The practice and culture of cremation has not only significantly been impacted by religious and traditional beliefs, but has also transitioned and evolved since ancient times. In ancient times, cremation was often used as a means of honoring individuals who fought for their people and displayed an immense amount of bravery on the battlefield, as well as, those who held high positions within ancient governments. In certain religions such as Hinduism, who practice cremation because of their belief in reincarnation, the symbolic pair of fire and water is fundamental in the transformation of the dead to further life which has an imperative role in the process of cremation. [1] Eventually, the practice of cremation began to diminish because of prevailing religious beliefs. Islam, Catholicism, Judaism, and other religions do not condone the act of cremation due to the belief of burying the body of the deceased in order to prove their faith in a more dignified and honorable way. Even though there are many differences in cultural practices, there is still the commonality of the act of respecting and remembering loved one’s after they have passed away. However, it was during the nineteenth century that the practice of cremation experienced a resurgence which is believed to be a result of over-crowded cities, and less burial space for the deceased.  There are a number of reasons why cremation appealed to the European societies in the nineteenth century. These include the hygiene factor, the aesthetics of cremation, and the invention of the technique to cremate human bodies in a more effective way. [2] Previously cremation was executed by using open fire and wood and eventually transitioned to being conducted in closed heat-resistant chambers.

Modern cremations started to be introduced in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century; the first modern cremation in Sweden took place in 1887.[2] Cremation practices may be used for a number of reasons. Some cultures view fire as a purifying agent and see the practice as the most respectful way to dispose of those who have died. Whereas other societies may believe cremation to light the way into the afterlife, or to prevent the spirit of the deceased from returning to the world of the living. [3] While cremation isn’t accepted by all, those who believe in this practice emphasize how all humans have the right to die as they please as “the right to personal autonomy does not end when individual human beings die.” [4] Cremation became an appropriate vehicle for expressing the ephemerality of bodily life and the eternity of spiritual life.15 With the remains after cremation, new traditions have emerged as individuals invented ways of placing their loved one’s remains in natural environments or places where the survivors acknowledged that their loved one who has passed spent memorable times. Another practice individuals have chosen is turning their loved one’s ashes into stones or gems to make meaningful and more personal jewelry to always remember their loved ones by.

Cremation consists of burning a deceased human body at high temperatures, which reduces it to basic chemical compounds. [9] This process produces ash that can be stored, buried, or otherwise dispersed. When deciding how to deal with a deceased individual, fifty percent of Americans will choose cremation over burial.[6] Many people understand that cremation involves the reduction of one’s bodily structure into ashes, but fail to understand the complex process that is required in order to successfully cremate a body. Formally, cremation is the act of burning a dead body until the only remaining parts are calcified bones, which are then pulverized into ashes.[7]Cremation occurs at an extremely high temperatures, ranging from 1400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.[8] The scientific explanation behind this process illustrates that immense heat is needed to reduce a body to its basic components, which primarily consist of dried bone fragments. The actual incineration requires several steps before it is completed. First, a cremation chamber must be preheated, with the body transferred through a mechanized door to avoid heat loss. [8] Following this, the body is exposed to an abundance of flames generated by a furnace. The heat from the fire is used to burn the skin and hair, char muscles, vaporize soft tissues, and calcify bones, making them easy to disintegrate into ashes. The bodies must remain in caskets throughout the entire cremation, in order to prevent technicians from exposure to infectious diseases.[10]  Despite what most may think, cremated bodies typically do not produce a putrid smell, because emissions are processed to destroy smoke from the chamber and vaporize any gases that would contribute to an unwanted smell. Occasionally, the cremation technician has to manually crush partially cremated remains, until they are fragmented enough to be collected in a tray for cooling.[8]

10] Above is a photograph of calcified bones that have undergone the cremation process. These bones will subsequently be crushed by a cremation technician into finer pieces for storage purposes.

The entire process of cremation is estimated to take approximately one to three hours, with each body producing three to seven pounds of ashes, which are a pasty white color[8] There are a wide variety of factors that influence the duration of the cremation process, which can either shorten or elongate its completion. These factors include weight of the body, percentage of body fat in the body, temperature of the cremation chamber, and quality of cremation equipment used.[10] Luckily, modern technologies and updated research has allowed the cremation process to recover a significantly large portion of the human body than in years past.[10] A large contributor to this advancement is the expectation that error is catastrophic and unforgivable during cremation. Ashes from cremation can be used for scientific research; some facilities even offer cremation for free, in exchange for the ability to conduct medical research on the body. [11] Many organizations have aimed to use cremation to benefit the greater good, specializing in areas such as cardiovascular, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s research.

Over time, the number of cremations in the United States has been steadily rising to the point where currently, between one-quarter and one-third of all corpses are cremated.By 2022, the US is projected to reach 57.8% in cremation rates.[13]

 

[12]“2018 Annual Statistics Report.” Cremation Association of North America.

As cremation is becoming increasingly more popular, the practice has caught the attention of theologists and members of religious communities. Contemporary believers are beginning to inquire about the reasons behind why cremation rates have risen, and what factors contribute to the debate that exists between cremation and traditional burial procedures. There is a lack of widespread discussion on cremation ethics which has had implications for those whom are attempting to justify the practice. However there is evidence that supports that the increase in cremation practices are due to rationales such as expense, environmental concerns, and ease of arrangement, among many others. [13]

There is an ongoing debate regarding the ethics of cremation versus traditional burial procedures, as the process becomes more prevalent. A study was conducted to investigate the opinion of individuals regarding the cremation-burial dilemma. 66% of individuals gave an affirmative answer to agreeing with cremation, and 33% declared their opposition. Those who agreed with the cremation procedure agreed for the following reasons: sanitary considerations (overcrowding of cemeteries),  the procedure is more convenient for the offspring, fear of post mortem decay,  part of the body would be near the loved ones, financial considerations.  Those who opposed stated that they were against cremation for the following reasons the Church’s blaming of cremation (including denial of religious service), tradition (customs) must be respected, other religious considerations (the fear that there would be no possibility of resurrection on Judgment Day). The conducted studied showed that cremation has its supporters through the two-thirds of respondents that agreed with the process. Motivational analysis of the choice for cremation showed its secular, socio-economic and psychological substrate, while its refusal is based on grounds of religious beliefs and a willingness to abide by the tradition. [14] These findings show that there many arguments for and against cremation, but this situation is not necessarily an ethical conflict of interest. As long as those who are deceased and/or the family get to make their own choice on the process, it is ethical for them to be able to make their choice on the debate of burial versus cremation.

Gabrielle Geiger, Alise Tyndall, and Maddie Srochi

[1] Oestigaard, Terie. “Cremations in Culture and Cosmology.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial. : Oxford University Press, August 01, 2013. Oxford Handbooks Online.

[2] Back Danielsson, Ing-Marie. “Presenting the Past: On Archaeologists and Their Influence on Modern Burial Practices.” Mortality, vol. 16, no. 2, May 2011, pp. 98-112. EBSOhost, doi:10.1080/13576275.2011.560452.

[3] “Cremation.” Cremation- New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cremation.

[4] Juss, Satvinder Singh. “Sikh Cremations and the Re-Imagining of the Clash of Cultures.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, 2013, pp. 614-615 www.jstor.org/stable/24518075.

[5] “Cremation Growth Trends: Speed and Velocity.” Industry Statistical Information – Cremation Association of North America (CANA). Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/IndustryStatistics.

[6] Lovejoy, Bess. “Cremation Is on the Rise, but Where to Put the Ashes?” Time. June 13, 2013. Accessed April 08, 2019. http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/13/cremation-is-on-the-rise-but-where-to-put-the-ashes/.

[7] Kim, Michelle. “How Cremation Works.” HowStuffWorks Science. November 15, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation.htm.

[8] “How Is A Body Cremated?” Cremation Resource. January 2019. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.cremationresource.org/cremation/how-is-a-body-cremated.html.

[9] Douglas J. Davies and Lewis H. Mates, eds., Encyclopedia of Cremation (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005) 131. The Encyclopedia continues its description of the process of cremation, noting, “The remaining substance, the cremains, may be processed further by mechanically breaking the larger particles down, producing a consistent mixture of grain and powder, to be scattered or stored in an urn” (ibid.)

[10] Chesler, Caren. “Exactly What Happens When You Get Cremated.” Popular Mechanics. April 13, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a18923323/cremation/.

[11] Kirchheimer, Sid. “Donating Your Body to Science, Research – Free Cremation, Save a Buck.” AARP. March 28, 2012. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.aarp.org/money/budgeting-saving/info-03-2012/donating-your-body-to-science.html.

[12] “2018 Annual Statistics Report.” Digital image. Cremation Association of North America. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.cremationassociation.org/page/IndustryStatistics.

[13] Jones, David W. 2010. “TO BURY OR BURN? TOWARD AN ETHIC OF CREMATION.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (2) (06): 335-347. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/1001349961?accountid=14244.

[14] Morar, Silviu, Elena Topîrcean, and Ioana Peteanu. “The Cremation-burial Dilemma: Opinions of Future Health Professionals.” Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine 25, no. 3 (2017): 303-08. doi:10.4323/rjlm.2017.303.

15 Davies, Douglas. “Death and Dying.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Cremation.html#ixzz5ijyqhpBA.