Cremation Basics - American Style

De-mystifying a growing alternative to burial

From "Planning Memorial Celebrations: A Sourcebook," published by Randomhouse.

"I went behind the scenes at the end of the service and saw the real tiling [of the crematorium]. People are afraid to see it; but it is wonderful. I found there the violet coffin opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door. When it lifted there was a plain little chamber of cement and firebrick. No heat. No noise. No roaring draught. No flame. No feel. It looked cool, clean, sunny, though no sun could get there. You would have walked in or put your hand in without misgiving. Then the violet coffin moved again and went in feet first. And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over, and my mother became that beautiful fire."

This description by George Bernard Shaw of his mother's cremation, taken from a letter to a friend, treats the action matter-of-factly, with the sort of open-eyed objectivity we might expect from the great British dramatist and wit. What he depicts is a natural operation cleanly and neatly executed, with no fiddle-faddle.


Cremation is exactly that, at least in the West. It is a quintessentially secular way to deal with death and is often accompanied by no ritual or ceremony such as those associated with funerals.

Touted as a space-efficient alternative to cemeteries, cremation is now the preferred method of body disposition in England and Japan. In most of the United States, some 17 percent of bodies are cremated; the percentage is higher in California (40 percent) and Florida (35 percent).

The cremation process is much as Shaw described it. A body is placed in a simple casket or "alternative container" (usually plywood, pressed wood, or even heavy cardboard--no plastic or fiberglass), then the container goes into a brick oven, usually powered by gas or electricity, and is heated for about two hours until the body is reduced to bone and the container to ash. These remains (usually referred to by the rather ugly neologism "cremains") are then cooled and pulverized, to make sure that no large bone fragments are left intact (which could cause difficulties if they were scattered on public land or at sea and were later found by or reported to law enforcement officials). The remains are then turned over to the survivors, in either a plain box or a decorative urn, usually the following day.

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Rob Baker
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