The Process of Cremation
Here's where we look at two aspects of cremation: its history, and the process of cremation itself. Despite any reservations you may have about reading further, we'd like to assure you that cremation history doesn't have to be boring; our introductory look at the history of cremation which we call Cremation 101, focuses not on ancient history, but only on the time since the first crematory was built in the North America, in 1876.
If you're looking for additional information about the history and process of cremation, we suggest you read Cremation Facts; and if you're curious about how the world's major religions view cremation, we urge you to review Religious Views on Cremation.
Cremation History 101
Cremation has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years; in fact, archaeologists tell us the history of cremation began some 20,000 years ago, along the shores of Lake Mungo, in Australia. The popularity of cremation in locations around the world has waxed and waned over the centuries; growing in popularity during some centuries, then discarded as a commonplace practice; only to have interest renewed. Commonly this was due to the imposition of religious or social doctrine by conquering peoples; or in some cases, by governmental decree (as in modern China, where cremation has been made mandatory in most regions). If you're interested in the earliest cremation practices of far-flung peoples, we suggest you read Facts about the History of Cremation, or turn to the Online Sources below.
Megan Sickles tells readers of the online article, "Ashes to Ashes: America's First Crematorium"; unlike today, cremation was not always available in this country. In fact, she writes "...the story of modern cremation in America began in the mid-1800s in a small Pennsylvania town thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh and one man, Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne." It seems the good doctor had grown concerned about what he felt were unhealthy practices: embalming (made mainstream during the Civil War) and the traditional practice of burial. His solution to the problem was to construct the first crematory; which was little more than a reception room connected to a furnace room, where the cremation actually took place.
Ms. Sickles tells readers author Margaret McCulloch, in her biography of Dr. LeMoyne, Fearless Advocate of the Right, the Life of Francis J. LeMoyne, M.D. (published in 1941), described the furnace, “[it] was in structure a simple type of fire-clay retort...merely a large brick furnace with a metal door provided with a small opening for observation." The first cremation took place later that same year, on December 6th, 1876. The second crematory opened in that same state in 1884, and just sixteen years later, in 1900,there were 20 crematories in operation in the United States.
Interestingly, cremation became available to Canadians some 25 years later, in the province of Québec. The Mount Royal Cemetery, located in Outremont, was the site of Canada's first crematory. Funded in 1900 by Sir William MacDonald, this first Canadian cremation facility opened its doors in 1901; however the first cremation did not take place until April 18, 1902.The popularity of cremation in Canada was slow to grow; that first year, only six (6) individuals were cremated; by 1929, the yearly number had risen to 354 (almost one per day). The second Canadian crematory did not open until 1913, this time in Vancouver, British Columbia; and it was another 20 years before the third such facility was built in Toronto, Ontario.
Today, the rise in the popularity of cremation throughout North America continues to climb. Often motivated by financial concerns or environmental awareness; more families each year are choosing cremation when making funeral arrangements. (For statistical details on rising cremation rates, read Facts about the Global Practice of Cremation.)
A Brief Overview of the Cremation Process
Cremation uses extreme heat (from 1400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce the human body from its familiar form to fragments of bone. In essence then, thecremation process advances a natural process, that of decomposition; accomplishing in just a few hours what would have taken months or even years to occur. Today, thecremation process involves the use of very specialized equipment called a retort, which is basically a furnace fueled by either propane or natural gas.
After death, a licensed funeral professional takes possession of the physical remains, and establishes a strict chain-of-custody to ensure the cremated body of the deceased is accurately identified following the cremation process. At this time, written authorization to cremate is completed by the responsible funeral director, and signed by the family member with legal authority. Additional paperwork identifies the personal effects of the deceased, the casket or cremation container selected, and how the cremated remains are to be handled. He or she will also complete the legal death certificate, obtain the signature of the attending physician or medical examiner, and file the document with county authorities.
Preparing the Body for Cremation
The body is then prepared for cremation. Unlike the cremations which took place at Dr. Lemoyne's Pennsylvania crematory, where "preparation would include wrapping the body in a linen sheet and a type of plaster...then covered in herbs, spices, pine branches and flowers in an attempt to mask the scent during burning" (according to Ms. Sickles,a New York Herald reporter (upon observing the preparation of one particular individual cremated in 1876) wrote that the man to be cremated was covered in “frankincense, myrrh, acacia cinnamon and other fragrant spices.” Today, the individual's personal effects and surgical appliances (such asa pacemaker)are removed, and the body is then placed in a cremation casket selected by the family, or alternative cremation container. A metal identification tag is added, to ensure proper identification throughout the cremation process. It will be cremated with the body to allow for proper identification of the cremated remains when removed from the retort.
At the Crematory
Once a deceased individual arrives at the crematory, his or her identity is once again verified by all professionals involved. If the required waiting period (anywhere from 24 to 72 hours) has yet to expire; the individual will be placed in a refrigeration unit for safekeeping. When this period has been satisfactorily completed, the individual will be placed with all due care into the retort for the actual cremation process.
It usually takes about two, to two-and-a-half hours for a body to be completely reduced to just the bone fragments by the cremation process (the time involved is largely dependent on the age of the retort being used, but the size and weight of the physical remains is also a factor).
Once the cremation is complete, there needs to be a cool-down period, so the bone fragments are sufficiently cooled before handling. When cooled, the cremated remains are respectfully removed by being “swept” from the retort. Afterwards, all metal debris (such as a surgical pin or titanium joint) is removed manually from the cremated remains.
What remains is then put into a special processor designed to pulverize the bone fragments to a finer consistency. This material, commonly known as "ashes", is then placed inside a plastic bag within a temporary plastic or cardboard cremation container. Finally, arrangements are made for their transfer and safekeeping consistent with original paperwork signed by the next of kin.
Turn to the Cremation Experts
We consider ourselves cremation professionals meaning we continue to pursue excellence in all things; we continually strive to expand our knowledge of cremation history. Certainly, we're very familiar with the cremation process; yet we add to our expertise by attending on-going continuing education courses regarding state-of-the-art crematory equipment and operations. If you have questions about any aspect of cremation–its history, the process itself, or what's involved in making cremation arrangements–we're here to assist you. Simply call us at 406-543-5595, or send us an email using the form on our Contact Us page. We will be pleased to hear from you.
CANA, "History of Cremation", Cremation Association of North America, accessed 2014
Kim, Michelle, "How Cremation Works", How Stuff Works, Kim, Michelle. "How Cremation Works", 2009, accessed 2014
Goetting, Marsha and Claire DelGuerra, "Cremation: History, Process, and Regulations", 2003, The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues 8(1), accessed 2014
Sickles, Megan, "Ashes to Ashes: America's First Crematorium", Pennsylvania State University, 2009, accessed 2014
Mount Royal Cemetery, "Canada's First Crematorium" and "Mount Royal Crematorium", Mount Royal Commemorative Services, 2014, accessed 2014
Davis, Douglas and Lewis Mates, editors, Encyclopedia of Cremation, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005