What Happens During the Cremation Process?

More and more people are choosing cremation over traditional burial for their loved ones and themselves. In fact, cremation has become the preferred choice in both the United States and Canada. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the U.S. cremation rate was 54.6% in 2019. In Canada, it was 73.1%. Those numbers are rising by 1%-1.5% annually.

People choose cremation for many reasons. Some see it as easier from an emotional standpoint. Others perceive it as less costly. Cremation comes with a certain flexibility that many appreciate. And those with environmental concerns find it a friendlier alternative to casket burial.

Regardless of the reasons behind the choice, cremation is a process most people don't understand. It involves many things, and Dignity Memorial® providers take great care every step of the way.

Here, we answer some of the most common questions about cremation.

*This article contains technical information that some readers may find emotionally challenging.

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What is a crematorium?

A crematorium, or crematory, is the building where a person is cremated. It houses a cremation furnace or cremation chamber. A crematorium is run by a licensed professional with special training in both legal matters and safety. Crematory operators are also trained to handle ashes with care.

The cremation chamber is where loved ones are cremated. It's also called a retort, and there may be a single retort or multiple retorts. Older models have control panels with buttons and require a good deal of finesse from the operator. Newer models are controlled by software via touch screen, but they still require precision from operators. The cremation chamber is made of brick. It has a flat or curved ceiling and a hinged door. Encased in industrial steel, it also has a stack that vents out to the roof of the building.

Some funeral homes own and operate crematoriums, and in some cases, they are on the same property. In other instances, the crematory is only a short drive down the street or across town. Having a crematory next door to or near the funeral home isn't necessary. Still, a funeral home that operates its own crematory has complete control of a loved one throughout the cremation process. Funeral homes without their own crematoriums may outsource cremations to third-party providers. That's not necessarily a bad thing; many trustworthy crematories contract to funeral homes.

What kinds of cremation are there?

Cremation with a memorial or simple cremation? What about a witness cremation? It's a personal choice with many influences. Below are the most common scenarios:

  • A simple cremation without a service. Sometimes called direct cremation, this choice includes just the basics and often happens shortly after death and without embalming.

    We see this option chosen most often for individuals with just a few living friends or family or in situations when keeping costs down is most important. It's a less expensive option, for sure, but it can leave family and friends feeling like they didn't have a chance to say a final goodbye, which can be an important part of grieving and healing after a loss.

  • A cremation with a memorial service or celebration of life. In addition to the transportation of the loved one and the cremation itself, this option usually includes a beautiful container for the ashes and a memorial service at the funeral home or a place of worship. These services can happen before, immediately following or long after the cremation has taken place.

    This option is an increasingly popular choice. We see it chosen most among 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.

    It's been especially beneficial in recent times, when safety concerns may have prevented families from holding the types of services that best represented the lives of their loved ones. In those cases, families may delay a cremation memorial until a point in the future when it is safe to gather in large groups again. Learn about remembering a loved one after COVID-19.

  • A cremation with a funeral service. In addition to the transportation of the loved one and the cremation itself, this usually includes embalming, hair and makeup services, a casket, a viewing at the funeral home, and a funeral service before the cremation occurs.

    We see this option chosen most often for individuals with a preference to follow more traditional rituals. Viewing or presence of the full body at the visitation or funeral sets this option apart.

  • A witness cremation, also called a cremation viewing, can be part of a cremation with or without a service. Some crematories are set up to allow a family to watch as their loved one is moved into the cremation chamber or even participate in the cremation by assisting with pushing the casket or container into the retort and/or pressing the button that starts the process. Some religions, such as Hinduism, call for a witness cremation.

    While this can be challenging and emotional, some families and cultures 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.

How long does cremation take?

The entire cremation process can take a week or three, depending on the options you choose, but here is a general timeline.

1

A medical professional fills out a death certificate

After someone dies, local and state laws require that a death certificate be filed with the health department before a funeral home or cremation provider proceeds with any kind of service. A doctor typically has three days to sign the death certificate. In some states, a medical examiner needs to approve the cremation, which can take two days. Death certificates can sometimes be a low priority for the medical establishment, but the funeral home will take care of this important task for you. Time needed: 1-5 days

2

The family identifies their loved one and the funeral home or crematory gets permission from the family to cremate

Once a death certificate is issued and the family has a chance to identify their loved one, they need to give permission for cremation. Depending on the state or province, as few as one next of kin and potentially all living children have to agree. Time needed: 1-2 days

3

The family signs a contract that specifies their wishes

Unless prearrangements have been made, at least one person must sign a contract for cremation and other services that have been chosen. Time needed: 1-2 days

4

If the family chooses to hold a visitation before cremation, the loved one is embalmed

More traditional families might gather with friends and honor their loved one before the cremation takes place. Most families who choose cremation, however, do not. Time needed: 1-3 days

5

Cremation takes place

Once all the proper paperwork has been finalized, cremation usually takes place within a day or three. In very busy areas, this might take a little longer, and if the family has requested a witness cremation, coordinating family members' schedules may push the cremation date out. The cremation itself takes two to three hours, plus time for the ashes to cool. Time needed: 1-3 days

6

The loved one is returned to the family

After cremation, the crematory returns the loved one's ashes to the funeral home. The funeral director then contacts the family for a good time to take the loved one to their home or sends by mail if requested. Alternatively, a family member or other designated person might pick the loved one up at the funeral home, and sometimes a family opts to gather for a small reception when they are reunited with their loved one. Time needed: 0-5 days

Total amount of time for cremation, from death until a family receives the ashes of their loved one: 15 days on average

 

7

A memorial or celebration of life takes place

Though a cremation may not include a service of any kind, many individuals and families opt for some kind of ceremony after the cremation. Whether small or large, formal or casual, a memorial or celebration of life brings people together to remember their loved one, connect over the good times, comfort one another and begin the healing process. End-of-life ceremonies are an important part of being human, and the significance of joining with others in grief shouldn't be overlooked. A cremation provides flexibility in this area that traditional burial does not, and a cremation funeral can take place weeks to months after a person's death. Time needed: that's entirely up to you.

8

The family chooses a place of remembrance

While many people consider cremation the "opposite" of burial, many families find selecting a permanent resting space comforting. Just as cremation offers more options for memorial services, it also offers the most cemetery space options. In addition to traditional burial options like a burial plot or mausoleum, cremation remembrance options also include a memorial bench, scattering garden or columbarium—a public or private space where a loved one's urn can be placed in a niche for permanent remembrance. Learn about cremation cemetery options.

What happens before cremation?

After a death, a few things happen regardless of whether a person will be cremated or have a traditional burial. A medical professional or coroner will release the loved one's body, and a transport team will pick up the loved one from home or a care facility and take them to a funeral home.

If the family or loved one has chosen a viewing or funeral service before cremation, it's likely that the loved one will be embalmed (many people prefer it, and some states require it). Then the loved one will be dressed and prepared for guests.

If the family or loved one has chosen not to have a viewing or funeral service before cremation, the loved one will be placed in a wooden casket—metal or fiberglass caskets are not permitted in the cremation chamber—or cremation container (required in most states) made of wood or fiberboard.

Technically, a loved one can be cremated immediately after death. However, local and state laws require certain documents before a cremation can take place. Those documents include:

  • an authorization for final disposition or death certificate stating the final disposition.
  • a cremation authorization form signed by a spouse, if the deceased had one, or the person's children, siblings or whoever is next of kin. Some states allow for self-authorization during prearrangement.

Gathering the necessary paperwork can take a few days to a few weeks. The exact time depends on governmental authorities and the family. The crematory operator works closely with the funeral home to collect all the necessary paperwork.

Once the crematorium has all the documents, the operator will review the paperwork to make sure it is complete and correct, checking the name of the loved one, the crematory's name, the date of the cremation, all of the signatures and much more.

After checking the paperwork and receiving the loved one and before cremation, the crematory operator checks a few more things:

  • Are the loved one's personal effects accounted for?
  • If a family requested the loved one's fingerprints, for fingerprint jewelry or any other reason, have those been collected?
  • Does the name, date of birth, funeral home and death date on the loved one's ID band match the paperwork?

The operator will then weigh the loved one to determine the best time in the schedule (heavier people and caskets of harder materials go before lighter people and more lightweight caskets). The loved one then goes into secure refrigeration until the cremation.

 

Cremation collage with remembrance memorial and urn

What happens during cremation?

At Dignity Memorial, each trained and certified crematory operator strictly abides by local laws. Each cremation follows a very detailed process, and each loved one gets the utmost respect and care. Operators pay great attention to their work to ensure that every step of a loved one's journey through the crematory is accurately logged.

If a family has requested a small service or witness cremation, the family will be welcomed into the crematorium the day of the cremation, shortly before it is scheduled to take place. Otherwise, typically only the operator and the loved one are present at a cremation.

When the scheduled cremation time comes, the operator will remove the loved one from refrigeration, verify his or her identity again, and move the loved one into the cremation chamber. Ideally, cremation occurs in a chamber heated to 1,400-1,650 degrees Fahrenheit (760-899 degrees Celsius).

How does a crematory work?

There are many different crematory models, but they generally all have a main chamber with a main burner in the roof's center. Once the loved one is in the chamber and the door is closed and secured, the burner is ignited by natural gas, and air is forced into the chamber through small openings just a few inches from the floor.

Oxygen fuels the flame and creates primary combustion. Particles swirl around and make their way out of a larger opening in the back or side of the chamber. The particles then go through a winding passage called a secondary combustion chamber underneath the retort floor or behind the chamber. In that secondary chamber, any remaining particles and gasses are burned off.

Before leaving the retort, cremation emissions pass through an opacity monitor, which detects smoke. Crematory emissions should be clear and safe for the environment.

How long does a cremation take?

A typical cremation takes one to three hours, depending on the loved one's weight, body composition and where they fall in the day's schedule. The crematory operator monitors every cremation carefully the entire time.

Once the cremation is complete, a cool-down period of 45-60 minutes begins. (Some newer models don't need to cool down.) Afterward, the operator dons heat-resistant gear, opens the chamber door and checks the loved one's ID once more. The operator removes the ashes from the chamber and into a metal tray or container to cool.

At this point, the loved one's ashes are more like bone fragments than ashes. Once these have cooled completely, the operator removes any metal or nonorganic fragments (metal is sent to a recycler) and then places the ashes into a high-speed machine that grinds them to a more familiar texture. Every bit of the ashes is then placed carefully into a thick, clear bag. The loved one's metal ID disc is securely tied to the bag before it is placed in a temporary urn. The urn is then sealed, labeled appropriately and delivered to the funeral home within 72 hours, bringing the cremation process to an end.

How is identification maintained during the cremation process?

Each loved one is assigned an identification band as soon as they are in the care of a Dignity Memorial provider. Of course, an ID band wouldn't make it through the cremation process, so the crematory assigns each loved one a metal disc with a unique number. That disc goes with them inside the cremation chamber and remains with them throughout the process.

What happens with pacemakers or other medical devices during cremation?

If the loved one to be cremated has a pacemaker, it will be removed at the funeral home before the person is sent to the crematory. Other internal medical devices with batteries and external medical devices are removed as well. Medical devices like metal implants or shunts are left with the loved one and removed after cremation.

Are people dressed when they're cremated?

Clothing is optional, but people who are cremated are usually wearing clothes. A loved one may be wearing the clothes they were wearing at death. Or a loved one may be dressed in clothes provided by the family for a viewing or funeral service. If there are no dressing instructions or clothes provided, the funeral home will dress the loved one in a hospital gown or wrap the person in a clean sheet.

Families sometimes send trinkets, memorabilia, cards or keepsakes to the funeral home to be cremated with their loved ones. For the most part, these items are safe for the cremation chamber. However, glass, fiberglass, explosives, liquids, sharp items and batteries are not.

How much do ashes weigh?

The weight of the ashes depends on the person. Factors like bone density and size determine how heavy ashes are. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the average weight of adult cremated remains is 4 to 6 pounds.

What happens after a cremation?

What happens after a cremation depends on what you or your loved one planned. If you or your loved one have planned a cremation memorial, a service with the loved one's ashes present can occur. You can wait until that day to take your loved one's urn home, or you can pick it up before the service.

A family may opt to do that when the service is planned for weeks or months later, and they wish to have their loved one nearby until it takes place.

If no service is planned, the funeral home will call you to schedule a convenient time for you to reunite with your loved one to take them home. If you or your loved one chose an urn—or multiple urns—your Dignity Memorial funeral director will present the urn—or urns—to you in a small ceremony and then escort you to your car.

Some people find that picking up their loved one from the funeral home is a time of renewed sadness. That's a perfectly normal feeling, and it could be a good time to talk to a grief counselor. Families who choose a Dignity Memorial provider can access free professional counseling for up to 13 months after services. Learn about the 24-Hour Compassion Helpline®.

 

Cremation garden collage with remembrance memorial butterfly

Plan a cremation with Dignity Memorial

We know cremation planning can be a daunting task, and we're here for you. If you're interested in learning more about cremation for yourself or your loved one, one of our compassionate planners can walk you through every step of the process, including the care and preparation of a loved one (which can depend on religious requirements and the type of service chosen), creating a unique funeral or memorial that reflects your or your loved one's special life, choosing an option for permanent placement, and selecting family keepsakes.

When you choose Dignity Memorial, you’re choosing a provider defined by professionalism, compassion and attention to detail that is second to none. Dignity Memorial professionals understand that attention to even the smallest details can help create an unforgettable send-off. From a traditional funeral service to a celebration of life, our caring staff will guide you through the arrangement process and vow to get everything exactly right.

We stand behind that promise with a 100% Service Guarantee. If for some reason you're dissatisfied with any aspect of your service, we'll fully refund that portion of the service.

Learn more about planning a cremation, and reach out when you're ready.

Still have questions?

Your Dignity Memorial provider can guide you through every step.