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Cremation: The Ultimate Guide

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Cremation as a method of body disposition is an increasingly popular alternative to the more traditional methods of underground burial or entombment.  In Canada, for example, the cremation rate has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009.

This article provides key information about cremation that will help you and your family decide whether cremation is the best choice, and issues that need to be considered when choosing cremation.

What is Cremation?

Cremation is the process of reducing a body to ashes and small bone fragments through the use of intense heat.  The process usually takes from two to four hours.  The cremated remains are then crushed into a mostly fine, sand-like material, which can be kept in an urn or scattered at a desired location.

Does Cremation Mean You Can’t Have a Funeral Service?

There is a common misconception that choosing cremation means that you and your family are forfeiting a funeral service.  This is simply not true.  Cremation is not a substitute for a funeral service.

Cremation is a method of body disposition, while a funeral service is a type of ceremony to honour the life and legacy of the person who passed away.

With cremation, there are a number of ways to have a ceremony:

  • Traditional Funeral Service:  You are able to have a traditional funeral or a religious ceremony where the deceased’s body is present in a casket.  This option also allows families to have a visitation and viewing of the body before the funeral service.  After the funeral service is completed, the body would then be cremated.
  • Memorial Service:  If the deceased’s body is cremated before the service, you can have the person’s ashes in an urn present at the ceremony if you wish.  You may also incorporate the scattering or the burial of the ashes into the memorial service, or this could be done at some other time with only close family and friends present.
  • Celebration of Life:  This type of ceremony is a much less formal affair than a memorial service, with everyone invited to take part and to share stories with one another.  It’s for people who don’t want tears at their passing, only fond memories.  Like a memorial service, it is up to the family whether or not the deceased’s ashes are present, as well as whether or not the ash scattering or burial will be part of the ceremony.

Cremation Ceremonies_[Infographic]

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What are the Pros and Cons of Cremation?

Cremation has several advantages over other types of body disposition:

  • It’s Less Expensive:  With no cemetery plot, burial casket, embalming of the body, headstone or monument, cremation is less expensive that ground burial.  On average, ground burial costs six times more than cremation.  Cremation is the cheapest form of human interment.
  • It Gives a Family More Time to Plan a Ceremony:  Cremation allows families to take their time planning a ceremony, (as ashes won’t decompose).  With a ground burial of a body, there is a greater urgency to have a funeral service, which can be very stressful for the deceased’s family.  If family members and friends live in different cities and countries, and cannot come together immediately to pay their last respects to the deceased person, then cremation is a good option because it allows a memorial service or celebration of life to be planned at a later date.
  • The Remains are Portable:  Urns holding cremains (a person’s cremated remains) are far more portable than a casket holding the body.  This gives the deceased’s family much more flexibility in where to hold the ceremony.  The memorial service or celebration of life can easily be in a different part of the country or overseas.
  • It’s Environmentally Friendly:  Some people believe cremation to be an environmentally friendly option because it prevents cemeteries from expanding and taking up more land.  Cremation also doesn’t use chemicals that are used in embalming a body, which can leach into the soil over time.
  • It’s Psychologically Easier:  Some people, particularly those with claustrophobia, have a deep-seated fear of being buried.  Cremation is a good alternative to a traditional ground burial.
  • It Gives Many More Memorial Options:  With cremation, families have a wide range of memorial options.  A few examples include: burying the ashes in a family cemetery plot; storing the ashes in a columbaria; scattering the ashes in an outdoor location; scattering the ashes under a memorial tree; or wearing cremation jewelry filled a small amount of ashes.
  • The Deceased’s Resting Place Can be a Sentimental Location:  With cremation, you aren’t restricted to using a cemetery for the deceased’s final resting place.  You and your family can scatter the ashes in a place (or in several places) that had special meaning to the person that passed away.

Cremation also comes with several downsides, which you should also be aware of:

  • Cremations aren’t Available Everywhere:  Not every community has a funeral home with the proper facilities and equipment to perform cremations.  In this event, you may have to go to a funeral home in a neighbouring community.
  • Religious Bans:  Cremation is not permitted in some religious faiths. As examples: Orthodox Judaism; Islam; and Greek Orthodox.  Roman Catholicism historically forbade cremation, but lifted the ban in the 1960s.  Since that time, cremation has been on the rise among Catholics.  If you are religious and are unsure whether or not cremation is an acceptable form of body disposition in your faith, check with a spiritual leader.
  • Agreement Can Be More Difficult:  Some families experience tension and strife when it comes to the subject of whether or not to choose cremation, particularly where some members are more religious or traditional than others.  There may also be disagreement over who will become the caretaker of the ashes and the urn.  Difficulty reaching consensus on these issues can lead to long-term hard feelings between family members.
  • Environmental Concerns:  The process of cremation requires extensive use of fossil fuels, which increases carbon dioxide emissions.  The process also produces harmful mercury, which is also released into the air.
  • Prevents Further Examination of the Cause of Death:  Even after a body has been buried for years, it can be exhumed if investigation into the cause of death is required.  Cremation prevents any further investigation from being conducted.
  • Impossible to Identify Misplaced Ashes:  There is always the possibility that the cremains get misplaced.  In this event, it would be impossible for the deceased’s family to identify the ashes of the deceased.  There would be nothing that the family could do to ensure the safe return of their dearly departed loved one.
  • Lack of a Permanent Memorial:  One of the biggest downsides of scattering ashes in an outdoor location is that there isn’t a permanent memorial where family members and friends can visit in the future.  Some people find solace in being able to visit and tend a graveside.  Scattering ashes on a family property may create emotional distress for family members when the time comes to sell the property.  Furthermore, the knowledge of where a family member has been laid to rest is more likely to be forgotten by future generations with scattering than with a ground burial.  (If this issue is a concern, the ashes can be buried in an urn at a cemetery and have a grave marker.)

What is the Cost of Cremation?

The price range for a “direct cremation” is $500 to $1,500, depending on where you live.  According to the Cremation Research Council, the average cost of a “direct cremation” is $1,100.  (The term “direct cremation” means that the family of the deceased did not have a funeral or memorial service, or a celebration of life.)

As stated above, cremation is less expensive than ground burial because the family does not have to pay for a cemetery plot, burial casket, embalming of the body, headstone or monument.

You should check with the funeral service provider what is included in the fee that they advertise for direct cremation.   

For example, ABC Company may advertise that it does direct cremation for $500, while XYZ Company advertises that it does direct cremation for $1,300.  It seems that ABC Company is offering the better deal until you find out that the fee of $500 only covers the work to cremate the body.  There are additional expenses that are not included in ABC Company’s advertised price.  As examples:  the cost of the cremation casket; transportation fees; the cost of the urn.  XYZ Company includes all these additional expenses in its quote, and is in fact offering you a much better deal than ABC Company.

When it comes to choosing a cremation service provider, the provider’s reputation should be a more important consideration than the cost of the cremation.  Discount businesses may be a “fly-by-night” operation, instead of a reputable firm that has faithfully served a community for decades.

A discount vendor may not be able to afford to hire professional staff, and might take questionable short cuts, leading to quality control issues.  If a business does not care about quality control, there is no guarantee that you’ll, in fact, receive the ashes of your loved one.

As stated above, choosing cremation does not preclude you and your family from having a funeral or memorial service, or a celebration of life.  As with ceremonies associated with ground burials, the costs here will depend on what products and services you select.

If you are planning to have a ceremony to honour your loved one’s life and legacy, you will need an additional budget to cover expenses such as: venue; flowers and décor; transportation; and perhaps catering.

How to Choose a Cremation Provider?

Once you decide that cremation is the right choice, you need to choose a cremation provider.

Most people are not aware that the majority of funeral homes (even ones that offer cremation services) do not own their own crematoriums.  Instead, the funeral home may have a relationship with a preferred crematorium operator that they’ve worked with for many years.

Being your search for a cremation provider by:

  • Conducting Online Research:  Find cremation providers in the area with a simple Internet search.  Review any comments posted by previous customers, as well as any responses posted by the business.
  • Talking to Family and Friends:  Ask family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and church members for recommendations.  Have they used a cremation provider in the past that provided excellent service?
  • Calling Government Consumer Watchdogs or Visiting Their Website:  Each State or Province of a country will have a government agency that is responsible for the licensing and regulation of crematoriums and cremation providers.  Call the agency, or visit their website, and ascertain if any complaints have been filed against a business you are considering engaging by dissatisfied clients.  You can also call, or visit the website, of your local consumer protection bureau to see if they have any record of complaints being made about the cremation provider.

It is vital that you visit the cremation provider before engaging their services.  With our busy lives, we might be tempted to make a decision based solely on what we find on the Internet.  While Internet research is certainly helpful, there is no substitute for visiting the cremation provider in person.  You will want to tour their facilities and make sure that they are clean and well organized.  You will want to speak with staff and make sure that you are comfortable with their explanations of their services and fees.

If the funeral home engages the services of a third party crematorium, you want to ensure that you feel confident in accepting the funeral home’s recommendation.  After all, you are entrusting the body of your loved one to their care.  If you aren’t sure about the recommendation, you may request a visit with the third party crematorium.   

When visiting cremation providers, there are essential questions that you should ask:

  • Up-Front Pricing:  Will the cremation provider give you a price list that clearly shows all the services that they provide, along with the cost and any sales taxes?
  • Licensing and Professional Associations:  What licenses and professional associations does the cremation provider belong to?  What code of ethics is the provider required to follow?  Are they routinely inspected by any government agencies?
  • Insurance:  Is the cremation provider properly insured?  If the funeral home uses a third party to do the cremation work, does the funeral home’s insurance cover them for any mistakes or negligence on the part of the third party?
  • Cremation Equipment and Facilities:  Do they own their own cremation facilities and equipment?  If so, can you tour the cremation facility?  If not, what business do they outsource the cremation work to and where is it located?  Are you able to tour the cremation facility of the third party vendor?  Who is ultimately responsible for the cremation work?  Do they have refrigeration facilities to hold the body prior to cremation?
  • Policies and Procedures for Tracking:  Cremation is an irreversible process.  And once it has been done, it will be impossible to correctly identify your loved one’s ashes if the cremation provider does not have comprehensive body-tracking procedures in place.  As a consumer, you have the right to see the cremation provider’s policy and procedures manual.  You will want to ascertain how your loved one will be treated; what body tracking procedures are used throughout the cremation process; and who identifies the body before cremation commences?  (A family member should be allowed to formally identify the body beforehand to ensure that there isn’t a mix-up.)
  • Policies and Procedures for Artificial Body Parts and Medical Devices:  You may want to know their policy in regards to disposing of artificial body parts (e.g. eyes, hips, knees, and limbs) and medical devices (e.g. pacemaker).
  • Policies and Procedures for Return of Ashes:  What is the average time between receiving the body and the return of the ashes to the family?  What is the cremation provider’s policy with respect to the holding of the ashes after the cremation is completed?  How will the ashes be returned to you?  What happens if an urn hasn’t been purchased beforehand?
  • Policy on Family and Friends Witnessing the Cremation:  If you, other family members and friends wish to be present at the start of the cremation process, be sure to ask the cremation provider if arrangements for this can be made.  Witnessing the start of the cremation process may help some people achieve closure.
  • Environmental Concerns: If you are an environmentally conscious person, you should ask if the crematorium is taking steps to reduce the emissions that are a result of the cremation process.
  • References:  Will the cremation provider give you references of other families they have worked with?
  • Guarantees:  Ask if the cremation provider gives any guarantees and ask them to explain them to you in detail.

If a cremation provider fails to show you documents that you request to see (i.e. full price list; operating license; certificate of insurance; policy and procedures manual), or is hesitant to do so, choose another cremation provider.  This advice also applies if they won’t show you their facilities, or answer your questions in a straightforward manner.

Remember, the cost of direct cremation is not the most important factor when choosing a cremation provider.  You want a cremation provider that will treat the dearly departed with dignity, will act in a caring and professional manner towards the family, and will be transparent about all aspects of the cremation process, as well as the cost for services.

With Cremation, is a Casket Needed?

The short answer is: “It depends.”

A casket is needed when the cremation is taking place after a viewing (where the deceased is in an open casket, and friends and relatives pay their last respects), or after a traditional funeral service (which requires the body of the deceased to be present).

If a family is having a viewing and, or, a traditional funeral service, the family can either purchase a quality casket (which will later be cremated with the body inside it), or rent a casket (provided the funeral home has a rental service).  Renting is the far cheaper option.

A rental casket is a casket that looks like the real deal, but in fact has a removable interior, which is a simple wooden box.  (Think of Russian nesting dolls.)  The deceased is fully contained within the interior box, which is easily removed after the funeral service.  The deceased is then cremated in this box.  Because the deceased never came into contact with the outer casing of the casket (i.e. the visible part), the funeral home can re-use the rental casket by inserting a new removable interior.

If cremation is taking place before the memorial service or celebration of life, or if the family is having no ceremony at all, the family will still have to purchase a casket or an “alternative container”.  The law requires that the body be enclosed in a rigid container during the cremation process in order to protect the health and safety of the crematorium operator.

The range for the price and quality of caskets starts at the bottom with a no-frills cardboard box (also referred to as an “alternative container”), and goes all the way up to premium caskets that are also used in traditional burials.  Some crematoriums will include the alternative container in their standard fee.

Before investing in a quality casket, be aware that most crematoriums will only accept caskets that are fully combustible, with no metal parts.  Solid wood caskets are ideal, as are cloth-covered wood caskets and wood veneer caskets.  Most “green” caskets are also ideal.  They are usually made out of natural materials, such as wicker or bamboo, or natural fibers, like cotton or wool, making them fully combustible.

There are a few crematoriums that will accept metal caskets, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Each crematorium has different requirements. Therefore, make sure you inquire about the specific requirements of the particular crematorium before you purchase a casket for cremation.

After Cremation, What Can Be Done With the Ashes?

After the cremation process is complete, the family is given the cremains (the person’s cremated remains).  The cremains are commonly referred to as “the ashes”.

There are many options when it comes to the question of what to do with your loved one’s ashes.  We will explore some of the more popular options below.

Scattering

Scattering the ashes of a loved one is one of the most common ceremonial practices.  When people who choose cremation for them, nearly half request that their families scatter their ashes after they have passed away.

Popular locations for scattering ashes include rivers, ponds, golf courses, gardens, flower beds, at sea, or a location that is personally significant and has sentimental value to the deceased and his or her family.  However, it is important to inquire if your local laws permit the scattering of ashes.

With the growing trend of scattering cremains, we are beginning to see even more options for scattering ashes. For example, you can purchase a water scattering urn that can be placed in the water where they will eventually biodegrade. This is a fantastic option if you plan to scatter your loved ones remains in the ocean, a lake or a river.

Burial

Burying cremains in an urn is another popular option.  The urn holding the ashes can be buried in a cemetery plot or an urn garden.  An urn garden is an area of the cemetery dedicated to the burial of urns.  The area is usually beautifully landscaped, with water features, lavish plantings, and large rocks or other sculptures.

Burial in an urn garden is the less expensive option. However, a person might prefer to be buried with a spouse or partner that previously passed away and is buried in a cemetery plot, or with other family members in a family plots.

The site within the cemetery is marked with a grave marker, making the site a permanent memorial.  Some families find solace in being able to visit and care for the burial site.

Columbarium

A columbarium is an above-ground building that houses cremation urns.  Inside the building, the walls have “niches” (or a small opening in the wall) that can hold a single cremation urn.  Once the urn containing the cremains has been interred in the columbarium, a bronze plaque is placed on the outside of the niche.  The plaque is a permanent record of who is inside the niche.

As with burial, some families find it comforting to be able to visit the place where their loved one has been laid to rest.

At Home

After cremation, some people choose to keep the cremated remains of their loved one at home, either in a beautiful urn that is on display, or in a simple urn kept in a private place within the house, or an urn that has been buried in the garden.

Memorial Tree

Some families like to plant a tree in honour of their loved one.  This can be incorporated into a memorial service or a celebration of life.  A memorial tree is both a beautiful tribute to someone’s life and legacy, as well as a gift to future generations.  It also symbolizes the circle of life, and our return to nature after our death.

When memorial trees are planted on a family’s private property, the ashes of the deceased can be sprinkled around the base of the tree, or placed within an urn that is buried under the tree.  If the memorial tree is in a public space, check with the local authorities as to whether ashes can be sprinkled or buried.

The family may also install a simple bronze plague at the base of the tree that displays their loved one’s name, date of birth and date of death, along with a personal message or quote.

Good choices for a memorial tree include the oak (which is a symbol of strength), ginkgo (the classic “memory” tree), and the Japanese red maple, (renowned for its beautiful colours).  However, you may choose a tree according to your tastes or a type of tree that has special significance.

We’d Love to Hear From You

Did you find this article helpful?  What other issues related to cremation would you like us to research?  Have you had a loved one that was cremated?  How do you feel about cremation?  What would you want done with your ashes?

Let us know your thoughts.  We’re always listening.