If you have chosen to cremate your loved one, you have made an important decision that requires deep thought and emotional energy. Cremation, however, is a mysterious process to many. In contrast to a burial, there are many actions and steps that take place behind the scenes that are not visible to family and loved ones.
You may also be wondering how you should handle your loved one’s ashes once they have been cremated. Can you touch them? Do you need to wear gloves when handling the urn containing the ashes?
Countless questions can fill your mind, and that is okay, this is probably uncharted territory. Here are some things you need to know about ashes that will give you the peace of mind you need to handle your loved one’s ashes moving forward.
How Does Cremation Work?
There are two main types of cremation: flame-based cremation and alkaline hydrolysis cremation. Most people choose to cremate their loved ones with flame-based cremation since it is the most common process.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a newer form of cremation that currently is only legal in certain states for human remains. Each process has its advantages, but ultimately, it is up to the family members of the deceased person to choose which process works the best for them.
Flame-based cremation, as mentioned above, is the most common process for cremating humans and animals. The process begins by properly identifying the deceased person and transporting them to a cremation facility.
Any pieces of jewelry or medical devices that may combust during cremation will be removed. Once prepared, the deceased person will receive a metal tag that will be carried with them throughout the cremation process.
After preparation, the deceased is placed in a body casket specifically made for cremation. It is important that the casket is able to fully combust so that there will be no remnants mixed in with the remains of the body. The body is then placed in a cremation chamber, also known as a retort. The retort is lined with fire-resistant bricks and is able to hold one body.
Once placed in the retort, the fire and intense heat reduce the body down to bone fragments. Any other remains are completely combusted and converted into basic elements that vaporize and are released through the retort’s exhaust. Parts of the skeleton remain as well as any medical screws or plates that the deceased person has. The cremation technician uses a strong magnetic device to retrieve these pieces of metal.
Because human bone is incredibly strong and durable, the heat in the retort cannot fully reduce it down to ash. The cremation technician uses tools to pulverize the fragments into ash once it has cooled down. These ashes are also known as “cremains”. Once pulverized, the cremains are placed into a bag where they will be given back to the family of the deceased person. A common choice for remains, at least at first, is to place them into an urn.
Alkaline Hydrolysis Cremation
Alkaline hydrolysis takes a more chemical approach to cremation. Developed in the late nineteenth century by a farmer looking to create fertilizer from animal remains, alkaline hydrolysis uses water, alkaline chemicals, and heat to replicate the natural decomposition process, but this process is accelerated.
This process begins similarly to flame-based cremation, as the body is properly identified and prepared for cremation. The alkaline hydrolysis machine is comprised of water and alkaline chemicals, but the amount of each component depends on the sex, weight, and mass of the deceased person.
Once the correct solution is made, the body is placed in the chamber, and the process begins. This cremation process takes between three and sixteen hours in contrast to flame-based cremation which takes between two and three hours.
Once the process is complete, all that remains is bone fragments suspended in a sterile liquid. Similar to flame-based cremation, the person’s remains are reduced down to basic elements and compounds. The bone fragments are removed from the water and dried so that they can be pulverized.
The sterile liquid is transported to a wastewater facility to be properly handled, but it can sometimes be used as fertilizer as well. The remaining bone fragments are pulverized, placed in a bag, and returned to an authorized family member.
What Are Ashes Made Of?
Now that you know how ashes are produced, it is helpful to know what ashes are made of so that you know how to handle them. The most common question that people have is whether ashes are safe to touch. The simple answer is yes, but it is still important to know what comprises ashes so that you know what exactly you are coming in contact with.
Traditional flame-based cremation produces a pale, gray powder that contains bone fragments. Alkaline hydrolysis also produces a powder, but this powder is white in color, and both types of cremation require pulverization. Human ashes are commonly mistaken for all of the deceased person’s body, but the only component to ash is bone.
If you are wondering how bones can withstand such intense heat, your answer is in the elements. Human bones are composed mostly of calcium phosphates and carbonates. Calcium phosphates allow the bones to be durable and sturdy to carry a person’s body weight, but it also allows the bones to withstand the intense heat involved in the cremation process. Depending on the person, trace amounts of other elements can also be found in human bones.
Each individual person is unique, but did you know that each person is unique even down to their bone contents? No two ash samples are the same, and there are multiple factors that contribute to why each and every person has different bone element contents.
- Environmental: a person can have trace elements in their bones depending on where they live. In industrialized areas, the occurrence of acid rain causes a low water pH which creates the perfect environment for elements such as copper and lead to settle. This phenomenon causes these elements to enter drinking water and in turn enter the bodies of the people drinking it. Individuals who live in close proximity to factories are more likely to be exposed to heavy metals where they are absorbed by the skeletal system.
- Diet: for people who follow a plant-based diet, strontium, a metal element, is more likely to be found in their bones. There are several metals such as manganese and iron that are crucial for a person’s physical health, and these levels can vary in a person’s bones depending on their diet and whether they took a daily multivitamin that contains these metals.
Knowing that each person’s ashes have different elements and components confirms just how unique each person is. Though your loved one’s ashes may look similar to that of another person’s, know that their story and choices give your loved one a unique elemental mark on their skeleton that remains present in their ashes.
The larger question surrounding cremation and ashes is whether ashes are toxic or not. Contrary to what you may think, human ashes are actually not toxic and are considered a sanitary, natural substance. Therefore, there is no harm in touching them. Of course, if you accidentally inhale ashes, you may experience some respiratory irritation, but this occurrence is not common if you handle ashes properly.
Can I Touch Cremated Ashes?
From a scientific standpoint, yes, you can touch ashes. However, the broader answer to this question really comes down to your personal choice. You may feel uncomfortable touching your loved one’s ashes because it may be too much to handle emotionally, and that is completely valid.
On the other hand, you may want to touch your loved one’s ashes to feel more connected to them, and this is also valid. There is no playbook for what is ok and what’s not, grief is complicated and a completely unique experience to the individual.
The Legal Limits of Spreading Ashes
Spreading your loved one’s ashes is a meaningful and symbolic way of remembering their life and story. Some people want to spread ashes in a place their loved one favored such as a beach or lake. Others like to spread ashes at a place where they would like to visit their loved ones in place of a cemetery. Spreading your loved one’s ashes is a great way of celebrating their life and symbolizing the natural process of life and death.
Knowing which places are appropriate to spread your loved one’s ashes will help you make a decision that may be difficult for you. Laws regarding spreading ashes vary by state, but there are also federal laws on spreading ashes. In the majority of the United States, you can spread ashes on land at a private property with the permission of the owner. On public land, you can spread ashes in any space that is uninhabited.
It is very common to spread ashes over bodies of water. In most cases, federal law will take supremacy over state law. If state law states that you can spread ashes in a certain place but federal law does not, always follow federal law when making a decision.
The Federal Clean Water Act states that you must spread cremated remains at least three nautical miles from land. For inland water such as lakes and rivers, you may need a permit from the state agency that governs the waterway.
Another form of spreading ashes is through the air. Most states do not have laws that prohibit spreading ashes in the air but be sure to remove ashes from their container before spreading in the air. Remember that human ash is not considered to be a hazardous material, but be sure to spread ashes in an open, empty area. To prevent accidental inhalation, wear a face covering, or distance yourself promptly after spreading ashes in the air.
Spreading Ashes by Culture
Because religion is closely tied into culture, there exist cremation norms in well-known religions. Cremation is permitted in religions such as Hinduism and Christianity, and both also permit scattering ashes.
Spreading ashes in the Hindu religion is an ancient tradition, and a person’s ashes are spread traditionally on a river such as the Ganges River. Ash is a common theme in the Christian religion, and many funeral proceedings will include the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” in their messages.
What Can I Do With Ashes?
There are a multitude of options for storing and utilizing your loved one’s ashes for a memorial piece. In most cases, a person’s ashes will be placed in an urn or spread on land, water, or in the air. Another option that is growing in popularity is the creation of memorial jewelry.
At Eterneva, we take your loved one’s ashes and transform them into a genuine diamond that is the centerpiece for your new piece of memorial jewelry. You can learn more about our seven-stage journey to creating your perfect diamond on our website.
Choosing to cremate your loved one is a heavily weighted choice, and knowing how to handle their ashes can bring you the peace of mind you need to move forward. Always make the choice that is best for you and your family, and remember that, regardless of your choice, you are honoring and celebrating the life of your loved one.
The Cremation Process Step-by-Step. How it works from start to finish. | Funeral Wise
Alkaline Hydrolysis | Cremation Association
All About Cremation Ashes | Cremation Solutions
Cremation Resource | Cremation Resource
What are the laws on scattering ashes? Learn more about them here. | Neptune Society