Cremation Explained, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

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Cremation is the process of reducing the body to ashes and bone fragments through the use of intense heat. The process usually takes from two to four hours. The cremated remains are then pulverized to break up larger bone fragments to a granular texture.

The number of cremations in the United States has steadily risen from about 15% of deaths in the mid-90s to almost 50 percent in 2014. Cremation is often chosen because it’s more simple and economical, allows more flexibility in funeral and memorial services, or uses less of our land resources than traditional earth burial.

Most religions do. Canon Law now permits cremation for Roman Catholics, but the remains must be buried or entombed, not scattered or kept. Muslim, Greek and Jewish Orthodox faiths forbid cremation, as do some fundamentalist Protestant groups.

In some states, only a licensed funeral director can arrange a cremation. But most states permit private citizens to obtain the necessary death certificate and permits for transit and disposition. You should check first to make sure the crematory will accept the body directly from the family, as some crematories will only work through funeral homes.

No, a casket is never required for cremation. However, most crematories do require that the body be enclosed in a rigid, combustible container. Under federal regulations, all funeral providers must make available an inexpensive cremation container, often referred to as an “alternative container.” Or you can make or furnish your own suitable container instead.

Many funeral homes will rent an attractive casket to families who want the body present for visitation or service before cremation. After the service, the body is transferred to an inexpensive container for cremation. Rental caskets often cost around $800 however, so you might consider using the less expensive alternative container and draping it with an attractive cloth, a quilt, or a flag.

No. Some funeral homes will urge you to purchase a decorative urn, but you may simply use the plain container in which the ashes are returned from the crematory. The cardboard or plastic container is perfectly adequate for burial, shipping, storing, or placing in a columbarium.

With this affordable option, the body is cremated shortly after death, without embalming, viewing or visitation. If a funeral home is used, their charges will include the necessary paperwork, basic services fee, transportation, a container for cremation, and, in some cases, the crematory fee.

A reasonable price for direct cremation ranges from $700 to $1,200 depending on the region. Adding visiting hours, a funeral service, or casket can increase the price substantially. It makes no difference whether you buy a direct cremation from a funeral home or from a cremation-only business.
When a funeral home uses a third-party crematory, which is common, the cremation charge is usually between $200 and $400. Be sure to check if that charge is included in the quoted price for the cremation or if it’s additional.

All funeral homes and cremation businesses must give prices over the telephone, or give you a copy of their General Price List if you come to the door. If your local Funeral Consumers Alliance publishes a price survey, you can easily compare prices for several funeral homes and make an informed decision. Likewise, before choosing a cemetery, you should call several and ask their prices for a gravesite or columbarium, and their charges for interring the remains or placing them in a niche.

You have a wide range of choices. They can be put in a niche in a columbarium, buried, scattered, or kept by the family. Cremated remains might be divided among family members to be kept, sprinkled or buried in several different places (i.e. with a first and second spouse). The ashes are sterile and pose no health hazard. Their disposition is generally not regulated by law.

 Place in a columbarium
Cremated remains can be placed in a columbarium niche, often located in a mausoleum within a cemetery. As an alternative, you’ll find that some churches provide niches in a dedicated area inside the church or in a garden wall.

 Bury in a cemetery
You could choose earth burial in either a regular grave or in a special urn section in a cemetery. Some cemeteries will permit two or three containers in an adult-size grave; others allow only one container per grave. Some (unnecessarily) require that you purchase an urn vault.

 Bury on private property
You may bury the cremated remains on your own land, or on another’s property with the owner’s permission. If the cremains are to be buried other than in a cemetery, they should be removed from the container when interred. Keep in mind that unless you have established a family cemetery on your property, the land may be sold for other purposes, and the remains disturbed or rendered inaccessible.

 Scatter on land
Some cemeteries offer sites for scattering, but you may disperse the remains almost anywhere as long as you are discreet. Scattering of cremated remains over an area with special significance for the deceased appeals to many families, and is legal in most jurisdictions. Although there are commercial firms who will scatter the cremated remains for a fee, most families want to do it themselves. Remains that are to be scattered should be processed by the crematory to reduce all fragments to fine particles.

 Scatter at sea
Military personnel and retirees, veterans and dependents may have their remains scattered at sea free of charge by the Navy or Coast Guard.
Since the ceremony will be performed while the ship is deployed, the family cannot be present. Also, many coastal regions have businesses that will scatter the remains at sea for you, or will rent their boat for a scattering ceremony. While federal regulations technically require cremated remains to be scattered at least three miles out from shore, the Environmental Protection Agency does not enforce this regulation with private individuals.

 Keep at home
You might prefer to place the remains in a container special to the deceased, such as a hand-carved box or favorite vase, and display it on a bookshelf or mantelpiece. Or you could buy a decorative urn from a funeral home or cemetery; prices range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

 Other choices
Every year brings new ways of memorializing a loved one’s cremains. Incorporating the ashes in jewelry, bullets, space rockets, coral reefs, or fireworks are among the possibilities. Check the internet for more details about these and other options.

Cremated remains may be mailed or carried by hand to another destination. For mailing, they must be placed in an inner container within a padded outer container. If you are taking them on a plane you should leave them in the box just as it came from the crematory, with the official documents attached. Security requires that they be x-rayed, so they must be in a non-metal container.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 11 February 2015 12:19 )  
Comments (9)
1 Wednesday, 21 May 2008 13:09
I haven't seen this addressed. I was informed that #1, person to be buried must be eligible, so eliigibility has been ascertained. Now, upon death, after EMT determines death has occurred, 2)is body transported to a hospital for examining? If so, 3) can the family go directly to a crematorium for cremation after the hospital, then receive the ashes and send to Arlington or other cemetery? Or, does everyone have to use a funeral home. I read either above or on another site, the answer to this question is NO. 4) In talking with the Arlington Cemetery staff that the funeral home will handle everything, but this is if we use a funeral home, I guess.
5) If an EMT has detrmined death has occurred, can't we just call a crematorium for transportation of body to be cremated?
It does seem that in addition to the cremation cost, a funeral home will handlle for a fee some of the incidentals of obtaining the death certificate, "packaging the body" for the cremation, getting the body there, receiving the remains and giving to famiily. Is this all there is to it?
If we wanted to handle all services ourselves, how do we get the body to the cremaatory site. And, does our counties have information sheets or booklets of things they require family to do before issuing a death certificate.
I've asked a lot of questions, but I don't see the answers in anything of the sites I've visited on line.
Any help you can provide is most appreciated.
2 Thursday, 22 May 2008 14:41
Josh Slocum
Hi Jo Anne,

Let me try to answer your questions one by one. Since I'm not sure what state the person lives in, I can't tell you what paperwork is required for a family-directed funeral. In most states, you need a death certificate signed by the attending physician, you need to file it with the health dept., and you need to get a burial/transit/cremation permit from the health dept. If you tell me the state, I can be more specific.

You wrote:
"Now, upon death, after EMT determines death has occurred, 2)is body transported to a hospital for examining?"

REPLY: You really shouldn't be calling 911 and the EMTs unless it's an emergency (which death is not - EMTs are expensive and they shouldn't be tied up with death calls). If the death is expected (old age, long illness), you don't need to call the police or the medical examiner. If the person was under a doctor's care, alert the doctor and arrange to have the doctor fill out the death certificate. If the person is in hospice or a hospital, there is also no need to call the police or ambulance.

If the death is unexpected or in any way unusual, then yes, you should call the police. But don't call 911 for a routine death, or the EMTs may try to resuscitate the person and bring him to the hospital. Unpleasant an unnecessary.

No, routine deaths don't go to the hospital for "examination." If the death is suspicious, the medical examiner would have control of the body for investigation.

You wrote:
"can the family go directly to a crematorium for cremation after the hospital, then receive the ashes and send to Arlington or other cemetery?"

REPLY: In most states, it's perfectly legal to transport the body yourself, as long as the death cert. and burial transit permit are completed. In some states, crematories are separate from funeral homes and they do business directly with the public. In other states, funeral homes own the crematories. In still other situations, crematories do business only for funeral directors. I can't advise you unless I know what state you're in.

You wrote:
"4) In talking with the Arlington Cemetery staff that the funeral home will handle everything, but this is if we use a funeral home, I guess. "

REPLY: Yes. In this case, "funeral home" would also refer to any cremation business that you've contracted with. I see nothing to stop you from bringing the ashes to Arlington yourself, however, unless they've got picky rules about working directly with families. Best to ask the Arlington staff.

You wrote:
"And, does our counties have information sheets or booklets of things they require family to do before issuing a death certificate."

Unfortunately, most states and counties don't have this helpful information in an easy format. We can tell you what you need though, once we know what state you're in.


Josh Slocum
FCA Executive Director
3 Tuesday, 10 June 2008 07:41
please tell me what is the term first call?
4 Wednesday, 11 June 2008 15:45
The term just means the initial call to the funeral home notifying them of a death so they can pick up the body.

5 Friday, 13 June 2008 08:19
I'm over 50, in poor health and would like to make funeral arrangements while I still can. I live in Jax. Fl. and I think I would choose cremation. I would like to keep things as inexpensive as possible. I don't choose to have my body present at the memorial service, or have my ashes placed at a cemetery. How do I go about making these arrangements. I'm totally clueless about cremations.
Thank you, Carol
6 Friday, 27 June 2008 15:42
who can go to the funeral home and pay the remainder of the bill once the ashes are shipped there. and who gets to receive the ashes when there are more then one family member that wants the ashes
7 Saturday, 28 June 2008 17:40
Lisa - generally, the ashes belong to the next of kin (or the legally designated agent of the deceased). However, this gets complicated if someone *other* than the NOK or agent has paid the bill for the cremation because the family wouldn't do so. If the family is fighting over the ashes (and it's really, really best to try to rise above this and settle it like adults), they may have to go to probate court. This is highly unpleasant, and I urge families to make every effort to avoid it.

Funeral Consumers Alliance staff
8 Saturday, 05 July 2008 18:31
I was looking into cremation for myself in the future after a close relative had died. Thinking this was a less expensive alternative to a traditional burial. The funeral home prices were almost identical for both traditional burial and cremation. They told me the reason was that state law required the body be embalmed before cremation and that this was a major expense. This makes no sense to me. Why should a person be embalmed before cremation?
9 Saturday, 05 July 2008 19:48
Josh Slocum
Hi Brian,

Based on what you told me, it sounds like there's some misinformation, but I can't quite tease out where it came from. Here are my guesses:

1. There's no state law that says a body must be embalmed before cremation. It's a bit more complicated. Some states require that a body be buried, cremated, embalmed, OR refrigerated within a certain amount of time. So, it could have been the case that the body couldn't be cremated quickly enough to meet the state's embalming or refrig. requirement, and the funeral home didn't have refrigeration. If so, that's unfortunate, and a good argument for why all funeral homes should be required to offer refrigeration.

2. It's also possible the funeral home lied to you about a nonexistent state law. If so, you should file a complaint with your state's funeral board, with the Federal Trade Commission, and a copy to Funeral Consumers Alliance. If you give me more details and a location, I can help you with that.

Also, were you given a printed, itemized price list to choose from before you finalized the arrangements? Did you get an itemized receipt? If so, were there services on that receipt that you didn't ask for, and that you wouldn't have chosen?

Certainly a simple cremation should be much less expensive than a full-service burial, but I'd need to know exactly what you chose - or what services you might have been forced to buy - before I could give an opinion on what happened.

Josh Slocum
Executive Director
Funeral Consumers Alliance

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