Things You Didn't Know About Cremation

Man holding a cremation urn
Despite growing interest, many people have questions about cremation and their options. Photo © Godong/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Even though a growing number of Americans prefer cremation as the form of final body disposition for themselves or a loved one versus traditional earth burial, many questions still exist about what cremation involves and the options available. This article answers nine common questions people have about the cremation process, ashes and the service options available when they select cremation.

1. What Do Cremated Remains Look Like?

Despite what you might picture when you hear the word "ashes," cremated remains do not resemble the fine, powdery gray ash left in your fireplace or a campfire after burning wood.

Instead, cremated remains actually look and feel more like coarse sand, like you might find on a beach. The color generally ranges from light gray to pale white.

2. How Much do the Ashes Weigh?

Generally, the cremation of an average-size adult results in cremated remains weighing 2.27 - 3.63 kilograms (5 - 8 pounds). For comparison, a typical bag of sugar at your local market typically weighs 5 pounds. Adult males tend to weigh more after cremation and adult females less, but much depends on the height and weight of the deceased individual.

3. How Hot Does a Cremation Chamber Get?

Fueled by liquid propane or natural gas, the optimum temperature of a modern cremation chamber or "retort" is typically 760° - 980 °C (1400° - 1800 °F) when cremating a body. That's hot enough to melt aluminum, lead, brass, bronze or silver.

4. Can I Provide My Own Cremation Urn?

Yes, you are not required to purchase an urn from your chosen cremation provider.

While many families choose to do so because of the convenience and wide range of products available today, others purchase an urn online, use an urn handcrafted by someone close to the deceased, or even choose the temporary/alternative container initially used by the crematory operator.

If you choose to provide your own urn, please know that cremated remains generally require a volume of roughly 3,277 cubic centimeters (200 cubic inches), so make sure you discuss providing your own urn with your cremation provider beforehand.

5. How Long Does a Cremation Take?

Several factors affect the time it takes to cremate a human body, such as the individual's height and weight, the size and efficiency of the cremation chamber/retort, and its starting temperature (it takes less time if the retort is already hot). In general, the actual cremation process can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours based on these factors.

You shouldn't expect to take possession of the cremated remains that quickly, however, because the cremation chamber must cool a bit before the operator can remove and process the cremated remains.

6. Can I Watch the Cremation?

It depends on the cremation provider you select. As consumer preference for cremation (versus earth burial) has increased in the United States since 1960, attitudes toward this form of final body disposition have also changed. Once conducted offsite and "behind the scenes," many leading cremation providers now proactively involve family members in the actual cremation process for a loved one. A growing number of facilities today offer a viewing area for immediate family members when their loved one is cremated, will arrange a private ceremony in the crematory facility beforehand, and/or even let a designated family member press "the button" to start the actual cremation.

7. Does Cremation Mean I Can't Hold a Funeral?

Cremating a deceased loved one does not mean you cannot also conduct a personalized, meaningful funeral service. In no way does the form of final body disposition you choose prevent you from holding a meaningful, memorable funeral service, either in the presence of your deceased loved one or without. In other words, choosing cremation for your loved one does not mean you cannot also hold a funeral.

8. Can I Really Rent a Casket?

While it might sound odd, many funeral homes offer caskets that you can rent. These specially crafted caskets utilize a separate, removable interior for families wishing to hold funeral services prior to cremating a loved one.

An insert, which is only used once, physically houses the body of a deceased while the surrounding casket shell, made from wood or metal, may be rented/used multiple times. After the funeral service, the deceased and the insert are removed and transported to the crematory for the physical cremation.

9. Can I Bury Ashes in a Cemetery?

While many people think scattering a loved one's ashes in a special location is their only option, the fact is that there are numerous unique ways to handle cremated remains aside from scattering them. Many families choose to bury an urn containing the ashes of a loved one in a traditional cemetery gravesite rather than place them in a columbarium niche, keep them at home, etc. In fact, it is not uncommon for an individual cemetery gravesite to contain the remains of two people these days -- one buried in a casket and the other cremated.

Additional Reading:
The Cremation Process
Three Reasons Families Choose Cremation
What Happens to a Body Immediately After Death?

"Melting Points of Various Metals." www.onlinemetals.com