Art and Ashes 101
Art in Ashes in the News
A New Trend
Art and Memorialization
Studying Oil Painting
New Memorial Traditions
The Art of Death Asian Style
Making Diamonds from Ashes
Modern Art and Funerals
The Cremation Process
The Cremation Process
The Story of a Natural Process
Cremation’s rise in popularity in the Western world in the last century or so is often credited to environmental factors. Certainly it is true that cremation offers a more environmentally friendly alternative to large steel caskets and heavy concrete vaults that will remain intact for perhaps centuries after a deceased’s body has decayed to ashes. But it is ironic to know that cremation’s newfound popularity is, in fact, a comeback rather than something new. And cremation’s original demise was caused by a concern, some 200 years ago, for environmental factors. We explain more in this very brief look at the cremation process.
Cremation, for many centuries, dating back to pre-historic times was the default choice for disposal of the dead for most cultures. But that ended in about the 1800’s for much of the world because of, ironically, environmental concerns. Until that time, most cremations were done atop giant funeral pyres that required dozens, or in some cases hundreds, of trees to build. When cultures found that they were depleting their all-important forest wood for cremations, they gradually began switching to burial – which required less than one tree’s wood for a wooden coffin.
Eventually, as coffins became more and more elaborate, and less biodegradable, the pendulum of popularity began to swing back toward cremation. Environmental issues were, once again, a contributing factor. But this time cremation was an eco-friendly choice because crematories had adopted technologies that allowed them to burn bodies without using wood. Natural gas, coal or other flammable sources simply provided the heat.
Today’s cremation process, complete with electric ovens in many cases, is decidedly more clean than it was even in the earliest days of the modern cremation era. And that is probably the main reason for its every growing popularity. But that is not to say the cremation process today is completely lacking of environmental hazards. For example, the dangerous chemical mercury is often a by-product of cremation because, for many decades, it was commonly used by dentists to fill teeth cavities. Such trace amounts of mercury are usually not a health threat, even when exposed after a cremation, but collectively the small amounts can cause big problems for the environment. In fact, experts in the infamous Tri-State Crematory case (in which a family-run Georgia crematory for years secretly buried bodies and returned dirt to families) say the family’s elders may very well have been insane because of long-term exposure to relatively small amounts of mercury. And urns made of non-biodegradable materials such as bronze or marble create much the same problem as non-biodegradable caskets – albeit the urns are smaller and somewhat less problematic.
Despite the relatively minor environmental concerns, today’s cremation process is a much more sterile, less ritualistic process than it was in its early days. Workers, often in blue-collar attire, heat up their oven and slide a casket in. After a few hours of exposure to heat of more than 1000 degrees, only non-combustible pieces of metal from the coffin, calcium, and bone fragments remain. These pieces are then sifted out of the oven, the metal removed with a magnet, and then ground finely into the ashes that are then transferred to an urn.
This process generally is separate from a memorial ceremony which can take place either before or after the cremation (or in some cases not at all), and many states actually do not allow family members or friends to witness the process. So, while the end result is the same as it was in days gone by, the attitude and traditions of the modern cremation process are much different.