An Overview of CremationThere are at a minimum four main elements of cremation.
- Transportation of the decedent from place of death to the crematory;
- Secure, cold storage of decedent prior to cremation;
- The cremation process itself;
- Return of cremated remains to the authorized agent.
TransportationThe decedent will be removed from the place of death by mortuary transport specialists and taken to the funeral home. (Depending on the circumstances, they may be taken directly to the crematory.) From the point of removal onward, the decedent's identity is carefully confirmed each step of the process. This ensures that a chain of identification is firmly established.
StorageIt takes time to finalize the paperwork and make arrangements, so until the cremation is scheduled and services planned, the decedent will be placed in secure, cold storage. The time between death and cremation can vary considerably based on many factors; cremation typically occurs at least 48 hours after death.
Steps in the Cremation Process
- The decedent will be placed in a cremation container. The minimum requirement for a cremation container is that it be completely enclosed, rigid, leak resistant, and combustible. A cardboard cremation container, designed for this purpose, is often used.
- Facility staff will confirm the identity of the decedent by checking all paperwork. A cremation identification (ID) tag will be assigned. The tag remains with the remains throughout their entire time at the cremation facility.
- When it is time for the cremation, the decedent will be removed from the storage unit and their identification will be confirmed using paperwork and the ID tag. The container will be taken to the cremator unit and placed on a table in front of the cremator door.
- The door of the cremator will be opened, and the container will be placed inside the primary chamber. Usually this is performed manually with the aid of cardboard rollers, or mechanically with a rolling conveyor loader.
- The door will be closed and the cremation monitored carefully until it is completed. The process can take anywhere from 30 minutes, as in the case of a stillborn, to over two hours depending on the body size and stored heat in the chamber.
- When the cremation process is complete, the door will be opened and identification checked again against paperwork and the ID tag. The bone fragments that remain, now called cremated remains (cremains), will be carefully swept out of the cremator into a cooling tray, allowed to cool and taken to a processor.
- The processor is a machine that uses blades to pulverize the bone fragments until the remains are less than 1/8” in size.
- The cremains are then transferred to a strong plastic bag and placed in the container. Identification is checked again and the ID tag is placed in the container with the cremains. The container and its box are labeled with identifying paperwork and checked again.
The Technical DetailsThe process of cremation is essentially the conversion of a solid to a gas. This is accomplished by heating the body, which contains between 65% and 85% water by weight, to a temperature high enough to facilitate the combustion process. Laws for required temperatures vary by state, but the cremation process usually occurs between 1400 and 1600 degrees F.
The combustion process in the cremator proceeds in two stages—first is the primary combustion of the decedent in the main chamber of the cremator. Tissue, organs, body fat, and casket or other container materials burn off as gases and move to a secondary chamber, where they continue to undergo combustion. The bone fragments remain in the primary chamber. The inorganic particles, usually from the cremation container, settle on the floor of the secondary chamber. The gases formed as a by-product of combustion (such as carbon dioxide, water, oxygen, etc.) finally discharge through a stack in the roof of the crematory building.
What Can Be Cremated?Sometimes families request that items of significance be cremated with the decedent. In some cases this can be allowed but, in most cases, it cannot. This is for safety reasons, as not everything is combustible and may cause damage to the equipment or the operator if left in the container.
What is in the Cremated Remains?The bone fragments that remain in the primary chamber are mostly calcium phosphates, with some other minor minerals. Cremated remains are generally white to gray in color. Additionally, there may be pieces of metal in the cremated remains—this metal may come from surgical implants like hip replacements, dental fillings, or jewelry that was not removed prior to cremation. The metal is separated from the cremated remains before they are processed (pulverized). The metal is typically recycled.
The average weight of adult cremated remains is between four and six pounds; a tiny percentage of the body's original mass. The cremation chamber is either swept thoroughly or vacuumed with specially designed equipment to retrieve as much of the remains as possible.
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