What Is Direct Cremation?

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Cremation is more popular in the United States than ever. But even if you’ve decided on cremation instead of burial, you’ll still need to choose whether to have a funeral, followed by cremation, or to have what’s called a direct cremation. Learning about direct cremation and how it works can help you decide whether it’s right for you or your loved one.

How does direct cremation work?

Simply put, direct cremation is a cremation that takes place soon after death, without first having a viewing or funeral with the body present. The body may be directly transported to the crematorium, with no need to preserve the body, either through refrigeration or embalming.

If they choose, immediate family (and a religious leader, if desired) can attend the cremation at a crematorium. A brief service, with a few words or prayers, may be held. The body—placed in either a casket or cardboard box, depending on family wishes—is then pushed into a chamber (called a retort) that’s heated to between 1,400 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The cremation process takes about three hours. Families don’t often stay while the body is in the retort, but they can, and some crematoriums are set up with a viewing room that has a window into the retort. Calling different crematoriums can help you know your options.

Often, families will follow a direct cremation with a memorial, celebration of life service, or other way to remember their loved ones. During this service, an urn with the ashes from the cremation (technically called “cremains”) may be present. Some families may bury the ashes in a memorial garden or cemetery, following the traditional outline of a funeral as they invite family and friends to witness the burial.

On the other hand, when a family opts for a funeral before cremation, the body is usually preserved and a casket is chosen (either purchased or rented) for the funeral. A viewing or funeral may be attended by as many guests as you choose. The cremation takes place after the funeral service, with immediate family (and religious leader) attending the cremation if they choose.

Advantages of direct cremation

Choices about funeral arrangements are deeply personal, and depend on your end-of-life wishes and your family’s expectations as well as your religion. Some reasons people choose direct cremation instead of cremation with funeral include:

  • Flexibility. For example, if family and friends are coming from far away to commemorate the dead, it may make more sense to have a direct cremation, followed by a memorial or celebration of life service a few weeks—or even a few months—down the road.
  • Cost. The national median cost for a direct cremation was $2,300 if the funeral home supplied the container, or $2,200 if the family supplied the container, according to a 2014 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). This includes the funeral home or crematorium’s basic fee and transportation of the body, but not the cost of a a memorial service afterward. On the other hand, the national median cost of having a funeral followed by cremation was $6,260 in 2017, according to the NFDA. Besides the cost of the funeral itself, direct cremation eliminates the need for a casket or preserving the body via embalming or refrigeration.
  • Environmental reasons. While cremation does consume natural resources, direct cremation bypasses the chemical-rich embalming process.

If you have a strong preference between direct cremation or cremation with a funeral, it’s always a good idea to make your wishes clear to your family before your death. That will make it easier for them to carry out your wishes—not to mention lifting some of the decision-making burden from them while they’re grieving.

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