice these faiths have taken it upon themselves in recent years to adopt cremation as their family ritual, but, officially speaking, cremation will likely remain a banned practice among Jews and Muslims for many years (maybe even centuries) to come.
In general, the idea of cremation has many different, and valid, connotations that will vary according to traditions of the culture involved, but no one can deny that the practice is becoming more and more popular with each passing year, and it seems unlikely to begin a downward spiral of popularity in the foreseeable future.