Understanding Different Types of Cremation

Cremation rates are on the rise. In the United States, more than half of those choosing between burial and cremation will choose the latter this year. In Canada, that number will reach nearly 75%. Options for cremation are also greater than in years past. Today, they include traditional cremation, but water cremation and human composting are gaining popularity and are now available at select locations in some parts of the country. A funeral or memorial service is possible with any of these options, or a family may opt for direct cremation, which does not include a ceremony.

In this article, you will learn about:

cremation urn display

What are the options for cremation?

Cremation is an alternative to traditional burial, which usually involves embalming, placing a loved one in a casket, and then burying that casket in the ground or entombing it in a mausoleum. Instead of returning the body to the ground, cremation reduces it to bits of bone, after which a family has many choices.

Currently in all of North America, there are three types of cremation. Only traditional cremation is available in all U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

  • Traditional cremation is typically what people think about when they think about cremation. It's a process that involves reducing a body with extreme heat.
  • Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or flameless, is a process that uses water and alkaline chemicals with the addition of heat to break down a body.
  • Human composting gently transforms a loved one's body into soil in a matter of weeks. It’s legal in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, California, New York and Nevada, though it’s not available in all those states.

What is direct or simple cremation?

Direct cremation, also called simple cremation, takes place shortly after death—after required authorizations and permits are obtained and as the crematory schedule allows—and does not include a ceremony. This option is chosen most often by or for individuals with just a few living friends or family, in situations when keeping costs down is most important or for those who do not want a ceremony.

It's a less expensive option, but many families feel they want a formal celebration to say goodbye, which can be an important part of grieving and healing after a loss. Learn how we care for families and their loved ones here.

cremation guide pencil promo

Plan a memorable cremation funeral

Planning a personalized cremation funeral or memorial is an event unlike any other. We created a guide to help you understand all of your cremation options and how to plan a truly memorable event. A Guide for Families Choosing Cremation is free, and it will help you start planning today. Then, when you are ready, a Dignity Memorial provider will be there to walk you through every step of the cremation process.

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What is water cremation?

Alkaline hydrolysis, also called water cremation, was patented in 1888, though it's been available to consumers for just over a decade. The process involves a solution of 95% water and 5% sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, heat and a pressurized chamber. A loved one is placed in the chamber with the solution, and after a few hours, only bones remain. The bones are then ground to a fine powder, as with traditional flame cremation, before being returned to the family.

Where is water cremation available?

As of July 2023, the following U.S. states and Canadian provinces permit water cremation. As additional states and provinces pass legislation to allow this alternative, that number will grow. What's more, even if water cremation is legal in a state or province, it may not actually be available there just yet.

Here’s where water cremation was legal and/or available as of March 31, 2024.

In the United States


US water cremation map



In Canada


Canada water cremation map


The Cremation Association of North America has the most current map.

However, just because alkaline hydrolysis is legal in an area doesn't mean that a state or province has a provider that offers it. Though it's not new, it's still not widely available, and most funeral homes and crematories simply aren't set up to do water cremations yet.

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"What I can't emphasize to you enough is that choosing the right funeral home/ cremation service for your loved one and your family can make all the difference in the world in the way that you get to say goodbye to your family member. It is important that I mention we did NOT go with a company that has a super-low set price for this service and this service only; we didn't want my Dad to be just another name or number; we wanted him well taken care of by a family business."

—Joanne R., Calabash, NC

What is human composting?

Washington was the first state to legalize human composting. Vermont, Colorado and Oregon soon followed. As of August 2023, California, New York and Nevada had also legalized the practice sometimes called natural organic reduction.

Human composting gently transforms a body into soil using straw, wood chips, and other natural materials. In six to eight weeks, the soil can be returned to the loved one's family, or it can be returned to the earth.

An individual or family may choose water cremation or human composting over traditional cremation for a few reasons:

  1. They are seen as gentler than traditional cremation.
  2. They are seen as more eco-mindful, with a lower carbon footprint.
  3. Some people are afraid of fire.
  4. Some people naturally gravitate toward new things.

On average, human composting is more expensive than cremation. It's similar in price to a green burial.

Can a family attend a cremation?

Some families want to watch and even participate in their loved one's cremation. Some religions, such as Hinduism, include attending a cremation as part of their funeral customs.

A crematory may include a place for a few family members to gather before the cremation and say a final goodbye. Those family members can watch through a window as their loved one is moved into the cremation chamber or even assist with pushing the casket or container into the retort and/or pressing the button that starts the process. While this can be challenging and emotional, some families find it an important part of the grieving process.

Not every funeral home or crematory is set up to accommodate a cremation viewing, but it is becoming more common. If this is important to you, be sure to bring it up early in the funeral planning process.

What kinds of services can take place with cremation?

For many, the greatest benefit of choosing cremation is the flexibility in timing funeral and cemetery arrangements. That's been especially beneficial in recent years, when COVID concerns prevented some families from holding timely services that best represented the lives of their loved ones. Some families may choose a date for a service in the future to coincide with a significant date, like their loved one's birthday. Services that take place with cremation fall into two main categories:

  • A cremation with a memorial service or celebration of life. A service can happen before, immediately following or long after the cremation has taken place and usually includes a beautiful container for ashes and a memorial service at the funeral home, a place of worship or another location of the family's choosing.

    We see this option chosen most by families without a strong desire to follow specific rituals, instead favoring remembrance of the good times and celebration of the life lived. Families don't feel as rushed to schedule services immediately, giving more time to plan travel or a special celebration.

  • A cremation with a funeral service. This option takes place before cremation and usually includes embalming, hair and makeup services, a casket, a viewing at the funeral home, and a funeral service with the loved one's body present.

    We see this chosen most often for individuals with a preference for traditional rituals.
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“We had already prepaid for the cremation but had never thought of having any celebration of life. I am glad we did, albeit it was an unexpected cost. It did give me more of a feeling of closure & was very good to see many of my loved one's friends respond.


Can you pre-plan for a cremation?

Yes, you can pre-plan for a cremation—and cremation cemetery property. When you plan ahead, you make your wishes known—but you also ease the way for the people who love you. Though you can’t protect your family from grief, you can help lighten their burden.

And when you plan with a Dignity Memorial provider, you get a range of unmatched benefits, including national transferability (move more than 75 miles from the residence noted in your pre-plan and your plan moves with you) and a 100% Service Guarantee.

Read more about prepaid cremation options and why prepaid plans are the best gift.