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.

The remains can be kept by the family (usually in the decorative urn), buried (sometimes in a garden area of a conventional cemetery), scattered over land or sea, or placed in special mausoleum-type structures called columbaria.

Cremation is a popular choice with some because of:

  • Price (a third or less than the cost of the cheapest funeral-home services.
  • Convenience of arrangements (A permit to cremate is still required as well as a transport permit to the crematorium, but arrangements for viewing, services, and cemetery operations are generally not involved.)
  • Mobility of final remains (They can even be sent via Express Mail or FedEx, though UPS still refuses if it knows what's in the package.)
  • Romantic appeal of being able to scatter the "ashes" almost anywhere on land (except in California) or sea: on a mountaintop, in a river, in a favorite park or the garden of a vacation home--or to keep them in an urn on your living room mantel.
The negative trade-offs for these advantages are directly linked to the positives: the absence of any funeral service or viewing (except in rare cases, when a casket is rented and a viewing is held in the crematory chapel prior to cremation), and the impermanence of having the remains scattered or in a movable container--there is no final resting place, no grave to visit, though one could go to wherever the scattering took place, or visit the urn.

The choice between cremation and burial remains a dilemma for many. As surgeon Richard Selzer has put it:

"The more I think about it, the better I like burial in the ground. People are of two kinds, you know. Those that love nothing more than to be wrapped up snug by their environs, and those who yearn to be unfettered, airborne, wafted. Knowing this, it is not at all amazing that some prefer interment while others opt for cremation. It is not a reasoned choice; it is a matter of temperament."

From "Planning Memorial Celebrations: A Sourcebook," by Rob Baker. Copyright 1999 by Rob Baker. Excerpted by permission of Bell Tower, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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