Cremation is the practice of disposing of a corpse by burning. This often takes place in a crematorium or crematory. Cremation and burial are the main ways of final disposition of the dead.
Reasons for choosing cremation
People choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including religious reasons, other personal reasons, environmental reasons, and cost. For all these reasons, more and more people are choosing cremation.
Religious reasons in Dharmic Faiths
While the Abrahamic religions do not permit cremation or prefer burial over cremation, the Eastern religions (i.e., Dharmic faiths) such as Buddhism and Hinduism mandate the use of cremation. However, two exceptions to cremation apply in Hinduism. For example, monks and children under five are buried. Sikhism, although it has been influenced by Abrahamic religions such as Islam, utilizes cremation. Cremation was also practised in the ancient world, being mentioned in the Old Testament and used widely in the Greek and Roman civilizations.
Resurgence of cremation in the Christian world
In Christian countries, cremation fell out of favor due to the Christian belief in resurrection of the dead, but in the Middle Ages rationalists and classicists began to advocate it again. In England, for example, Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, was the first to recommend the practice on health grounds after seeing the cremation apparatus of Professor Brunetti of Padua, Italy at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. In 1874 Thompson founded The Cremation Society of England. The society met opposition from the church, who would not allow cremation on consecrated ground, and from the government, who believed the practice to be illegal. Cremation was finally made legal in England by a court judgment in February, 1884 in Cardiff. An Act of Parliament for the Regulation of burning of human remains, and to enable burial authorities to established crematoria was passed in 1902.
For most of its history, the church had a ban in place against cremation. In 1963 the Pope lifted the ban on cremation, and in 1966 allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies. The church still officially prefers the traditional burial of the deceased. However cremation is now permitted as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body. Until 1997, church regulations stipulated that cremation was to take place after the funeral service has taken place.
The church still prefers that funeral services take place before cremation. Such funeral services are conducted in the same manner as those of traditional burials up to the point of committal, where the body is taken to the crematorium instead of being buried. A burial service is performed after the cremation has finished.
In 1997 the funeral rite was modified so that church funerals can take place when the body has already been cremated and the ashes were brought to the church. In such cases the ashes are placed in an urn or another worthy vessel. They are brought into the church and placed on a stand near the Easter candle. During the church service, and during the committal rite, prayers that make reference to the body are modified. Any prayers that refer to the "Body" of the deceased are replaced with "Earthly Remains."
Since the lifting of the ban, even with the official preference for burial, the church has become more and more open to the idea of cremation. Many Catholic cemeteries now provide columbarium niches for housing cremated remains as well as providing special sections for the burial of cremated remains. Columbarium niches have even been made part of church buildings. However church officials tend to discourage this practice because of concerns over what would happen to the niches if such a parish closed or decided to replace the current building.
The church does specify requirements for the reverent disposition of ashes. This means that the ashes are to be buried or entombed in an appropriate container, such as an urn. The church does not permit the scattering of ashes or keeping them at home.
The Eastern Orthodox Church forbids cremation. Exceptions are made for circumstances where it may not be avoided (when civil authority demands it, or epidemics) or if it may be sought for good cause, but when a cremation is willfully chosen for no good cause by the one who is deceased, he or she is not permitted a funeral in the church and may also be permanently excluded from liturgical prayers for the departed. In Orthodoxy, cremation is a rejection of the dogma of the general resurrection, and as such is viewed harshly.
List of religions that permit cremation
Asatru, Baptist Church, Buddhism, Calvinism, Christian Science, Church of England, Church of Ireland, Church of Scotland, Church in Wales, Hare Krishna, Hinduism (mandatory except for sanyasis) (i.e., monks) and children under five); Jehovah's Witnesses, Liberal Judaism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Moravian Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Presbyterianism, Roman Catholicism, Salvation Army, Scottish Episcopal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Sikhs, Society of Friends (Quakers)., Unitarian Universalism
List of religions that forbid cremation
Eastern Orthodox Church, Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Zoroastrianism.
Neo-Confucianism under Zhu Xi strongly discourages cremation of one's parents' corpses as unfilial.
Other personal reasons
Some people find they prefer cremation for other reasons. For some people it is because they are not attracted to traditional burial. The thought of a long, slow decomposition process is unappealing to some, and they find that they prefer cremation for that reason.
Other people view cremation as a way of simplifying their funeral process. These people view a traditional burial as an unneeded complication of their funeral process, and thus chose cremation to make their services as simple as possible.
Others prefer cremation for environmental reasons. Some are concerned that during bodily decomposition body fluids and embalming chemicals could contaminate the Earth. Some locations have found that long-buried bodies are now causing groundwater contamination. Arsenic, at one time used as an embalming chemical, has been known to cause serious pollution later on.
Another environmental concern is that traditional burial takes up a great deal of space. In a traditional burial the body is buried in a casket made from a variety of materials. Often the casket is placed inside a concrete vault or liner before burial in the ground. While individually this may not take much room, combined with other burials it can over time cause serious space concerns. Many cemeteries, particularly in Europe and in larger cities, are starting to run out of space.
Cost of cremation
The cost factor tends to make cremation attractive. Generally speaking, cremation costs less than traditional burial services, especially if direct cremation is chosen, in which the body is cremated as soon as legally possible without any sort of services. However, there is wide variation in the cost of cremation services, having mainly to do with the amount of service desired by the deceased or the family. A cremation can take place after a full traditional funeral service, which adds cost. The type of container used also influences cost.
Cremation makes possible the scattering of remains over an area, eliminating the need for and expense of a burial space. However, some religions such as Roman Catholicism require burial or entombment of cremated remains. Burial or entombment also adds to the cost. The price will depend on what the deceased and/or the family has chosen. Cremated remains require far less space than a traditional burial or entombment. Cremation plots or columbarium niches usually cost less than a burial plot or mausoleum crypt.
A cremation oven is a large oven capable of reaching high temperatures, with special modifications to ensure the efficient disintegration of the corpse. One of these modifications is the aiming of the flames at the corpse's torso, where a majority of the corpse's mass rests.
The ovens use a number of different fuel sources, such as natural or propane gas. Modern cremation ovens include control systems that monitor the conditions inside the oven while a cremation is taking place. The operator can make adjustments to provide for more efficient burning, as well as ensuring that minimal environmental pollution occurs.
A cremation oven is not designed to cremate more than one body at a time, and to do so is against the law in all 50 US states and many other nations.
The chamber where the body is placed is called the retort. It is lined with special bricks to help retain the heat. These bricks require replacement after about five years because of continual expansion and contraction due to temperature cycling.
A body to be cremated is first placed in a container for cremation, which can be a simple corrugated cardboard box or a wooden casket. Most casket manufactures provide a line of caskets specially built for cremation. Another option is a cardboard box that fits inside a wooden shell designed to look like a traditional casket. After the funeral service the interior box is removed from the shell before cremation, permitting the shell to be reused.
Funeral homes may also offer rental caskets, which are traditional caskets used only for the duration of the services, after which the body is transferred to another container for cremation. Rental caskets are sometimes designed with removable beds and liners, replaced after each use.
Burning and ashes collection
The box containing the body is placed in the retort and burned at a temperature of 1400° to 2100° Fahrenheit (760° to 1150° Celsius). All that remains after cremation are bone fragments, representing about five percent of the body's original mass. The entire process usually takes about two hours.
After the burning is completed, the bone fragments are swept out of the retort, and the operator uses a grinder to process them into a consistent powder. This is one of the reasons cremated remains are called ashes. The ashes are placed in a container, which can be anything from a simple cardboard box to a fancy urn. An unavoidable consequence of cremation is that a tiny residue of bodily remains is left in the chamber after cremation and mixes with subsequent cremations.
Ashes can be kept in an urn, sprinkled on a special field or in the sea, or buried in the ground. The final disposition depends on the personal wishes of the deceased, as well as their religious beliefs. Some religions will permit the ashes to be sprinkled or kept at home. Other religions, such as Roman Catholicism, insist on either burying or entombing the ashes.
The Pyre Alternative
An alternative method used in some cultures is burning the corpse on a pyre. A pyre is a mound of wood upon which the deceased's body is placed on top or inside of. The mound is lit on fire, the fire consumes the wood and the deceased. This method is not commonly found in the western world where crematorium ovens are used.
Negative recent history experiences with cremation
World War II
During the internment of criminals in concentration camps in WWII by the National Socialists in Germany, massive crematoria were constructed and operated by the Nazis within their concentration camps to dispose of the bodies of prisoners that died in the camps. The bodies of thousands of Jews were thus disposed of in a manner deeply offensive to Orthodox Judaism because Halakha, the Jewish law, forbids cremation and holds that the soul of a cremated person cannot find its final repose. Since then, cremation has carried an extemely negative connotation for many Jews. Similar attitude is also still frequent in some countries occupied by Germans during WWII, such as Poland and parts of Russia.
The Tri-State Crematory Incident
A more recent horrific event surrounding cremation, the Tri-State Crematory Incident, concerned the failure to cremate. In the United States in early 2002, three hundred thirty-four corpses that were supposed to have been cremated in the previous few years at the Tri-State Crematory in the state of Georgia were found intact and decaying on the crematorium's grounds, having been dumped there by the crematorium's proprietor. Many of the corpses were beyond identification. In many cases the "ashes" that were returned to the family were not human remains - they were made of wood and concrete dust.
Eventually Ray Brent Marsh - who was the operator at the time the bodies were discovered - had 787 criminal charges filed against him. On November 19, 2004 Marsh plead guilty to all the charges against him. It is expected that he will be sentenced to no more than 12 years in prison followed by probation. Civil suits were filed against the Marsh family, which were ultimately settled.
- The Cremation Society of Great Britain (http://www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc/CremHomeAlt.html)
- Cremation Association of North America (http://www.cremationassociation.org/)