What Does the Cremation Process Involve?

In this podcast with licensed funeral director Rebekah Peoples of Boston Cremation, learn more about the cremation process and find out if cremation is the right choice for your family.

John: Hi. I’m John Maher, I’m here today with Rebekah Peoples a licensed funeral director with Boston Cremation. Today our topic is, what does the cremation process involve? Welcome, Rebekah.

Rebekah Thanks, John. Nice to be here.

Steps in the Cremation Process

John: Rebekah what are the steps involved in the cremation process?

Rebekah The cremation process I think for a lot of people for a long time has been mysterious, although today with the internet, people can find out just about anything. From just a practical standpoint, from the time that we take someone’s body to the crematory to be cremated, the crematory goes through a few different steps that are involved in the cremation process. First of all, let me just say that in Massachusetts, the law says that funeral homes cannot have a crematory on their premises; it has to be on cemetery property.

When we take the person’s body to the crematory, it goes through a few different steps that people may not be familiar with. The first thing that happens at least in this part of Massachusetts where we are, but I’ll talk what happens in other areas too, is that one of the laws in Massachusetts is that every person’s body that’s cremated in Massachusetts has to be approved for cremation by someone from the Medical Examiner’s office. We get this question a lot about why does the medical examiner have to be involved and does that mean they’re going to do an autopsy?

No, they’re not doing an autopsy but what that examination is for is — I know this sounds funny but I say this to people; cremation is an irreversible process. Sounds like common sense but we get all these crime drama shows on TV, any evidence would be destroyed if there was some question about cause of death. Someone from the Medical Examiner’s office does typically a visual examination of the person’s body to just make sure there’s no question about cause of death. Today it’s not always just to rule out foul play, but we live in a pretty litigious society where sometimes someone falls at a nursing home or falls at a hospital, so there might be a wrongful death lawsuit or something like that.

John: Cremation could potentially get rid of any evidence of that if that was the case.

Rebekah Exactly. It’s a pretty thorough examination that they do. [They] call the doctors who are in attendance or that are primary care physicians, things like that if they have any questions [or] if something looks a little suspicious to them. But then once that visual examination is complete, they sign off and say, “Yes it’s okay for this person to be cremated.” In Massachusetts, it’s a law too that no one can be cremated for at least 48 hours after the death occurs.

After that time period is up and someone from the Medical Examiner’s office has approved the person to be cremated, then the crematory operators at the cemetery continue on with the process where the body is placed into what is called a retort. [This] is the technical name for the cremation chamber. Most crematories require that anyone who is cremated that their body is placed on some type of rigid container. Most commonly if there hasn’t been a casket involved like with visiting hours or things like that where the body was viewed before cremation, if it’s not in a casket, it typically is in a box that has a wooden bottom that’s sturdy and rigid and with a cardboard top.

The cremation process itself takes two to three hours where the body is exposed to extreme high temperatures, usually 1600-1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cremation process as I said takes place in two to three hours. When the cremation process is complete, what is left of the body is just bones, so that’s why sometimes we might get somebody’s ashes back from the crematory who was a pretty small person but there’s a lot of ashes and that’s because it’s bone density, because what’s left of the bones. Now the bones are not necessarily intact, it’s not like the retort chamber is opened at the end of the cremation and there’s a skeleton lying there, it’s not like that at all.

Because of the extreme heat, the bones are in small pieces and very brittle because of the high temperatures. At that point the crematory operators are very careful to remove all of the contents that are in there. They’re very careful to make sure that there aren’t ashes left from the person before so that what you’re getting back are the cremated remains of the person who was there.

Ensuring the Authenticity of Cremains

John: Right, I guess that was one of the questions that I was going to ask, how can I be sure that the ashes that I receive at the end of the cremation are in fact the ashes from my loved one, my family member who was cremated? How can I be sure?

Rebekah Yes, that’s a really good question. When paperwork is brought to the crematory with that person’s body, the crematory immediately assigns that case a number. That number stays with all the paperwork through the whole cremation process. When that person’s body is placed into the retort, the cremation chamber, the paperwork that is attached to the outside of that has that number on it and there’s a little gold medallion that they clip on there that has the name of the crematory and also that number.

That’s clipped to the clip board and it stays with everything with that number on it so that then when what is left, the bone fragments that are left, when they’re removed from the cremation chamber; they then are taken to a work station where those ashes are allowed to cool, those bone fragments are allowed to cool and then they are basically reduced to fine almost like a powder fine particles. That takes place in equipment that is basically where the bones are ground or pulverized for lack of a better word, but everyone knows that the ashes come back almost the consistency of sand.

John: Right, so that’s actually the bone fragments that have been pulverized or ground up like that, that’s what remaining after the cremation is over?

Rebekah Right and when those fragments are placed into this metal container, that number again, that gold medallion is attached to that, that same number so that those ashes are identified as the same ones that came in. Then when the funeral director or when we give those ashes back to you, they’re usually in a plastic bag both in a plastic container so you don’t usually see the plastic bag unless you open it. Around the top of that plastic bag is a twist tie or a zip tie that has that medallion on it with that number. Then you get a cremation certificate that has that number on it and also all the numbers match.

John: Right through the whole process you have that medallion with that number and the paperwork that matches that number and everything stays, the medallion stays with those remains or with that body the whole way through the process; and so you’re sure that in fact, that is your body?

Rebekah Exactly and usually on the box that you get the cremated remains back in unless you select an urn, on that bottom of that box or sometimes at the top of the box depending on the crematory will be a label with the person’s name, the date they were cremated, the name of the crematory and that same number.

All the numbers match if you look at the cremation certificate that you get, has the person’s name on it and it’s a certification from the crematory that these are the ashes of this person who died on this day, was cremated on this day, has the number, then when you look at that label on the container that the ashes are in, that number matches and if you were to open it up and look at that gold medallion, that’s on the plastic bag it’s the same number.

The 48 Hour Waiting Period Before Cremation

John: Okay. You mentioned that there’s a 48-hour waiting period after somebody passes away and before they’re able to be cremated. What’s the reason for that?

Rebekah The 48-hour waiting period is connected to the exam by the Medical Examiner’s office. It’s just to make sure that there’s no question and we all know that emotions are really high when somebody dies and it’s hard to believe that there are states that don’t have a waiting period, because what happens if say a day and a half after the person dies, somebody’s conscience starts kicking in. They call the funeral home or they call the police and they say, “You know what, I think my father was poisoned,” or, “I think that he might have fallen before he had this heart attack or before he died.”

John: Or some evidence comes up like they were talking to somebody at the retirement community or something like that where they passed away and something about, “What that person said isn’t sitting right with me and I’m not comfortable with having the body cremated right now,” that kind of thing.

Rebekah Yes and unfortunately the only time that we see that predominantly at nursing homes since you mention that is if somebody says, “You know what? My mother said that she fell the day before yesterday and she was able to get up by herself and so she never told the nurse she fell.” But if that fall contributed to the death, that’s something that certainly they would need to know. Because a lot of things come up as a result of someone’s cause of death. Whether it’s insurance or whether it’s lawsuits or a lot of times just peace of mind. It’s important that the death certificate read properly and that people do know exactly what happened.

Family Disagreements About Cremation

John: Are there situations too when maybe a couple of family members are disagreeing on whether or not the body should be cremated or whether there should be a burial or something like that? Does that come up?

Rebekah: I’m really glad to say that we don’t see that very often. That can be a legal nightmare. Not just legally but also for all the people involved. It’s funny because when I first became a funeral director, I used to think, “We deal with the nicest families,” and then I began to realize that these people can’t all be this nice.

John: Just the law of averages, right?

Rebekah: Yes, right. I think that when someone dies, people put aside differences because they want to respect the person who died. We do have instances once in a while, I certainly have heard stories of one person will come in to make the funeral arrangements and say, “Yes, I’m going to sign for my mother to be cremated. She lived with me. She always told me she wanted to be cremated,” but there’s nothing in the will, there’s nothing in writing that the mother put. Then the next day or later that day, one of the other children, that person’s siblings will call and go, “My mother didn’t want to be cremated.”

John: Right, it comes as a shock to them maybe. Yes.

Rebekah: Yes. I think that in Massachusetts, there is no law about how many- -If the next of kin or children, there’s no living spouse, so it’s their children, there is no law about how many people have to sign.

John: There’s no “vote and the majority wins” kind of thing.

Rebekah: That’s pretty much what I think the funeral directors in Massachusetts use. In a situation where one child says, “Yes, my mother wanted to be cremated,” another child says, “My mother did not want to be cremated,” hopefully there’s a third one where you have a majority. If not, it gets ugly where the one who’s trying to stop the cremation actually can go get a court order. That’s what’s required to stop that.

John: Okay.

Rebekah: I know in some states, there has to be like a 60% agreement among the children.

John: If there’s two children, you can never get to that.

Rebekah: That’s right. Yes. Usually, when there’s two children, they tend to come to some sort of agreement.

John: Sure. Like you said, that kind of situation tends to bring out the best in people and they tend to put aside differences and talk things out. That’s good, you rarely see those situations where that’s a problem.

Rebekah: Yes. Maybe that’s another topic that we can discuss sometime where we talk about the importance of letting people know ahead of time. Because if the mother or father that they’re disagreeing on whether they should be cremated, if there was something in writing [it would solve the issue].

John: Right. [Something in writing] that says my wishes are, “That I want this to happen to my body after I’m gone.” That puts aside all of those arguments because it’s clear.

Rebekah: Exactly.

Watching a Loved One’s Cremation

John: Right. Regarding the process and the cremation itself, can the family members come to the crematory and actually watch the cremation if they want to?

Rebekah: Yes. We get that question actually more frequently than you would think. We live in an area here where we’re very ethnically rich. We have frequently people of some ethnicity with their custom is to watch the cremation. In this country, watch the cremation doesn’t mean that you actually watch the body be consumed. What it means is they can meet us at the crematory when we bring the person’s body there. They can meet us there and if they want to see the person, because sometimes as much as it is as I believe of following through with the person to the final end, much the same as it would be going to a grave site if someone were being buried and not cremated.

Even as much as it is that following through, it’s also that peace of mind like, “This really is my father or my mother or my husband that’s being cremated.” They’re given an opportunity to be able to see the person before they’re cremated. Then what it actually entails is then watching the person’s body be placed into that cremation unit but not actually watching the cremation take place which I don’t think anybody would really want to do.

But if they want to, most of the crematories in this area, I don’t know of any that don’t allow the family to wait. If they want to wait like two and a half to three hours for the process to be complete and take the ashes home with them, most crematories in this area allow that. There may be extra charges involved, but for a lot of people, peace of mind is worth that.

John: Right and the extra charge might be because they have to complete the entire process right then and there for the family that’s waiting as opposed to waiting sometime after the cremation happens. Like you said, the ashes have to cool off afterwards and things like that. Otherwise, the families tend to maybe come, see the body, get that closure that they need and then move on and come back at some later time to pick up the ashes, that might be more typical.

Rebekah: They usually will come back then to the funeral home to pick them up because we usually will pick them up not the same day. If we come back to the crematory the next day, we’ll pick up the ashes, bring them back and the family will come and pick them up at that time.

John: Okay. Alright that’s really great information Rebekah. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Rebekah: You’re welcome.

John: For more information, you can visit the website at bostoncremation.org or call 781-322-0909.

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