Everything You Need to Know About Cremation

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Whether you’re considering funeral details for yourself or are planning for a loved one who has just died, knowing as much as possible about your options can help you arrive at the best decision for you and your family. One important decision is whether to choose burial or cremation.

Cremation has bypassed burial in popularity in North America: According to statistics from the Cremation Association of North America, the 2016 cremation rate in the United States was 50.1 percent, a number projected to grow to 56.3 percent by 2020. But as common as cremation is, you may have many unanswered questions about it. Read on for everything you need to know about cremation, how much it costs, and more.

What is cremation?

Cremation burns the body to ash. These cremated remains, called “cremains,” can then be buried, scattered, interred, kept in an urn, or put in a piece of memorial jewelry.

How does cremation work?

The cremation process occurs in a facility called a crematory or crematorium. (Some funeral homes have their own crematories, but more often a funeral home contracts through an outside crematory.) The body is placed in a cremation container, which can be a casket or another container, such as a simple wood or cardboard box. The cremation container is then put into the cremation chamber, also called a retort, where the body is burned at 1,400 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one to three hours.

At the end of the cremation process, the ashes and bone fragments that remain are examined with a magnet to pick up any metal. They are then pulverized into a fine powder, which will weigh about seven pounds, depending on the size of the body. These are the “ashes” people speak about, and the crematorium will deliver them to you in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box, although you can then buy an urn to place these ashes.

While it’s possible to work directly with a crematorium to plan a cremation, many people choose to work with a funeral home, which can arrange a viewing, transportation of the body to a crematorium, and assist with burial plans for the cremated remains. Some states require cremations to be arranged by a licensed funeral director.

How much does cremation cost?

The 2014 national median cost for a direct cremation, or cremation without a viewing or funeral service, was $2,300 if the funeral home supplied the container and $2,200 if the family supplied the container, according to a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). That generally includes the funeral home or crematorium’s service fee and transportation of the body.

The national median cost for a funeral with viewing and cremation was $6,260 in 2017, according to the NFDA. When a funeral home contracts with an outside crematory, the fee for just that service is usually between $200 and $400.

However, a 2016 study from the Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers alliance found that the prices of cremation can vary wildly—from $495 to $7,595 for direct cremation—and that a lot of consumers are confused about what the bill actually covers. For example, you might be quoted a price for direct cremation that doesn’t include the cost of the cremation itself, adding up to $400 to the total cost.

The FTC requires that funeral homes prepare an itemized bill listing exactly what you’re paying for. It pays to call around to compare pricing. You are also allowed to purchase some items, such as an urn or container, outside of the funeral home.

Beyond the basics, additional costs might include:

  • Embalming or refrigeration. You don’t need to embalm a body prior to cremation, but embalming is usually done if a family wants a viewing. Depending on the state you live in, bodies may have to be embalmed or refrigerated if not cremated or buried within 24 to 48 hours. Embalming costs an average of $725, while refrigeration may cost $150 or more a day.
  • Transportation. If your funeral home doesn’t have a crematory on site, transporting the body to a crematory may cost $300 or more.
  • Casket. While you can purchase a casket for the cremation itself, you don’t have to. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission says funeral homes must allow you to use a container other than a casket for the cremation. But if you’re planning a viewing or a funeral service with the body present, you probably do need a casket. Instead of buying a casket (at a cost of anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000), you may be able to rent a casket just for the viewing or funeral service for $500 or so. The body can then be transferred from the casket to another container at the crematory. This container is often referred to as an “alternative container” and may be made of unfinished wood, cardboard, pressed wood, or fiberboard.
  • Funeral director services. If you’re working with a funeral home to plan a viewing or other services, the funeral director’s basic services fee can run $2,100 on average.

Who can attend a cremation?

In general, the cremation itself can be attended only by immediate family, and a religious leader, if desired. (A separate funeral or memorial service may be held before or after the cremation.) The family can gather in an anteroom where the cremation container is placed within the cremation chamber, also called the retort. They can have a brief service with a few words or prayers said. Family members may be allowed to push the cremation container into the retort, or even turn on the retort by pressing a button.

While it may be possible to actually “witness” the cremation when the body is in the retort through a window, not all facilities are equipped for this type of viewing. You should discuss your wishes in advance with your funeral director or the crematorium director, who can share exactly what you may see.

Are cremations eco-friendly?

Is cremation more environmentally friendly than burial? While many think so, it’s not necessarily the case. Cremation burns fossil fuels and produces air pollution. “Green cremation” options exist, which use 90 percent less energy than traditional cremation. However, green cremation is currently only available in a handful of states.

Both traditional burial and cremation impact the environment, so those concerns shouldn’t necessarily be a major factor in your decision of one over the other. If environmental impact is a primary concern, a green burial without embalming and with no coffin (or an eco-friendly one) may be the “greenest” option.

Why should I choose cremation over burial?

There is no “right” choice, and the reasons people choose cremation vary. Some choose cremation for religious reasons. Some people like the idea of their ashes scattered in a favorite spot. Others are squeamish about the idea of their body decomposing. Still others may not want to pay the fees associated with a cemetery plot, or may not like the permanence of having a headstone in a city or town their loved ones may not have roots in. There is no “right” answer as to why you may consider cremation, but knowing what cremation is can help you choose the right option for you and your family.

What can I do with cremated ashes?

As cremation has become more and more popular, there are more options for how to memorialize cremated remains. While scattering ashes is a popular option, as is burying ashes in a cemetery or memorial garden, some companies can make jewelry with cremated remains, while others can even turn cremated remains into fireworks.

There are regulations surrounding where cremated remains can be scattered that vary by state and locality. Looking into these regulations, or discussing your wishes with your funeral director, if you have one, can help make sure whatever you do with cremated remains is within the law.

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