Once you begin making end-of-life plans, it’s natural to wonder “how does cremation work?” Cremation is an increasingly popular option for many people. In fact, 50.2% of Americans chose cremation in 2016, according to a report for the National Association of Funeral Directors (NFDA). Learning how the cremation process works will help you better understand whether this is the right choice for you or a loved one when the time comes.

In general, the cremation process transforms a body back to its essential elements through heat. In most cases, the body is enclosed in an approved cremation container before being placed in the cremation chamber. Extreme heat is used to aerify soft tissue and turn what remains into ashes and bone fragments that weigh just a few pounds.

Loved ones can keep these ashes in special cremation urns, bury them in standard cemetery plots, or select newer alternatives like a tree in a memorial forest

How much does cremation cost?

The average cost of cremation in the United States is around $2,200, according to the NFDA. This is significantly lower than the total cost associated with a traditional burial. The cost of cremation can vary based on your location. 

The most affordable kind of cremation is called direct cremation. Direct cremation means that you are only paying for the cremation — not the funeral or memorial service beforehand. This is the right option for you if you know you want to have a funeral or memorial service with cremated ashes or if you would prefer not to have a memorial service. 

Costs for direct cremation range from $2,000 – $5,000, depending on the city where you live and the funeral home fees. In some locations, you can work directly with a crematory instead of a funeral home, which may reduce costs. Know that when you choose direct cremation you aren’t obligated to buy a casket or an urn from the funeral home, and the funeral home or crematory is required to make alternative containers available to you. 

The history of cremation

Cremation might be as old as human culture itself. Scholars believe that the practice began during the Stone Age, spreading from Northern Europe to the Middle East. In the past, cremation took place in open-air wooden funeral pyres, but today’s technology keeps the process contained in a small indoor chamber.

Cremation, as we know it today, became more prevalent after 1873, when a dependable cremation chamber was created. The technology quickly spread around the world, and each era of modern technology has influenced innovation in the cremation process, too. For instance, modern crematories have digital controls to allow attendants to keep temperatures at optimal levels for uninterrupted cremation.

How the cremation process works: a comprehensive guide

Cremation is just one component of an end-of-life plan. People who choose cremation for themselves or for a loved one often have to decide on where the cremation will take place, what container the ashes will be stored in, and what kind of memorial service or funeral they would like to have before or after the cremation. The cremation itself takes from one to three hours to complete. 

These are the five steps in a cremation:

  • The deceased is identified and proper authorization is received
  • The body is prepared and placed in a cremation casket
  • The cremation casket with the body is moved to the cremation chamber, also called a retort
  • After the cremation, attendants press or grind remaining bone fragments into ash and remove metal with a magnet
  • The cremated remains are placed into a temporary container or an urn provided by the family

What type of container is used for cremation?

Like a standard burial, specific supplies are needed for cremation. The body is first placed in a cremation casket, which is fully combustible and designed to burn in the chamber. It can be made of hardwood, another type of softer wood, or other combustible materials. It cannot contain any metal. 

After the cremation, the remaining ashes are often placed in an urn to be given back to the family. This can be a temporary container provided by the crematory or funeral home or an urn provided by the family. The family can then choose to keep the ashes or place them in a cemetery, crematorium, or another location that has significance to the person who passed or their family. 

If visitation is desired before the cremation, the body may be temporarily presented in a rented coffin.

What happens to a body during cremation? 

It can be hard to think about heat being used to transform a body into ashes. This is why it is important that the people who work in cremation are considerate and respectful. As you’re evaluating end-of-life options, take note of how you feel you’re being treated and guided through each step. This can help you make a plan that feels right for you. 

Extreme heat is needed for cremations, usually between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, the cremation chamber is preheated to a set temperature before the body is moved there. 

Throughout the cremation process, a column of flames created by natural gas, propane, or oil consumes the container while vaporizing the body’s soft tissue and calcifying the bones so that they turn to ash. This process is completely odorless. 

At the end of the cremation process, attendants will press or grind any remaining bone fragments into ash. While “ashes” is the most common word used to describe cremated remains, they are more accurately made up of small bone fragments. As a final step, attendants use a strong magnet to remove any residual metal scraps like dental work or artificial limbs.

Generally, cremation takes between one and three hours. 

What happens to the remains after cremation?

When you choose cremation, it’s best practice to choose in advance how you would like the remains to be stored afterward. This means that you should provide explicit instructions to your family and the crematorium about what should be done with your ashes.

There are a range of options available for cremated remains, including burying them in a cemetery plot, scattering them somewhere meaningful, displaying them in an urn, and even incorporating them into jewelry. Spreading them at the base of a private and protected memorial tree is a unique option available through Better Place Forests

The beauty of cremation is that you can choose the option that makes the most sense for your situation, typically at a lower cost than a traditional burial. 

What is the alternative to cremation?

Some people know they don’t want a traditional burial but aren’t sure cremation is right for them either. There are a few sustainable alternatives available to consider. 

One option is called alkaline hydrolysis. This is also known as biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation, or water cremation. It is the process of transforming a body back to chemical compounds through the use of pressure, heat, and alkali chemicals. Alkaline hydrolysis produces fewer emissions than its traditional counterpart. As a result, many people choose it as an environmentally friendly alternative. 

Another alternative is human composting, which avoids heat altogether. Instead, the body decomposes and becomes nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow new organic life. 

What are other options besides burial and cremation?

There are many options for what to do with cremated remains that do not involve traditional burial or urns. 

You can make a plan for yourself or a loved one to have cremated remains used in jewelry or other objects to wear or keep in your home. Some people even choose to have ashes incorporated into tattoos. 

At Better Place Forests, you can have ashes spread at the base of a memorial tree in a protected forest. When you choose a memorial tree, you’re picking a final resting place that protects forest land and grows with future generations. 

Whether you’re interested in alternative burial options or want to know what it means to choose a memorial tree as your final resting place, you can book a free online tour with one of our advisors to learn more.