As cremation itself continues to being increasingly popular as a dignified method for disposing a human body, many have wondered what exactly goes on in a crematory. Questions are sure to arise as family members contemplate this service that is often requested by loved ones who are contemplating their own deaths and are justifiably interested in knowing that all of their final arrangements are in order. “How exactly is one cremated?” a family member might ask. Or, “What exactly is cremation?” This article attempts to answer those important questions and give much more information about what exactly happens in a crematory. Our goal is to make all family members who will be part of a cremation process to be as informed, and as comfortable, with the process as possible.
To understand what happens in a crematory, it is useful to know a little of the history of cremation itself. So we start with that here: Cremation dates back to at least 20,000 years ago. The earliest known method of cremation was the log pyre. In more elaborate practices, pitch and gums were added to the wood. While any anthropologist can testify that this type of practice of cremation is certainly still a part of many cultures that time has forgotten in all regions of the world, the rest of this article deals with what happens in modern crematories that have been built in just about every city of significant population across the developed world. Modern crematories are usually found associated with modern funeral homes and cemeteries, or they may be part of an independent facility or a service contracted directly by the deceased’s family or by a cemetery or funeral home. The remainder of this article deals directly with the history of these modern crematory facilities rather than the funeral pyres of yesteryear.
In 1873, Padua Professor Brunetti presented a cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition, one of the predecessors to the formal World’s Fair. Just after that exhibit, in 1874, the Cremation Society of England was founded. The first crematory in the United States was founded in 1876 by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne in Washington. Pennsylvania. The second was founded by Charles F. Winslow in Salt lake City, Nevada on July 31, 1877. The first crematorium built in Australia was in 1925 at Rookwood, New South Wales. While the number of these facilities grew slowly in the British Empire, Europe North America throughout the early part of the 20th century the modern crematory did not hit what cultural critics call “critical mass” until the late 20th century. When The Pope lifted the ban on cremations on the 5th July, 1963 and in 1966 made it permissible for Roman Catholic priests to conduct a cremation service at a crematorium, this set the stage for a relative explosion of new crematories throughout the world. As more and more religions began adopting traditions favorable to the idea of cremations, the crematory industry (as it is now referred too) became an extremely active participant in the world economic market where it continues today as cremation becomes more popular than ever with each passing year.
Cremation is the process of reducing human remains to basic chemical compounds in the form of gases and bone fragments. In the early 1960’s coal and coke was used as a fuel for cremation. Today natural gas and propane is used. A crematory consists of one or more furnaces called “cremators,” which have sometimes come to be known by the somewhat less dignified word ‘ovens’. A typical crematory will also have separate facilities for the handling of the ashes. The chamber in the cremator where the body is placed is called a retort. It is lined with bricks that are, indeed heat resistant, but only to a point: they must typically be replaced about every 5 years due to the strain of absorbing the excessive heat involved in cremation. During the cremation process, the casket or container that holds the dead body is placed in the retort and the temperature is raised to about 1400-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Crematory personnel typically leave all ornaments and fittings on the casket, except the name plate (which is set aside before entering the retort and used as part of the elaborate identification process of most any crematory). The fittings are burnt with the coffin as they are typically made of plastic. As the coffin and the body burn, operators of the cremator typically assure that the flame is aimed at the torso of the deceased because that where a majority of the body’s mass rests.
In most modern crematories, the cremators are computer controlled to assure safe use. Earlier models of cremators were designed to run on a timer and operators would have to figure out the weight of the body to calculate out how long a body would need to be exposed to the flames. Now such processes or fully automated with the use of a piece of modern technology known as a PLC (programmable logic controller). Once the body has been reduced to ashes the crematory personnel open the retort the cremated remains are placed in a temporary container provided by the crematory or placed in an urn supplied by the family of the deceased. The entire process takes about three hours. Throughout the entire process a labeling system ensures correct identification of the ashes. An official certificate of cremation prepared under the authority of the crematorium accompanies the remains, and if required by law, the permit for disposition of human remains, which must remain with the cremated remains.
Careful readers will note that we earlier mentioned that the casket burns along with the body in most every cremation done in a modern crematory. Most any crematory will typically require that the deceased be cremated in a combustible leak proof rigid covered container. This does not have to be a casket formal casket, however. This container can be a simple piece made of wood or other combustible material. This is an important piece of information for consumers who sometimes assume that a formally designed, expensive casket is a requirement for any cremation. In most cases, however, laws prohibit funeral directors from even suggesting that such sophistication is required. Inexpensive cardboard boxes are almost always available as a suitable container for cremation. On the other hand, families have the option of beautifully made ‘green funeral caskets‘, which are caskets that are made of combustable, sustainable materials but designed so that they are elegant and beautiful. These caskets are ideal for green burial, but can also be used for cremation.
In most modern societies, a crematory is prohibited by law from cremating more than one body at the same time. However in extreme cases a crematory may allow deceased family members to be cremated together with the consent of the next of kin. An example of such instance would be a mother and still born child or twins who died at birth. On that note, it is not uncommon for a crematory to have a special cremator for small children and infants.
Due to the fact that cremation is an irreversible process and the process itself will eliminate any ability to later investigate the exact cause of death, many states require that each cremation must be authorized by a coroner or a medical examiner. Most states have minimum time limits that must elapse before a crematory can conduct a cremation. Again due to the irreversible nature of the cremation process states require a waiting period before actual cremation takes place unless a body is embalmed, but embalming is not necessary. Due to the waiting period refrigeration is the only other alternative that will stop tissue decomposition.
Because the crematory industry employees thousands (possibly millions) of people worldwide, so this short article has only scraped the surface of what exactly happens at a crematory during the process of cremation. The full story is the subject of thousands of scholarly articles and even textbooks that are often studied by crematory employees and owners. We hope this primer has been of help to anyone who in curious, for whatever reason, about cremation.