Cremation is the process of using intense heat to turn the remains of a dead body into ashes. It’s a popular alternative to traditional burial in a casket or coffin. Today, the process is streamlined and seamless, taking only 1 to 3 hours at a crematory facility. 

The Cremation Process

After the crematory receives the deceased’s body, implants and medical devices that are mechanical or contain batteries are removed to prevent a reaction during cremation.  The container with the body is then placed in a specially designed furnace called the retort or chamber, where the temperature reaches 1,400°F to 1,800°F.  

During cremation, the organic matter is consumed by evaporation or heat. The remaining bone fragments are taken out of the chamber and processed into a fine powder that looks like white ash.  

What to Do with Cremains

The ashes or cremains are kept in an urn or special container for safekeeping. This container can be kept with the family or be interned in the ground or at a memorial site. The ashes can also be divided among loved ones or spread in a significant place according to the deceased’s wishes.  

Alternative methods of using ashes are also becoming increasingly popular. You can use ashes to create a portrait, grow a tree, make glass art, manufacture artificial diamonds, or add to fireworks. These memorials allow those to see their loved ones transformed into something meaningful or be kept close. 

Ancient History

The practice of cremation is believed to date back to at least the Neolithic period. In 2003, the remains of a Stone Age female, nicknamed the “Mungo Lady,” were discovered in Australia. 

The skeleton bore evidence of having been burned, and radiocarbon dating suggested that she lived around 35,000 years ago. This discovery indicates that some of the earliest human societies may have practiced cremation. 

Evidence of cremation has been found in many ancient cultures, from the Bronze Age cultures of Europe to the Eastern cultures, such as the Han Dynasty in China. 

Cremation is a traditional custom in India. After death, devout Hindus have their bodies incinerated in Varanasi and their ashes deposited in the Ganges River. 

The Greeks introduced the open fire crematory practice to the West. It’s believed that cremation was a war by-product. Due to the vast numbers of fallen soldiers, burials were not a practical option, so corpses were burned on the battlefield. The ashes were then gathered to be taken back to their home for a ceremonial burial. 

Pagan Scandinavians favored cremation due to their belief that it helped to free the spirit from the fleshy body and kept the dead from returning to harm the living. 

Middle Ages

Although cremation occurred in ancient times, its popularity slowed in the West in about 100 CE and was almost completely phased out during the Middle Ages. This was partly due to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as decreed by Emperor Constantine. 

While cremation was not banned among Christians, the pagan associations with cremation and the belief that it would interfere with the resurrection of the body kept most people from choosing it as an option. Later, the Catholic Church eventually completely banned the practice. Cremation was also seen as a punishment for heretics, so it fell out of favor with the general population. 

However, this began to change in 1658 when physician Sir Thomas Browne published a treatise advocating for cremation. Browne argued that cremation was a more sanitary option than burial and could help prevent the spread of disease. Since then, cremation has slowly gained acceptance.

Rise in Popularity

Modern cremation only began to emerge a little over a century ago. Miasma theory, the belief that emanations from decomposing bodies caused disease, was the prevalent medical model throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries. Cremation was viewed as a more hygienic method of disposal than burial. 

However, open-air cremations produce significant smoke and could take up to a day to fully break down a body. Professor Brunetti of Italy began developing an efficient cremation chamber and perfected his crematory model in 1873.  His new technology allowed for a more efficient and less expensive cremation process, making it a more viable option for the average person. 

Instead of open fires, the modern cremation process involves placing a body inside a chamber. The heat transforms the body into white, powdery ash over several hours. The ash is significantly smaller than a body and can be placed in a smaller plot of land or kept in the home.  

In Britain, Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, also helped to foster the cremation movement in the early 1870s. However, cremation remained rare in England through the 1880s. 

Cremation began in the United States in 1876 when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania. The second crematory opened eight years later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After this, crematories began being built all over the U.S.: by 1900, 20 crematories were in operation, and by 1913 there were over 50.  

Cremation Today

Today, cremation remains a popular option for many people. There are over 3,000 crematories in the United States, and 54.6% of deaths are handled through cremation. There are many reasons Americans choose cremation, including: 

  • Environmental Concerns

There are many environmental benefits of cremation. Traditional burials use chemicals such as formaldehyde to embalm the body. The steel or hardwood casket and concrete liner are non-biodegradable, and land for the burial can sustain wind and water erosion. There is also the possible scarcity of cemetery land that may make traditional burials impossible in the future.  

Crematories are designed to burn natural or propane gas. The crematory technology optimizes the amounts used and filters the gases emitted to prevent too many harmful emissions from entering the environment. 

  • Financial Demands

Cremation is less expensive than traditional burial techniques, making it a better option for many families. Depending on location, a funeral could cost between $6,700 and $15,000, while a direct cremation (the least expensive option) is $1,000-$2,000. 

  • Less Religious Ties

Another factor for the growing number of cremations is that only 47% of Americans belong to a church, mosque, or synagogue, a considerable decrease from 70% in 1999.  Because young Americans are not tied to a specific religious organization, it may sway their decisions for their loved ones’ funerals or services after their death, instead opting for cremation.

However, there are still controversies surrounding cremations, particularly in religions like Islam, Judaism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Christianity has grown to accept cremation. The Catholic Church even released a doctrine stating Catholics were allowed to be cremated, though there are guidelines on what can acceptably be done with the ashes.  

The Future of Cremation

It is speculated that by 2030 over 70% of deaths will involve cremation in the United States. Aside from the environmental and financial benefits, it is also a long-standing practice in many cultures throughout history. While its use in the West fluctuated over time, it is now the most popular option for people in the United States and those in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada, and Asia. Learn more about all of life’s events on