Understanding the Cremation Process

When a loved one passes on there are a lot of important decisions to make including whether or not they’ll be honored through burial or cremation. For a long time burial services have been the popular choice when honoring the deceased, but cremation services have been becoming ever more popular with the National Funeral Directors Association projecting cremation rates of 63.8 percent by 2025 and 78.8 percent by 2035. That being said, it’s important that you understand the cremation process in order to make the decision that’s best for you.

What is cremation?

Cremation refers to the process of reducing human remains into bone fragments. There are two types of legal cremation processes in the United States: Flame-based Cremation and Alkaline Hydrolysis. Flame-based cremation uses fire and heat to cremate remains using a machine called a cremator and is the most common type of cremation offered by most funeral homes. Alkaline Hydrolysis is a newer type of cremation which uses a water-based dissolution process to cremate remains and is currently only legal in eighteen states.

What should you expect?

If you’re unsure of what to expect, the overview of the process is as follows:

  1. The deceased is transported from their memorial service or place of death to the crematory (also known as a crematorium).
  2. The deceased will be held in cold storage prior to cremation.
  3. This is where the cremation process itself occurs, typically flame-based cremation within a cremator. You may ask and arrange for a witnessed cremation with your funeral service provider.
  4. The cremated remains of the deceased are returned.

Each step in the process should be included in the cost estimate quoted to you by your funeral provider. Make sure to ask questions about their policies and chain of custody procedure.

Chain of custody refers to the documentation process for the custody, control, and transfer of remains and personal property. Every step should be documented by your service provider, from the day they receive your loved one’s remains to when their cremated remains are returned back to you.

What is the average cost of cremation?

On average, the cost of the direct cremation process falls between $700 and $1,200. However, this cost does not include the traditional embalming, visiting and memorial services that most people tend to opt for which can drive the cost of cremation up. You may also want to bury your loved one’s cremated remains in a cemetery plot or have them stored in a columbarium. In short, cremation on a budget can be cheaper than burial on a budget, but additional service options means that both cremation and burial can rise to comparable costs.

What you should know when choosing cremation

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing cremation over burial. Here are two questions you should ask to help decide on which service matches your needs:

  1. What kind of ceremony will you be having for the deceased? Again, this can be minimalist or you may wish to hold a viewing prior to cremation as well as memorial services afterwards.
  2. What will you do with the remains? If nothing has been specified by your loved one in their last will and testament then you’ll have to choose what to do with the remains. You may wish to have them buried, placed in a columbarium, scatter their remains during a memorial service or even keep them at home in an urn or jewelry keepsake.

Cremation for pets

Cremation is also becoming a popular choice for honoring the remains of pets who have passed on. The process works very similar to the cremation of human remains, but can be much cheaper in comparison. Dogs, cats, and horses are the most commonly cremated animals, but other pets can also be cremated such as rabbits and parrots and so on. 

On average, the cremation of domestic pets, such as cats and dogs, typically costs $50 to $350 and can depend on the type of cremation chosen. Cremation costs much more for horses and ranges from $250 to $2,000 and can vary depending on if pick-up of the deceased is required since special transport will need to be arranged. 

Much like human cremation, you may opt for a private or witnessed cremation, however a third option available is the communal cremation option where your pet is placed in the cremator with other animals and they’re all cremated together. Although this option is usually much cheaper than the others, it is not recommended if you’d like to keep or scatter your pet’s cremated remains.

Common misconceptions about cremation

In this section we address some common misconceptions regarding cremation services.

Cremation costs less than burial:
While cremation on a budget tends to be cheaper than burial on a budget, it’s very important to remember that there are many additional costs that can drive the overall costs of your funeral services up. These extra costs can come from things like embalming services, viewing options, cremation urn costs and columbarium arrangements.

Cremation is better for the environment:
Some people believe that cremation is better for the environment since burial requires dedicated plots of land to be dug up and maintained, but the commonly used flame-based cremation process can release nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrofluoric acid and mercury into the atmosphere. These emissions can be mitigated if the crematory has filters installed in their ventilation system, but the process is still not emissions-free. By contrast, cremation through alkaline hydrolysis is emission-free, but is not available in every state.

Cremated remains are the same as ashes:
This is a very common misconception and a little bit confusing. Cremated remains are not the same as ashes. Cremated remains are small bone fragments obtained from cremation while the ashes are obtained through further processing in a high-speed blender. This blending process transforms the cremated remains into what people commonly think of when they speak about ashes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for a body to be cremated?
The cremation itself takes 1 to 3 hours and will usually start directly after the funeral service is over or later the same day if the crematorium is busy. 

How long until I can collect my loved one’s ashes?
You should receive your loved one’s ashes the day after the cremation has been performed. Keep in mind that whoever filled out the cremation application form will need to pick them up unless otherwise specified within the form itself.

Is it better to be buried or cremated?
If cost is an important factor for you then cremation could be cheaper than burial, however, keep in mind that this depends on any extra services you intend to pay for. The choice remains a difficult and personal one that you’re better off discussing with your family members and loved ones to come to a decision on if money isn’t an issue.

Do you have clothes on when you’re cremated?
If you have a traditional funeral, then your loved one will be cremated in their funeral attire. The same goes for pets, if your pet is wrapped in a blanket or wearing a collar then that will be cremated with them. This may affect the coloring of the cremated remains / ashes.

On the other hand, if you go with direct cremation services for your loved one without a funeral service and haven’t arranged for a dressing prior to cremation then they will be cremated in a sheet or whatever they were wearing when they arrived at the crematory.