Cremation is the process of reducing a deceased person’s body to ashes, which are then returned to the family for burial, scattering or being kept. Sometimes the ashes are turned into jewellery or other keepsake. But what does the cremation process actually involve? There’s certainly more to it than cremating the body and collecting the ashes.
There are strict rules and how the body must be prepared and ultimately cremated.
Preparing the Body
The service, where friends and family pay their last respects, ‘commits’ the body, and the cremation usually takes place half an hour after the service. In UK law a crematorium has up to four days to cremate the body. It’s worth remembering that the deceased may have taken out a funeral finance plan to pay for the cremation, which might include their particular wishes about the cremation process and where to be scattered, if at all.
Before the body is cremated the crematoria, staff remove all metal objects and synthetics. That means pacemakers, clothing and jewellery. Pacemaker batteries, for example, pose a risk because they can explode.
Other things that are removed from the body are silicone breast implants. Otherwise the sticky silicone mess that’s left behind by melted implants mixes with the cremated remains and needs to be scraped up by someone.
Finally, the deceased is formerly identified and proper paperwork is completed.
In most cases a cremation only one person can be cremated at a time, but some crematoria may make an exception where, for example, a mother and baby are being cremated together.
On rare occasions, where the cremation is of a small baby, there may be no ashes to recover. The incidence of this has been reduced by improvements in technology and cremation practises but if you are ever worried you should speak to your funeral director.
During the Cremation
The chamber is heated to around 870-980 ºC. In this intense heat of the crematorium oven the body undergoes changes every ten minutes or so. This includes muscle and fat shrinking as they heat up. Muscle contraction has led to the myth that people sit up during cremation. While muscles do contract and the body does adopt the curled-up fists pose of an old-fashioned boxer, they do not specifically sit up.
The cremation furnace has two chambers. The body is incinerated in the first and the second is where the resulting gases and particulates go to be filtered before they are released to the atmosphere.
Once the cremation process is started it can take up to three hours to be reduced to ashes. What’s left is mostly bone fragments and some ash.
After the Cremation
The ashes are left to cool down. Then a magnet is passed over the cremated remains to remove any bits of metal, which might include handles from the coffin and teeth fillings. The remaining bone fragments are pulverised in a machine called a cremulator, to reduce the fragments to the fine particles we see as ‘ashes’.
Do You Have to be Cremated in a Coffin?
In the UK the law says that a body must be covered in public, but there’s no legal requirement to be cremated in a coffin. A shroud, for example, would do the same job.
But it’s always worth checking with the crematorium first. The furnace is a tight space and moving a body can be difficult so most crematoria will want the body on at least a board.
Can the Coffins Get Mixed Up?
During the funeral service the person presiding will ‘commit’ the body and the casket is set behind a curtain. After this the coffin is taken to a separate room where the inspector checks the cremation order against the name on the casket. From this point nothing can be added or removed from inside the casket.
The cremator can only handle one coffin at a time so it’s very hard for mistakes to occur. Crematoria will only cremate one person at a time, unless in exceptional circumstances (for example, a mother and her baby).
It happens rarely but on occasion there may be no remains when a small baby is cremated. Technology has made improvements in this area, however.
Finally, Collecting the Ashes
As part of the process you’ll be asked what should happen to the ashes. They can only be collected by the person named on the paperwork. If they aren’t collected or no further instructions are given. The crematorium has the authority to scatter the ashes or place them in a grave. You’ll get 14 days’ notice if this is the case