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7 minute read

What to Expect From the Cremation Process

Knowing what to expect from the cremation process can help you make informed end-of-life planning decisions. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Up until recently, traditional burials were the preferred method for honoring loved ones who have passed away. Today, however, sentiment appears to have shifted in favor of cremations. More people are choosing cremation over burial than ever before, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). That said, if you have already chosen how to be honored after your passing, there’s a good chance you have chosen to be cremated, but do you know what that really means? 

Through no fault of their own, most people are not familiar with the cremation process; they simply know they want to be cremated. More often than not, people choose cremation over burial for personal reasons or its cost-effectiveness. Either way, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the process of cremation if you intend to include it in your estate plans.

What is the step-by-step process of cremation?

In its simplest form, cremation is the process of honoring a loved one who has passed away by burning their body to ashes and memorializing the remains in a vessel becoming of the life they lived. It is worth noting, however, that the means to the end is more involved than that. The cremation process is simultaneously delicate, respectful, thorough, and complicated. There is quite a bit that goes into the operation, which begs the question: What’s the process of cremation?

While each funeral home may have its own subtle nuances, the cremation process can be broken down into six individual steps: Identification, Authorization, Preparation, Cremation, Finalization, and Memorialization.

Confirm the identity of the deceased

For obvious reasons, the first step in the cremation process is to officially confirm the identification of the deceased individual. While the identification process will vary from state to state, most cremation facilities resort to industry-specific guidelines that rely on the word of subsequent family members. In other words, the cremation facility will have family, friends, and kin legally confirm the identity of the deceased.

Once the body has been identified, a metal ID tag will be attached to it. Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, the tag will remain with the body through the whole cremation process and be placed with the remains for final verification. That way, the body may be identified when the physical vessel no longer retains its original state.

Proper identification will both assist in the family’s grieving process and confirm no errors have been made when official records are kept. 

Authorize the cremation process

Once the body has been correctly identified, the crematory or respective funeral home must receive final authorization to initiate the cremation process. Again, the act of authorizing a cremation will vary from state to state, but it’s safe to say the assistance of an authorizing agent will be required. Otherwise known as the legal next-of-kin, the authorizing agent will sign a Cremation Authorization Form that gives the crematory the authority to start the process. 

In addition to receiving permission from the next of kin, the crematory may also require a death certificate and a permit from the county in which the cremation is expected to take place. Also referred to as a cremation permit or a disposition permit, the county-issued permit allows the cremation to occur. Usually, the permit is included in the price of cremation, but on the off chance the county asks for payment, the next-of-kin may be charged a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 to $40.   

Prepare the body for the cremation process

With all of the appropriate and necessary authorizations in place, the crematory will begin to prep the body for the impending cremation. That said, preparations are entirely dependent on the type of cremation that’s going to take place. If the body is to be present at a memorial service, funeral service, viewing, and/or wake, the body will be embalmed, cleaned, and dressed. That way friends and family can pay their respects with an open casket before the body is cremated.

If, however, the body doesn’t need to be present at any services, it will be cleaned and dressed. Cleaning and dressing aren’t necessarily what they sound like; they are merely the act of making sure the body is ready to be cremated. Specifically, cleaning and dressing involve removing any personal items for the family to keep (unless otherwise specified), medical devices, prosthetics, and any other mechanical or battery-operated devices. After the final preparations are made, the body will be placed in its vessel, where it will await cremation. 

Commence the process of cremation

The next step in the cremation process involves physically reducing the human remains to incredibly small bone fragments (or ashes). Consequently, this is the step most people are familiar with and represents the actual act of cremation.

Most people associate the cremation process with heating the body to extreme temperatures to produce ash, but the Cremation Association of North America recognizes two legal forms of cremation:

  • Flame-based cremation: The most common cremation process, flame-based cremation relies on extreme temperatures (upwards of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce the prepared body to bone fragments (or cremated remains). The cremation process takes place in a machine called a cremator or a retort. 

  • Alkaline Hydrolysis (water cremation): What is water cremation, you ask? A relatively new cremation process, alkaline hydrolysis relies on alkaline chemicals, heat, agitation, and pressure to accelerate natural decomposition. The process reduces human remains to bone fragments (also known as hydrolyzed remains).

Inspect & finalize the remains

The process of cremation — whether it’s flame-based cremation or alkaline hydrolysis —ultimately results in cremated remains. Often referred to as ash, the cremated remains are actually comprised mainly of bone fragments. That said, there may be additional items left over from the cremation, like internal medical devices, metal pins from past surgeries, and the metal ID tag from step one.  Instead of leaving the debris mixed in with the bone fragments, a professional will remove it (leaving only the bone fragments). Once the remains consist of only bone fragments, they will be ground down by a special processor into the ash most people are familiar with.   

Return the ashes to the family to memorialize

Once the cremated remains have been reduced to ash, they will be placed in a vessel (usually an urn). At this point, the cremation process is complete, but the vessel containing the remains must be returned to the friends or family responsible for them. What they do with the remains will be up to the decedent’s final wishes. If directions for the ashes were left in the Will or letter of instruction, the friends or family will pay their respects accordingly.    

Make sure your estate plan specifies your cremation intentions

The cremation process is more involved than many people realize. From the first step to the last, every part of the process may be altered to fulfill your final wishes. That said, your wishes won’t be heard if you don’t communicate with the people responsible for your cremation. In order to ensure you get what you deserve, make sure you specify what you want out of your own cremation in your Will.   

Here at Trust & Will, we’re here to help keep things simple. You can create a fully customizable, state-specific estate plan from the comfort of your own home in just 20 minutes. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our other estate planning and settlement options today! 

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