SECOND IN A SERIES ON GREEN(ER) CHOICES

History

It’s generally agreed by scholars that the practice of cremation began during the early Stone Age. Yet, modern cremation, at least in the West, only began in the late 1800s after a dependable machine was developed. The first crematory in the U.S. was built in 1876 in Washington, PA. By 1900, 20 crematories were operating in the U.S.; that number doubled by 1913 and octupled by 1975. As of 2009, there were more than 2,100 crematories in the U.S. accounting for over 900,000 cremations. In 2016, cremations surpassed burials for the first time in Western history (50.2%). This trend is expected to continue, reaching 78.8% by 2035.

Several factors are believed to be contributing to the rise of cremation over burial. They include the increase in the U.S. of religious “nones” and the aging of Baby Boomers (with 10,000 people turning 65 every day), the costs associated with contemporary funeral services $7,500-$10,000+ vs. one-half to one-third less for cremation), and that families are far less likely to live in close proximity as they once did, making the portability of cremains far more practical than a cemetery burial.

Process

Cremation utilizes high heat (1,500 to 2,000 degrees F) and flame to reduce a body to bone fragments in approximately three hours. Once cremation is complete, the remaining bone fragments and any non-consumed items such as metal or bridgework are moved to a cooling pan located at the front of the retort (cremation machine). Once any non-consumed items are removed, the bone fragments are processed by machine to achieve a consistent size and placed into a plastic bag labeled with the name of the deceased or directly into an urn selected by the family.

Cremated remains (or cremains) have the texture of coarse sand and are generally ash gray in color. Some slightly larger chunks of bone may be present. Cremains can be buried in a grave, placed in a columbarium, kept at home, scattered on private property, made into a diamond, receive a water burial, added to a man-made reef, mixed with fireworks powder and shot into the sky, or any number of increasingly creative ways people are choosing to honor their beloved dead.

A little-known option (varies by cremation facility) available to families is to view the cremation and/or press the button to start the cremation process. Families may also request access to the plain, heavy cardboard cremation box in advance if they wish to decorate it prior to cremation. I’ve witnessed lovely, family-inclusive activities around painting or drawing pictures and messages on the box, as well as notes and flowers being placed in the box to be cremated with the loved one.

Concerns

While less environmentally damaging as embalming/contemporary burial, cremation in the standard retort releases greenhouse gases via the use of natural gas, as well as dioxins and furans present in amalgam dental fillings and plastics in the body and/or casket. Baby Boomers, who are most likely to have mercury amalgam dental fillings and who are largely responsible for the growth of cremation services in the U.S., are encouraged to consider alternative body disposition options and/or to utilize available options intended to mitigate the environmental impact of cremation.

Have you already chosen cremation for yourself or a loved one? Have you participated in any scattering of ashes or used cremains to create meaningful reminders of your loved one? Please share your experiences!

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