After a long absence, I have returned to regale the living with more facts about the dead. My grandmother recently passed away after a very short struggle with a very aggressive cancer. She was a wonderful person and her absence will be felt for a very long time. The ceremony was a much more informal version of the one described in my last post. Furthermore, instead of being buried, my grandmother wanted to be cremated. As a tribute to her, today I will explore one of the most popular means of laying a loved one to rest: cremation.
A brief history
Although burial is seen in the West as being the “traditional” way to dispose of a body, cremation has been the ritual of choice in countless countries all over the world for ages. In fact, archaeologists have excavated cremation cemeteries dating as far back as the Bronze Age. Preference for cremation over burial is usually based on religious belief. For example, Abrahamic religions—such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—tend to be opposed to cremation, as they believe the body will one day be resurrected. Conversely, Buddhists and Hindus, who believe in reincarnation, tend to see cremation as a means of cleansing and purifying pollution created by the body. Confucians and Daoists, on the other hand, believe the practice of burning a body to be immoral, as the body of the deceased has a symbolic tie to notions of filial piety, loyalty, and personal identity. While it is currently relatively common in Western countries, cremation was still very controversial in the mid-nineteenth century and remained taboo late into the twentieth century.
The growing popularity of cremation was due in part to technological innovation (I hope those who have read my other posts are starting to see a pattern). The Industrial Revolution brought about several machines to facilitate the process, notably the cremulator—a device designed to grind the bone fragments remaining after cremation. Furthermore, urbanization meant that the increasingly crowded cities were hurting for space, making large cemeteries inconvenient. The devastating human losses stemming from the two world wars also played a major part in cremation’s eventual normalization. These days, cremation rates in Europe and America range from a measly 5% of the population to over 70%, depending on the country or region.
Reasons for opting for cremation over a traditional burial vary. For instance, in Canada, a traditional burial can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 on average, while cremation only costs a quarter of that. Traditional burial is also quite harmful to the environment. The non-biodegradable materials used in coffins and the toxic preservatives used in the embalming process can contaminate surrounding soil. It is important to note, however, that the cremation process only fairs slightly better in this respect. Crematoriums release a small amount of toxic emissions, including mercury fumes from dental amalgams.
Cremation is the process of reducing a body to basic compounds and bone fragments using intense heat. The facility in which it takes place is called a crematorium. Individuals can choose to have a funeral service prior to cremation, in which case the body must be embalmed. A casket must also be purchased or rented. Otherwise, the body is refrigerated to stall the decomposition process, which starts immediately upon death, and the body is placed in a simple container, usually made from wood or cardboard. If the casket purchased for the viewing cannot be safely incinerated, it will be discarded and the deceased will be placed in a more appropriate container.
Family members are allowed to witness the cremation, if they so desire. Any medical devices such as pacemakers, implants, or prostheses are removed as a safety measure. Jewellery and mementos should also be removed. An identity tag, often made from stainless steel, is placed with the body for proper identification.
The container is placed in an incinerating machine called a crematory or retort. Bodies are incinerated one at a time. Temperatures in an active crematory generally range from 1,400°F to 1,800°F. The extreme heat prevents the release of any smell. The process can take from one to three hours, depending on the deceased’s size, muscle mass, or casket. Once the process is complete, only ashes and bone fragments are left. The machine is cooled down for 30 minutes to allow proper handling of the remains. According to crematory operator Lauren Rosen, the last parts of the body to remain in end are the hipbones, the spine, the skull, and a part of the brain. Metal objects such has surgical pins or dental fillings are removed. The remaining bone fragments are placed in a cremulator, where they are ground into a fine powder called ashes or cremains. The cremains are placed in a plastic bag or an urn, if provided.
Individuals can take the urn home with them, or lease a niche in a columbarium, which is a room, building, or wall containing niches in which urns are stored. Families are generally allowed to scatter their loved ones’ ashes according to their wishes, but various regions may have imposed limits or conditions. For example, in Quebec, provision 71 of Funeral Operations Act states that “No one may scatter human ashes in a place where they may constitute a nuisance or in a manner that fails to respect the dignity of the deceased person.”
To watch a video of the cremation process, click here.
Allen, C. S. M., Harman, R & Wheeler, H. (1987). Bronze Age Cremation Cemeteries in the East Midlands. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 53, 187-221. doi:10.1017/S0079497X00006198.
Davis, D. J. & Mates, L. H. (2013). Encyclopedia of Cremation. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.
Harker, A. (2012). Landscapes of the Dead: an Argument for Conservation Burial. Berkeley Planning Journal, 25, 150-159.
Mari, M & Domingo, J. L. (2010). Toxic Emissions from Crematories. Environment International, 36, pp 131-137. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2009.09.006