A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What happens during cremation?

December 4, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Exactly what occurs during the process of cremation? What exactly remains after the process is done? I hear all kinds of opinions on this, but I would really like to know the facts.

Cecil replies:

My assistant Jane asked if I wanted her to visit a crematory so she could experience cremation in person. I appreciate the thought, I told her, but don't kill yourself. Fact is, we have detailed knowledge of what happens during cremation thanks to investigators such as W.E.D. Evans, MD, a "senior lecturer in morbid anatomy" at Charing Cross Medical School at the University of London. It's one of the great regrets of my life that I never took this guy's class.

In his book The Chemistry of Death Evans describes the cremation process with the detached air of the true scientist. The body is placed in a special gas-fired oven and burned at a temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically a wooden coffin is used, which soon collapses, exposing the body directly to the flames. "The skin and hair at once scorch, char, and burn," Evans writes. "Occasionally there is swelling of the abdomen before the skin and abdominal muscles char and split. … Destruction of the soft tissues gradually exposes parts of the skeleton. The skull is soon devoid of covering," etc. He goes on in this vein for quite a while.

Here's something you might have wondered about. "There is a popular idea that early in the cremation process the heat causes the trunk to flex forwards violently so that the body suddenly 'sits up,' bursting open the lid of the coffin, but this has not been observed personally, nor has this been described to the author by anyone in attendance at cremations in the London district."

Forty-five minutes to an hour is generally sufficient to consume a body, though obese corpses may take 90 minutes or more. Once the ashes cool, they're crushed by a machine into three to four pounds of coarse white powder (more for big folks).

Sounds pretty grim, I suppose. But there's a lot to be said for cremation, and I don't just mean the fact that it's less expensive and wasteful than most burials. Cecil has heard of one fellow who left instructions that the urn containing his ashes be placed on a table with a spoon in it. At the memorial service mourners were reminded that the deceased loved to travel and were asked to scatter a spoonful of his ashes in some far corner of the world. They proceeded to carry his remains to Jamaica, Yosemite, Nepal, and dozens of other places. Something almost holy about it, don't you think? And it sure beats buying a wreath.

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