CREMATE [KREE-meyt]: to reduce a dead body to ashes by fire


A question which is before people as they age is their desire regarding the care of their body after death.   Some would say it’s a ghoulish conversation, but for family members who have to make decisions, it’s a very practical matter.  If death is sudden, without any indication of its imminence, and there is no written directive about the issue, the family is left with a very controversial matter which is capable of causing a major rift in a family.

One of the “end of life” decisions a person should make is the method of caring for the body after death.   Is it the person’s desire to have a traditional funeral process, including embalming, a casket, funeral home and place of worship settings, flowers, memorials, cemetery, etc.?   Or, is there an alternate plan for the care of the body?

Such as cremation.

The act of cremation is the removal of the body from its place of death, no embalming*, maybe or maybe not a casket, and the placing of the body in a cremation furnace. where the body is reduced to ashes and small bone fragments.   When the body is fully cremated the ashes are removed, larger remaining bones are pulverized to ashes, and the ashes are placed in a respectable container.  The family may chose to have the ashes placed in a decorative urn (a vase-like sealed container);  otherwise the ashes are delivered in a biodegradable plain container.  The ashes are in a plastic bag inside the container.

The process is usually undertaken by a licensed person who guarantees dignity and respect for the remains of the deceased.  Sometimes family members request permission to be present during the cremation.  I read an article recently which was written by a funeral director who said that he prefers to have at least one family member present.  He feels that it is respectful.   It is also a way of guaranteeing to the rest of the family that the loved one was treated with dignity.

Cremation has been practiced in societies around the world for centuries.  In many countries it is the norm.  In more Western societies, the dominance of religious thought and interpretation led to full burial as the norm.  Some faith communities condone cremation; others, such as the Roman Catholic Church and members of the Islamic faith, have banned it in the past, but are somewhat more open to its use in today’s world.  The hesitation of some faiths is based upon biblical references to the afterlife, in which the deceased are described as whole and recognizable.  Interpretations of these biblical references vary.

There is also an environmental quality to the discussions surrounding cremation.  There is a concern that land is being used for burial of bodies in caskets which could otherwise serve beneficial purposes.   And the cost factor in holding a traditional funeral is a major concern of some.   Funerals can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, the more humble choices still being in the realm of thousands of dollars.   Social Security and Veteran’s benefits offer some compensation at the time of death for “burial” costs, but it is meager and based upon costs of a funeral in the nineteenth century.

The main point of this discussion is to encourage conversation in families about the wishes of family members.  Those wishes should be written and shared with an attorney or some responsible person who will be able to advise the family in the midst of their grief and confusion.**  That is not a great time to make such decisions.

It is estimated that more than 40% of Americans have requested cremation at the time of their death (2011 statistics.)  My suspicion is that the figure will rise over the years as people become more aware of their options and educated about the sensitivity of cremation.


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* Practices vary.  Sometimes the family requests embalming and casket, as well as full funeral practices and religious ceremony.  Then the body is removed to the crematorium for cremation.  There is a whole scale of practices based upon the family’s requests.

** I recommend that you contact your local Hospice agency and ask for their excellent booklet, Five Wishes, which clearly spells out the person’s desires.  That booklet can be copied and placed in a safe and strategic location.

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