Like much else in modern civilization, the cremation process has evolved significantly in the last 100 years, but many of it’s original forms of practice are still very much in use in various parts of the globe. This article is a brief explanation of how the cremation process works in today’s modern world followed by a look at how the modern world’s version of cremation has changed and a look at what many developing cultures are doing to preserve some of the age-old cremation traditions.
Cremation today is a sanitized, industrial process, usually conducted by indifferent (but always respectful) workers wearing factory style clothes and maintaining professional, very business-like demeanor. In a typical crematorium, the cremation process begins when a deceased person’s body is loaded into a wooden “cremation container” and then rolled along a conveyor belt to the entrance of an oven that, to the casual observer, might resemble a coal or wood fired pizza oven. Before the body is loaded into the oven, a crematorium worker will typically carry out a triple checking of the paperwork accompanying the body to make absolutely certain that resulting ashes will be properly identified. (In recent years, several states have, in fact, adopted stricter laws regarding the processes by which cremation businesses assure that family members are given the correct ashes. These laws came about because of several unfortunate court cases in which families discovered years after the fact that they had received fake ashes or ashes that were not those of their loved one.) Once there is no question as to the identity of the body, the worker proceeds to the next phase of the cremation process, the burning.
The wooden cremation casket is gingerly rolled into the oven, and the heat from the burning coals, wood or gas gradually pulverizes the container and all but the hardest particles of bone over the next two to three hours. (Many newer models of cremation ovens are run by natural gas so as to quell concerns that many environmentally conscious people have about ovens that are fuled by wood or coal. It should be noted, however, that, even with coal or wood fires, cremation is still known to be less toxic to the Earth’s environment, overall, than traditional burial in a chemical laden casket.)
Once the heat has burned the oven’s contents down to ashes – which are really just bits of bone that simply will not burn away – the process turns to preparing the ashes for presentation to the family. Some cremation ovens are equipment with automated, magnetized brooms that sweep the ashes and then separate any metal bits (such as from artificial implants) from the bone material. In some cases, particularly when the crematorium is using an older model of oven, this is done by hand by a crematorium worker, but, as we said, in most of the newest models of cremation ovens, this is an automated process assuring that the worker does not have to come in contact directly with the ashes. After the ashes are swept into a manageable pile on the floor of the oven, they are then loaded (using either an automated or manual system, as discussed in the previous paragraph) into the container in which they will be presented to the family. In some cases, this container is the cremation ash vessel in which the ashes will be stored permanently. In other cases, the urn is a temporary piece intended to be replaced by a more elaborate urn.
After the container is filled with the deceased ashes comes the part of the cremation process that, perhaps, has the most significance for family members: the presentation to the family. Members of the deceased family are typically asked to return to the funeral home or crematorium for this meeting, but, in some cases, the ashes are mailed to the family. Contrary to some reports, the United States Postal Service will deliver cremation ashes to any location in the United States. Most private delivery services such as Federal Express and UPS will not, however. And, finally, the family itself will then decide the remainder of the cremation process: some families choose to scatter the ashes across a special place, others choose to store the ashes in a special urn for decades, still others place their special urn in a columbarium or some other public memorial place, and finally, many families choose a combination of each of the previous methods. There are no set traditions to follow in regard to what a family should do with ashes, and, in fact, there are even very few laws regarding such questions. (In a few cases, certain municipal or state governments outlaw the spreading of ashes in certain locales, but those laws are often overlooked by law enforcement authorities.) It is quite interesting to note that, just as cremation offers a variety of ways to honor the earthly essence of a loved one, there are a number of cremation vessels with different functions to accommodate the remains, and the family’s needs. This large variety of cremation urn styles helps ensure that the remains are handled with the utmost dignity and respect that is deserved.This modern cremation process varies a great deal from much more traditional processes used by ancient cultures and still, in many cases, practiced today. While these age-old processes vary from region to region across the world, they typically are centered around a funeral pyre, which is, simply, a large pile of branches upon which a body is placed before the pile is set ablaze. These pyres are typically treated vary differently according to the customers of the culture in question. In some cases, the pyre is set in a place considered sacred or special to the deceased and then simply set ablaze and allowed to burn until it is out. In other cases the pyre is set in a standard place (usually a place that is very sacred to everyone in a community or even an entire culture), and the ashes are removed in a fashion very similar to the modern cremation process. The ashes are then respectfully divided, shared and stored in a variety of spots, again, similarly to the modern process.
The cremation process has changed fairly dramatically since cremation began (some historians say in the age of the Ancient Greeks or maybe even before), but, for those who might be keen on a return to traditional ways, it may be some consolation that the traditional methods are still practiced with a good amount of regularly even in this modern age.