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What is cremation?
One of the harsh realities of death is that when someone dies his/her body must be cared for. This final care must comply with the family's requests and also with legal requirements.
There are three common options available for this final disposition: burial, cremation, and entombment Burial is the option most often selected. Cremation is the second most common form of final disposition in North America.
During the cremation process, intense heat is used to reduce human remains into small bone fragments. This takes place in a chamber known as a cremation retort. After cremation, these bone fragments are further reduced to a fine powdery form. These are referred to as the cremated remains, the cremated body, ashes, or simply cremains. Entombment is the third burial option. A fourth option that is less common is donation of the body to a medical school. After the medical school finishes its research, the body is either buried or cremated.
What is the history of cremation?
Cremation has been practiced for thousands of years. References to both cremation and burial can be found in the historical writings of both ancient Rome and Greece. During these times, when cremation was practiced, it was customary for the cremated remains to be buried or entombed. Cremation was prohibited for Christians in the late Roman period because destruction of the body conflicted with the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. This prohibition stayed in effect until the 1960's.
The first recorded cremation in the United States occurred in 1 792. However, the first crematory was not built until 1876. Cremation did not become a common practice in the United States until the 1980's.
Is cremation now common in the US?
The percentage of deaths in the United States that result in cremation has increased steadily since the 1960's. The cremation rate in 2000 is 26%. It is projected to increase to 38% by 2010.
Why do people select cremation?
Each person who selects cremation or any other form of disposition does so for individual reasons. These may be based on family traditions, religious obligations, personal beliefs, convenience, or cost.
A survey conducted by the Cremation Association of North America revealed the following reasons for the increased number of cremations:
- Increased life expectancy: It is now common for people to live well into their 80's and even their 90's. The cremation rate for people of these ages is more than twice the national average. They often have outlived many friends and family and do not feel a need for a traditional funeral with burial in a cemetery.
- Increased number of older people moving to retirement communities in sunbelt states: These seniors may not have the close contact with family and friends they had before relocating and may feel less need to be interred in a cemetery plot.
- Diminishing regional differences: As our country and the world become more of a global community, there are fewer differences in cultural rites. Contributing to this globalization is the fact that more immigrants from countries that practice cremation are moving to the U.S.
- Diminishing traditions: People aren't as tied to tradition as in the past when burial was almost exclusively selected.
Are there religious objections to cremation?
Most Christian denominations do not object to cremations; however, traditional Jewish and Islamic law prohibit cremation as a form of disposition. Until 1963, the Catholic Church prohibited cremation. Since 1963, Catholic rules regarding cremation have been liberalized. They now allow a funeral mass to be said before cremation if the body is present in the church. They also allow a mass after cremation with or without the cremated remains in the church.
Any questions regarding your church's rules about forms of disposition or funeral services should be discussed with your clergy person. If you do not wish to contact the clergy personally, your funeral director can contact him/her for you.
What must be done with the cremated remains?
In most states, the cremation process is considered the legal final disposition. Most crematories return the cremains in a plastic or cardboard container. The next of kin has the legal authority to decide what to do with these cremains.
Some options available for cremated remains:
- The cremains can be removed from the crematory's container and placed in a decorative urn. This urn can be kept by the family.
- The urn can be interred in a grave in a cemetery or be placed in a special building, garden or area in a cemetery designated especially for cremated remains.
- Families may choose to divide the cremains among family members. The divided ashes can be placed in containers provided by the family, or in specially designed mini-urns. Mini-urns can be purchased from the crematory or the funeral home.
- A family can choose to spread or scatter the cremains in a garden, body of water, or a special place that had meaning to their loved one. This scattering can be done by the family themselves, the funeral director, or a clergy person. There are special scattering services that can be hired to scatter the cremains from a boat or plane. Before scattering any cremains, a family should check with a funeral director or local authority to find out if there are any ordinances regulating where you can or cannot scatter the ashes.
If I choose cremation, can I also have a funeral or a memorial service?
There are a many services to choose from that can be combined with cremation.
- A traditional funeral: This service includes a public viewing of the loved one in a casket. A religious or secular service is conducted at a church or the funeral home and the loved one is taken to the crematory after the service. A form of committal service can be conducted at the crematory if desired.
-A private funeral service: This service can be the same as the traditional service described above with the exception that the public is not invited. Only those people the family invites attend.
- A modified service: This involves using some aspects of a full service. Such an option may only include a service at the funeral home or church and not the crematory. A service may be held only at the crematory instead. This type of service can also be public or private.
- A memorial service: This is usually held days or weeks after the loved one is cremated. It can be a religious or secular service. The ashes may or may not be present depending on the family's wishes.
- A direct disposition with no services: With this option, a family chooses to have the loved one transferred from the place of death directly to the crematory. With no funeral or memorial service conducted.
- A rental casket: Some funeral homes have specific caskets they rent to families choosing cremation. These are traditional caskets that are reused. This rental casket is used during the service, wake, or funeral. Before the deceased is taken to the crematory, the body is removed from the rental casket and placed in an alternative container for cremating.
Must I purchase a casket?
Purchasing a traditional casket is optional. It will be necessary, however, to purchase some type of rigid container for the loved one to be placed in. For sanitary and operational reasons, most crematories will not place an un-encased body in the cremation retort.
Different types of caskets:
- A traditional wood casket: Some people choose a cremation casket for the same reasons they would have chosen it for burial.
- A cremation casket: These caskets are made of wood or wood by-products and resemble a traditional casket but do not contain any metal parts.
- An alternate container: These encasements are rectangular boxes made of corrugated cardboard and are the least expensive type of container.
Is embalming required?
Embalming is performed to disinfect the body and temporarily preserve it for the duration of the funeral. If there is to be a viewing with a service, embalming will be necessary. If there is to be a direct disposition or a service with a closed casket, then embalming would not be necessary. In some instances embalming may be required by law if there is a public health risk, or if the loved one is to be transported out-of-state.
Is an urn necessary?
As mentioned earlier, the cremated remains are returned to the family in a plain plastic or cardboard container. Urns are available to people who desire a more attractive and permanent enclosure for the cremains.
There is a large variety of urns to choose from. The cost varies depending on the material used to produce the urn and the labor necessary to create its design.
Often a family will select an urn whose design would have some special meaning to their loved one. An example might be an urn shaped like a book or an urn that has the emblem of one of the armed forces on it.
Do I need a funeral director?
In most states a funeral director is required by law to handle all matters pertaining to the final care of a loved one. There are some states that allow non-funeral directors to remove a body from the place of death and then perform an immediate disposition.
A funeral director can be an excellent source of information regarding all aspects of death care. Most funeral directors will be happy to discuss any questions you may have regarding options, costs, or legal requirements.
Is there a waiting period before a body cremated?
In some states there are laws regarding how soon after death a cremation can be performed. In these states, there is a 24 or 48 hour waiting period between the time of death and cremation. The reason for this delay is that once the cremation is complete, the body is no longer available for legal investigation. Your funeral director can explain your state's requirements to you.
Can cremation arrangements be made in advance?
Most funeral homes provide pre-arranging of any type of funeral service whether it is a cremation, burial, entombment, or body donation. It is also possible to pay for the services and merchandise selected ahead of time. This is known as prefunding and can defray cost increases in the future.
Should I discuss my wishes with my family?
Before finalizing any decision on what to do after death, your immediate family should be consulted. This is especially recommended when the final disposition is to be cremation or body donation. At this point in time, not everyone is knowledgeable or comfortable with these choices. To some people, the idea of cremation is upsetting or frightening. A person's fears or anxiety may not be about the process itself, but rather about what will be done with the cremated remains. Others may not be aware of all the options for memorial services prior to or after cremation.
Discussing your wishes with your family before the need arises can make decision-making easier and benefit both you and your loved ones.
Does cremation affect the grieving process?
Coping with grief is never easy for loved ones. Careful consideration should be given to the personal wishes and cultural concerns of all surviving family members. Family consensus on these matters will help prevent misunderstandings which may prolong the families grieving process.
Cremation immediately following death without a viewing or memorial service can leave an emotional void for some family members. Seeing their loved one prior to cremation and having a memorial service may help fill the void and be beneficial in their coping with grief.
The complexities of the grieving process as related to cremation can be further discussed with your funeral director or clergy. They can provide helpful information and insight when you are considering cremation.
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