Cremation is the act of reducing a corpse by burning, generally in a crematorium furnace or crematory fire. Contrary to popular belief, the remains (often called cremains) are not "ashes" in the usual sense, but rather dried bone fragments that have been pulverized in a device called a cremulator.
Cremation may serve as a funeral or postfuneral rite that is an alternative to the interment of an intact body in a casket. Cremains, which are not a health risk, may be buried or immured in memorial sites or cemeteries, or they may be legally retained by relatives or dispersed in a variety of ways and locations.
The cremation occurs in a crematorium, consisting of one or more cremator furnaces or cremation retorts for the ashes. A cremator is an industrial furnace capable of generating temperatures of 870–980°C (1600–1800°F) to ensure disintegration of the corpse. A crematorium may be part of chapel or a funeral home, or part of an independent facility or a service offered by a cemetery.
Modern cremators have adjustable control systems that monitor the furnace during cremation.
A cremation furnace is not designed to cremate more than one body at a time, something that is illegal in many countries, including the U.S.
The chamber where the body is placed is called the retort. It is lined with refractory bricks that resist the heat. The bricks are typically replaced every five years due to thermal fatigue.
Modern cremators are computer-controlled to ensure legal and safe use; e.g., the door cannot be opened until the cremator has reached operating temperature. The coffin is inserted (charged) into the retort as quickly as possible to avoid heat loss through the top-opening door. The coffin may be on a charger (motorised trolley) that can quickly insert the coffin, or one that can tilt and tip the coffin into the cremator.
Some crematoria allow relatives to view the charging. This is sometimes done for religious reasons, such as in traditional Hindu and Jain funerals.
Most cremators are a standard size. Typically, larger cities have access to an oversize cremator that can handle deceased in the 200kg (441 pounds)+ range. Most large crematoriums have a small cremator installed for the disposal of fetal and infant remains.
In the U.S., a body ready to be cremated must be placed in a container for cremation, which can be a simple corrugated cardboard box or a wooden casket. Most casket manufacturers provide a line of caskets specially built for cremation. Another option is a cardboard box that fits inside a wooden shell designed to look like a traditional casket. After the funeral service, the interior box is removed from the shell before cremation, permitting the shell to be reused. Funeral homes may also offer rental caskets, which are traditional caskets used only for the duration of the services, after which the body is transferred to another container for cremation. Rental caskets are sometimes designed with removable beds and liners, which are replaced after each use.
In the UK, the body is not removed from the coffin and is not placed into a container as described above. The body is cremated with the coffin, which is why all UK coffins that are to be used for cremation must be made of combustible material. The Code of Cremation Practice forbids the opening of the coffin once it has arrived at the crematorium, and rules stipulate it must be cremated on the same day as the funeral service. Thus, in the UK, bodies are cremated in the same coffin as they are placed in at the funeral parlor. It is recommended that jewelry be removed before the coffin is sealed for this reason. After the cremation process has been completed, the remains are passed through a magnetic field to remove any bits of metal, which will be interred elsewhere in the crematorium grounds. The ashes are then given to relatives or loved ones.
In Australia, the deceased are cremated in a coffin supplied by the undertaker. Reusable or cardboard coffins are becoming popular with several manufacturers now supplying them. If cost is an issue, a plain, particle-board coffin (known in the trade as a "chippie") will be offered. Handles (if fitted) are plastic and approved for use in a cremator. Coffins vary from natural cardboard or unfinished particle board (covered with a velvet pall if there is a service) to solid timber; most are veneered particle board.
Cremations can be "delivery only," with no preceding chapel service at the crematorium (although a church service may have been held) or preceded by a service in one of the crematorium chapels. Delivery-only allows crematoriums to schedule cremations to make best use of the cremators, perhaps by holding the body overnight in a refrigerator. As a result, a lower fee is applicable. Delivery-only may be referred to in industry jargon as "west chapel service."
The box containing the body is placed in the retort and incinerated at a temperature of 760° to 1150°C (1400° to 2100°F). During the cremation process, a large part of the body (especially the organs) and other soft tissue are vaporized and oxidized due to the heat, and the gases are discharged through the exhaust system. The entire process usually takes about two hours.
All that remains after cremation are dry bone fragments (mostly calcium phosphates and minor minerals). Their color is usually light gray. They represent very roughly 3.5% of the body's original mass (2.5% in children). Because the weight of dry bone fragments is so closely connected to skeletal mass, their weight varies greatly from person to person, although it is more closely connected with the person's height and sex than with their simple weight. The mean weight of adult cremains in a Florida, U.S. sample was 5.3 lb (approx. 2.4 kg) for adults (range 2 to 8 lb/900 g to 3.6 kg). This was found to be distributed bimodally according to sex, with the mean being 6 lb (2.7 kg) for men (range 4 to 8 lb/1.8 kg to 3.6 kg) and 4 lb (1.8 kg) for women (range 2 to 6 lb/900 g to 2.7 kg). In this sample, generally all adult cremated remains over 6 lb (2.7 kg) were from males, and those under 4 lb (1.8 kg) were from females.
Jewelry, such as wristwatches and rings, are ordinarily removed and returned to the family. The only nonnatural item required to be removed is a pacemaker, because it could explode and damage the cremator. In the United Kingdom, and possibly other countries, the undertaker is required to remove pacemakers prior to delivering the body to the crematorium, and sign a declaration stating that any pacemaker has been removed.
After the incineration is completed, the bone fragments are swept out of the retort and the operator uses a pulverizer called a cremulator (also known informally as a crembola) to process them into what are known as cremains, which exhibit the appearance of grains of sand (note that this varies with the efficiency of the cremulator used, and recognizable chips of very dry bone may be seen in some final product cremated remains, depending on origin and facility). Cremulators usually use some kind of rotating or grinding mechanism to powder the bones, such as the heavy metal balls on older models. See also ball mill.
This is one of the reasons cremated remains are called ashes, although a technical term sometimes used is "cremains (a portmanteau of "cremated" and "remains"). The ashes are placed in a container, which can be anything from a simple cardboard box to a fancy urn. An unavoidable consequence of cremation is that a tiny residue of bodily remains is left in the chamber after cremation and mixes with subsequent cremations.
Not all that remains is bone. There will be melted metal lumps from missed jewelry; casket furniture; dental fillings; and surgical implants, such as hip replacements. Large items such as titanium hip replacements are usually removed before grinding, as they may damage the grinder. After grinding, smaller bits of metal are sieved out and later interred in common, consecrated ground in a remote area of the cemetery.
Cremated remains are returned to the next of kin in a rectangular plastic container, contained within a further cardboard box or velvet sack, or in an urn if the family had already purchased one. 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 cremains.
Cremated remains can be kept in an urn, sprinkled on a special field, mountain, in the sea, or buried in the ground at any location. In addition, there are several services in which the cremated remains will be scattered in a variety of ways and locations. Some examples are via a helium balloon, through fireworks, shot from shotgun shells, or scattered from an airplane (this is not illegal in most jurisdictions, in part because laws prohibiting it would be difficult to enforce). One service sends a lipstick-tube sized sample of the cremains into low earth orbit, where they remain for years (but not permanently) before re-entering the atmosphere. Another company claims to turn part of the cremains into a diamond in an artificial diamond manufacturing machine. These converted grown diamonds can then be cut, polished, and mounted as would a real diamond into jewelry as a keepsake for the family. Cremains may also be incorporated, with urn and cement, into part of an artificial reef, or they can also be mixed into paint and made into a portrait of the deceased. Cremated remains can be scattered in national parks in the U.S., with a special permit. They can also be scattered on private property, with the owner's permission. A portion of the cremated remains may be retained in a specially designed locket known as a keepsake pendant. The cremated remains may also be entombed. Most cemeteries will grant permission for burial of cremains in occupied cemetery plots that have already been purchased or are in use by the families disposing of the cremains, without any additional charge or oversight.
The final disposition depends on the personal wishes of the deceased as well as their cultural and religious beliefs. Some religions will permit the cremated remains to be sprinkled or kept at home. Some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, insist on either burying or entombing the remains. Hinduism obliges the closest male relative (son, father, husband, etc.) of the deceased to immerse the cremated remains in the holy river Ganges, preferably at the holy city of Haridwar, India. The Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus immerse the remains in Sutlej, usually at Sri Harkiratpur. In Japan and Taiwan, the remaining bone fragments are given to the family and are used in a burial ritual before final interment (see Japanese funeral).
Apart from religious reasons (discussed below), some people find they prefer cremation for personal reasons. For some people, it is because they are not attracted to traditional burial. The thought of a long, slow decomposition process is unappealing to some; many people find that they prefer cremation because it disposes of the body immediately.
Other people view cremation as a way of simplifying their funeral process. These people view a traditional burial as an unneeded complication of their funeral process, and thus choose cremation to make their services as simple as possible.
The cost factor tends to make cremation attractive. Generally speaking, cremation costs less than traditional burial services, especially if direct cremation is chosen, in which the body is cremated as soon as legally possible without any sort of services. However, there is wide variation in the cost of cremation services, having mainly to do with the amount of service desired by the deceased or the family. A cremation can take place after a full traditional funeral service, which adds cost. The type of container used also influences cost.
Cremated remains can be scattered or buried. Cremation plots or columbarium niches usually cost less than a burial plot or mausoleum crypt, and require less space. Some religions, such as Roman Catholicism, require the burial or entombment of cremated remains, but burial of cremains may often be accomplished in the burial plot of another person, such as a family member, without any additional cost.
To some, cremation might be preferable for environmental reasons. Burial is a known source of certain environmental contaminants. Embalming fluids, for example, are known to contaminate groundwater with mercury, arsenic, and formaldehyde. The coffins themselves are another known source of contamination. Another concern is contamination from radioisotopes that have entered the body before death or burial. One possible source of isotopes is radiation therapy, although no accumulation of radiation occurs in the most common type of radiation therapy involving high energy photons. However, cremation has no effect on radioisotopes other than to return them to the environment more rapidly (beginning with some spread into the air). Thus, cremation is of no overall help with pollution from this source.
Yet another environmental concern, of sorts, is that traditional burial takes up a great deal of space. In a traditional burial, the body is buried in a casket made from a variety of materials. In America, the casket is often placed inside a concrete vault or liner before burial in the ground. While individually this may not take much room, combined with other burials, it can over time cause serious space concerns. Many cemeteries, particularly in Japan and Europe as well as those in larger cities, have run out, or are starting to run out, of permanent space. In Tokyo, for example, traditional burial plots are extremely scarce and expensive, and in London, a space crisis led Harriet Harman to propose reopening old graves for "double-decker" burials.
However, there is a growing body of research that indicates cremation has a significant impact on the environment as well:
The major emissions from crematories are nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).
The Indian religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, mandate open-air cremation. In these religions, the body is seen as an instrument to carry the soul. As an example, the Bhagavad Gita quotes, "Just as old clothes are cast off and new ones taken, the soul leaves the body after the death to take a new one." Hence, the dead body is not considered sacred, since the soul has left the body and the cremation is regarded as ethical by the Eastern religions. In Sikhism, burial is not prohibited, although cremation is the preferred option for cultural reasons rather than religious. Since Sikhism has a lot of cultural similarity with Hinduism, Sikhs prefer cremation. They also scatter the ashes in holy rivers, like Hindus.
According to Hindu traditions, the reasons for preferring to destroy the corpse by fire over burying it into ground is to induce a feeling of detachment into the freshly disembodied spirit, which will be helpful to encourage it into passing to "the other world" (the ultimate destination of the dead). This also explains the ground burial of holy men (whose spirit is already "detached" enough due to lifelong ascetic practices) and young children (the spirit has not lived long enough to grow attachments to this world). Hindu holy men are buried in lotus position and not in a horizontal position, as in other religions. Hindus have 16 rituals (Sanskars), like Name, Thread ceremony, beginning of student life, marriage, etc., and the last one is Cremation. Cremation is referred to as antim-samskara, literally meaning "the last rites." At the time of the cremation or "last rites," a "Puja" (ritual worship) is performed. The holy text of Rigveda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, has many Ruchas (small poems) related to cremation, which state that that Lord Agni (God of Fire) will purify the dead body, also known as the Parthiv. Therefore, the Parthiv is given over to him.
In Christian countries and cultures, cremation has typically been discouraged, but not forbidden.
Cremation was, in fact, not forbidden in and of itself; even in Medieval Europe, cremation was practised in situations where there were multitudes of corpses simultaneously present, such as after a battle, after a pestilence or famine, and where there was an imminent danger of diseases spreading from the corpses, since individual burials with digging graves would take too long and body decomposition would begin before all the corpses had been interred. However, earth burial or entombment remained the law unless there were circumstances that required cremation for the public good.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, and even more so in the 18th century and later, rationalists and classicists began to advocate cremation again as a statement denying the resurrection and/or the afterlife, although the pro-cremation movement more often than not took care to address and refute theological concerns about cremation in their works. Sentiment within the Catholic Church against cremation became hardened in the face of the association of cremation with "professed enemies of God." Rules were made against cremation, which were softened in the 1960s. The Catholic Church still officially prefers the traditional burial or entombment of the deceased, but cremation is now freely permitted as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body.
Until 1997, Catholic liturgical regulations required that cremation take place after the funeral Mass, so that, if possible, the body might be present for the Mass—the body was present as a symbol and to receive the blessings and be the subject of prayers in which it is mentioned. Once the Mass itself was concluded, the body could be cremated and a second service could be held at the crematorium or cemetery where the ashes were to be interred just as for a body burial. The liturgical regulations now allow for a Mass with the container of ashes present, but permission of the local bishop is needed for this. The Church still specifies requirements for the reverent disposition of ashes, normally that the ashes are to be buried or entombed in an appropriate container, such as an urn (rather than scattered or preserved in the family home). Catholic cemeteries today regularly receive cremated remains, and many have columbaria.
The Orthodox Jews have maintained a stricter line on cremation, and disapprove of it as Halakha (Jewish law) forbids it. This halakhic concern is grounded in the upholding of bodily resurrection as a core belief of traditional Judaism, as opposed to other ancient trends such as the Sadduccees, who denied it. Conservative Jewish groups also oppose cremation.
Some secular Jews may reject cremation perhaps in reaction to The Holocaust, in which the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide were disposed of by cremation at the death camps. At many former Nazi death camps, mounds of ashes are present beneath a shallow layer of dirt.
Alternative death rituals emphasizing one method of disposal of a body—inhumation (burial), cremation, and exposure—have gone through periods of preference throughout history.
In the Middle East and Europe, both burial and cremation are evident in the archaeological record in the Neolithic. Cultural groups had their own preference and prohibitions. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration of soul theology, which prohibited cremation, and this was adopted widely among other Semitic peoples. The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead. Early Persians practiced cremation, but this became prohibited during the Zoroastrian Period. Phoenicians practiced both cremation and burial. From the Cycladic civilisation in 3000 BC until the Hypo-Mycenaean era in 1200–1100 B.C., Greeks practiced inhumation. Cremation appearing around the 11th century B.C. constitutes a new practice of burial and is probably an influence from Minor Asia. Until the Christian era, when the inhumation becomes again the only burial practice, both combustion and inhumation had been practiced depending on the era, and area. Romans practiced both, with cremation generally associated with military honours.
In Europe, there are traces of cremation dating to the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2000 B.C.) in the Pannonian Plain and along the middle Danube. The custom becomes dominant throughout Bronze Age Europe with the Urnfield culture (from ca. 1300 B.C.). In the Iron Age, inhumation becomes again more common, but cremation persisted in the Villanovan culture and elsewhere. Homer's account of Patroclus' burial describes cremation with subsequent burial in a tumulus similar to Urnfield burials, qualifying as the earliest description of cremation rites. This is mostly an anachronism, as during Mycenaean times burial was generally preferred, and Homer may have been reflecting more common use of cremation in the period in which the Iliad was written centuries later.
Hinduism and Jainism are notable for not only allowing but prescribing cremation. Cremation in India is first attested in the Cemetery H culture (from ca. 1900 B.C.), considered the formative stage of Vedic civilization. The Rigveda contains a reference to the emerging practice, in RV 10.15.14, where the forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)" are invoked.
Cremation remained common, but not universal, in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to Cicero, in Rome, inhumation was considered the more archaic rite, while the most honoured citizens were most typically cremated—especially upper classes and members of imperial families.
Christianity frowned upon cremation, both influenced by the tenets of Judaism, and in an attempt to abolish Graeco-Roman pagan rituals. By the 5th century, the practice of cremation had practically disappeared from Europe.
In early Roman Britain, cremation was usual but diminished by the fourth century. It then reappeared in the fifth and sixth centuries during the migration era, when sacrificed animals were sometimes included with the human bodies on the pyre, and the deceased were dressed in costume and with ornaments for the burning. That custom was also very widespread among the Germanic peoples of the northern continental lands from which the Anglo-Saxon migrants are supposed to have been derived, during the same period. These ashes were usually thereafter deposited in a vessel of clay or bronze in an "urn cemetery." The custom again died out with the Christian conversion among the Anglo-Saxons or Early English during the seventh century, when inhumation of the corpse became general.
Even today, cremation bears the stigma of "human waste disposal" in many ex-Socialist countries and is considered ignominious or shameful.
In 1873, Paduan Professor Brunetti presented a cremation chamber at the Vienna Exposition. In Britain, the movement found the support of Queen Victoria's surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, who together with colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The first crematoria in Europe were built in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany, the first in North America in 1876 by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne in Washington, Pennsylvania. The second cremation in the United States was that of Charles F. Winslow in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 31 1877. The first cremation in Britain took place on 26th March 1886 at Woking.
Cremation was declared as legal in England and Wales when Dr. William Price was prosecuted for cremating his son; formal legislation followed later with the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902 (this Act did not extend to Ireland), which imposed procedural requirements before a cremation could occur and restricted the practice to authorised places. Some of the various Protestant churches came to accept cremation, with the rationale being, "God can resurrect a bowl of ashes just as conveniently as he can resurrect a bowl of dust." The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia was critical about these efforts, referring to them as a "sinister movement" and associating them with Freemasonry, although it said that "there is nothing directly opposed to any dogma of the Church in the practice of cremation. In 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted the ban on cremation, and in 1966 allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies.
Australia also started to establish modern cremation movements and societies. Australians had their first purpose-built modern crematorium and chapel in the West Terrace Cemetery in the South Australian capital of Adelaide in 1901. This small building, resembling the buildings at Woking, remained largely unchanged from its 19th century style and was in full operation until the late 1950s. The oldest operating crematorium in Australia is at Rookwood, in Sydney. It opened in 1925.
In the Netherlands, the foundation of the Association for Optional Cremation in 1874 ushered in a long debate about the merits and demerits of cremation. Laws against cremation were challenged and invalidated in 1915 (two years after the construction of the first crematorium in the Netherlands), though cremation did not become legally recognised until 1955.
Eventually Ray Brent Marsh—who was the operator at the time the bodies were discovered—had 787 criminal charges filed against him. On November 19, 2004, Marsh pleaded guilty to all charges. Marsh was sentenced to two 12-year prison sentences from both Georgia and Tennessee, which he is serving concurrently. Afterwards, he will be on probation for 75 years.
Civil suits were filed against the Marsh family as well as a number of funeral homes who shipped bodies to Tri-State; these suits were ultimately settled. The property of the Marsh family has been sold, but collection of the full $80-million judgment remains doubtful. Families have expressed the desire to return the former Tri-State crematory to a natural, parklike setting.
Authorities had difficulties dealing with the large numbers of bodies, and as a result, thousands of bodies were of necessity cremated together. Many of these bodies were not identified or viewed by relatives prior to cremation. A particular point of objection was that the bodies of Westerners were kept separate from those of Asian descent, who were mostly locals. This meant that the bodies of tourists from other Asian nations, such as Japan and Korea, were mass cremated, rather than being returned to their country of origin for funeral rites.