Death is often considered as an off-limits topic in polite conversation, and even among families. It is a topic filled with mystery, intrigue, and pain, but one that also merges with tradition and culture, making it all the more taboo. While traditional customs among several cultures and religions involve proper burials in cemeteries or religious sites, the rates of cremation have significantly grown over time, and have even surpassed burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Not to mention, it has revolutionized the way many choose to memorialize the dead.

In 1980, less than 5 percent of Americans were cremated after death. That number is now at 50 percent, according to the NFDA. One of the main reasons for the surge in cremation is due to a cultural and religious acceptance of cremation. However, aside from the wide acceptance in most religions and cultures, the main reasons cremation grew significantly was none other than the Great Recession.

The 2008 Great Recession cost many Americans their jobs, homes and forever changed the burial industry. Although still expensive, cremation was a less expensive alternative when compared to the high costs of burying a loved one.

The original concept of cremation goes back to ancient times. Cremation began in the Stone Age, and was also common in ancient Greece and Rome. Not to mention, for certain religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, cremation was not only permitted, but mandated.

Cremation has become socially acceptable, spreading throughout generations of families and religions, but acceptance varies by state and ethnicities, per the NFDA. In states such as California, Oregon, and Florida, 60 to 80 percent of the deceased are cremated, while the number is considerably lower in the Bible Belt and among with certain cultures, including those of the Catholic faith and African-Americans.

As religions and cultures grow more accepting of cremation, there is also a separate driving force that calls for the promotion of cremation: space. Cemeteries are now facing an unforeseen issue which calls for the need for alternative burial methods.

But bad connotations usually revolve around the thought of cremation, and often, there is much confusion tied to the process of cremation when it comes to people exploring the option of burning the deceased. So, how does cremation work?

The bodies arrive in caskets, sometimes made from wood, but more commonly cardboard. Then they remain in the caskets during the entire stay at the crematorium. The caskets are then placed into the crematorium’s walk-in-cooler. Bodies usually remain in the cooler for a day or two due to regulations that require a 24-hour waiting period between the time when someone dies and cremation.

When the body is ready to be cremated, it is then removed from cold storage and then moved to a retractable table, which helps transport the body. The door can be opened about 30 to 35 inches wide, but most operators only open it a foot or so to accommodate to the width of the body. Opening it any more than that will let out too much heat and expose the operator and the room to extremely high temperatures. The body is then slid into the unit, pushed by a tool or by hand.

There are two chambers to a cremation unit: the primary chamber is where the body goes, while the secondary or “after” chamber is where the gases generated are burned off.

There are brick-lined walls inside the primary chamber, and a floor and roof made of high heat refractory concrete. A burner descends from the roof and heats the chamber to about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to break down a body into gases and bone fragments.

The gases and particulates from the body travel into the after-chamber, a 30-foot maze designed to retain the gases for about two seconds. The after-chamber then subjects the gases to a scorching temperature of 1,700 degrees to make sure the particles and odor are negligible before everything goes up the stack and out into the atmosphere. The secondary chamber acts like a catalytic converter in a car, which works to neutralize the emissions of the exhaust system.

The particulates emitted from the cremation must be less than 0.1 grains per dry standard cubic foot, according to the regulation enforced by the environmental agencies in certain states. Problems arise when gases build up in the secondary chamber and begin to overflow. This tends to occur when machines are not properly designed and have faulty operating systems or if the operator overloads the primary chamber.

The truth is that there is a lot that goes into the cremation process. One thing that operators must worry about is weight, since the machine isn’t able to recognize the difference in weight between a person who weighs 150 pounds and someone who weighs 400. There is a rule of thumb that most operators abide by that 100 pounds of human fat is the equivalent of 17 gallons of kerosene. If a body weighs 400 pounds, at least 200 of it will be fat that will burn rapidly.

Altogether it takes about an hour and a half to cremate a body, although the time varies depending on the person’s body weight and type of casket they are in. Time consumption limits the number of bodies that are cremated. But one of the main parts of the cremated remains is the coffin, as the human body is 75 percent water.

Once the heating is over, cremated remains are then placed on what looks like a silver baking tray. A technician will then run a magnet over the remains to remove all the ferrous materials that were unable to combust during the cremation process, which are usually from the person’s staples, screws, hinges, and prosthetic joints. The crematorium then puts the bones and ash into a pulverizer and then through a sieve and finally into a container for the family.

But where do the cremated remains end up? Well, that depends entirely upon the family and the deceased. In movies, we are usually presented with characters scattering the ashes of a loved one off the top of a mountain or over the side of a boat. However, in reality things are not like we see in movies. The Cremation Association of North America estimates that nearly 60 to 80 percent of cremated remains are taken home with people who intend to keep them in a cemetery or scatter them at a future date.

Whether ashes are kept in homes, scattered or in cemeteries, there’s no doubt about it that remembrance is just as important as the burial and cremation process.

Related: 10 Details About Death


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