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Death In History
Fact | Tradition | Fiction | History | Funerals

Cremation: A Sometimes Difficult Subject

Cremation of Ones Remains is Not an Appealing Topic, But it’s an Important One, Both Financially And From a Family Standpoint. A Little Knowledge Will go a Long Way to Help You And Your Family Members to Understand What Everyone’s Preferences Are.

Today, about a quarter of all deaths in the United States are followed by cremation. A new national survey indicates forty six percent of Americans plan to choose cremation, up fifteen percent from 1990. In some states, the choice of cremation is rising very rapidly.

About thirty percent of those choosing cremation state that they do it to save money; fourteen percent because it is simpler, less emotional, and more convenient; about the same percentage state that they want to save land. One benefit is that one’s remains may be scattered in a place or places that have special meaning, the ocean, mountains, or a memorial garden, among others.

A little over half of the respondents choosing cremation in the survey stated that they would most likely purchase a cremation urn.

· About forty percent would chose scattering of the remains.
· About twenty five percent would place the remains in a cemetery (sixteen percent to bury), (eight percent to a columbarium), (and one percent to a church columbarium).
· Ten percent stated that they would take the inurned remains home.
· Fourteen percent were undecided.

With cremation, an expensive casket is not necessary. A simple wood or even cardboard will serve quite well it will be quickly reduced to ashes anyway. Some states allow for no cremation casket at all.

Almost ninety percent of all who choose cremation say they would like some kind of a ceremony. A casket can often be rented if a funeral service is desired prior to cremation, and the remains stored in a Cremation Urn (our business here at Signature Cremation Urns), or a service may be held with the Cremation Urn containing the remains.

A 2004 poll for the National Funeral Directors Association found 62 percent of U.S. adults want personalization at their funerals. The most popular forms cited in the survey included friends relating stories (50 percent), playing favorite music (47 percent) and displaying photos and personal items (42 percent).

Common misperceptions: one cannot have a funeral and then be cremated; their religion does not allow cremation (for example the Catholic Church has allowed cremation since 1965). Some Fundamentalist Christian, Orthodox, and Islamic faiths do not allow cremation.

In other parts of the world, space and ecological considerations have made changes to our normally accepted practices for burial and cremation of remains.

A cemetery in Victoria state in Australia has begun an innovative way to bury the dead in an environmental friendly and inexpensive way; an alternative to cremation. This is “standing room only” for those who choose to be buried in this unique cemetery.

The deceased are placed in biodegradable body bags instead of the normal caskets, and buried vertically on land that is used for animal grazing. According to the cemetery company the concept is to return to the earth with a minimum of fess and with nothing that would affect the environment. Once the land has stabilized, animals, both domestic and wild would be allowed to graze on it.

In Singapore land is so scarce burial space is recycled so the remains of the dead may be cremated and moved to create more room for the living. The remains of some 18,000 people at the only cemetery open for burial are being exhumed.

The remains are cremated, placed in cremation urns, and placed in niches in a vault or columbarium. In 2006 another 18,000 remains will be exhumed and cremated.

The law in Singapore limits the burial period for the deceased to fifteen years; the result of an environmental program that authorities say will keep the cemetery open for at least sixty more years.

In Korea Cremation as an alternative to direct burial has increased to almost fifty percent. According to the JoongAng Daily an old law in Korea regarding funerals was changed in 2001, establishing a 60 year limit for burial, after which the remains are to be exhumed and cremated. Many remains are now being scattered, and usage of cremation urns is increasing.

Since that time, due to the scarcity of land, and the high costs of burial in Korea, cremation has increased to 47 percent in 2004. Burials average 7000 USD in Korea, while cremation is about a third of that.

With 60 percent of the deaths in Seoul being cremated, there is a scarcity of crematoriums to perform cremations. This has literally resulted in crematoriums turning people away, and it is not unusual to see lines of family members waiting before daylight for the crematorium to open.

When a location for a new crematorium is found in Seoul, the local residents protest, saying pollution and a drop in property values will result-the “NIMBY” statement. There are cases now being taken to the Korean Supreme Court by angered residents.

Cremation In Tibet “Sky Burial”, the traditional burial in Tibet, has been done for several thousand years. According to the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, 80 per cent of Tibetans have traditionally chosen this method of burial but cremation is slowly becoming more accepted.

Sky burial is one of the three principal ways through which the Tibetans traditionally return their dead to the earth. The two others are cremation and water burial.

Though the central government built a modern crematory in Tibet on Oct 17, 2000, very few Tibetans choose cremation. The first Tibetan cremation was carried out on Jan 2, 2001.

Cremation is not currently popular among Tibetans due to thousands of years of tradition. Wood is so scarce in the mountainous areas of Tibet that in the past burning a corpse was reserved for people of stature.

Sky Burial involves an ancient ritual done by special Tibetans, called sky burial operators. There are about 1100 sky burial sites and about 100 of the special sky burial operators. Traditionally, the deceased are specially dissected and left at the sky burial site for vultures, which are worshiped by the locals as sacred.

Sky burial is closely related with Buddhism worshipped in the Himalayan region. Buddhists believe life recycles and advocate kindness and charity. The spirit of the dead is believed to leave the body the moment he dies and the dead should be fed to hungry vultures as a last token of charity.

The largest sky burial site at Drigung Til Monastery receives about 10 bodies on an average every day. The rituals carried out at the 900-year-old monastery are regarded auspicious. The 65-year-old Celha Qoisang formally chief sky burial operator at Drigung Til Monastery stated:” I used to get totally exhausted every day, but I am willing to live like this because sky burial is an important part in Tibetan life”.

He learned the techniques from his uncle and was engaged in the profession for about 10 years. He usually dealt with one to 20 bodies a day. "I could only rest for one day every month, the 19th day each month in the Tibetan calendar. And I usually spent the day reading sutras and praying for the dead.”

According to a Tibetan Buddhist sutra, the divine in heaven get together on the 19th day every month and the mundane are not allowed to kill or let the divine smell blood.

The unique rituals are accepted by the central and regional governments. The regional government bans uninvited outsiders from participating in the rituals and photography is forbidden. These measures are for showing traditional respect to the rituals and the dead.

”Tibetans may choose cremation, but sky burial is still widespread in Tibet”, said Cedain Lhunzhub, head of the Xishan Crematory in Tibet. A young Tibetan in his 20s, stated: "In fact, burials are not that important after human beings' death, and we Tibetans prefer sky burial because it contains Tibetans' compassion and belief. I would certainly choose sky burial after my death, though I am not a Buddhist believer,"

Although cremation is slowly making inroads, the Tibetans still carry on ancient rituals like sky burials, displaying a timeless adherence to the old ways of life and death, unaffected by the changes that are rapidly affecting the rest of China. It is unknown how the Chinese view cremation among the Tibetans.

We may not be ready in Western culture to do some of the environmentally friendly things mentioned above as an alternative to burial and cremation, but some people in Sweden have come up with a high-tech alternative.

An Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Cremation-A New Swedish Cryogenic Technique

Promessa Organic AB, a Swedish company, located in Jonkoping, a town of 120,000, lies in a religious area of protestant Sweden.

Promessa has developed a technique they call “Promession”. Promessa expects their ecological process will be used to largely replace cremation in Sweden and many parts of Europe. The technique was conceived by a Swedish biologist, Susanne Wiigh-Masak.

“Nature's original plan was that we fall down somewhere in a field and become soil.”

"Since then we have made it really complicated." Susanne Wiigh-Maesak

Simply, Promession is a cryogenic technique where the deceased is not embalmed but is flash frozen to minus 64 Fahrenheit by conventional refrigeration, and then super cooled to minus 385 Fahrenheit by dipping in liquid nitrogen. This is very similar to “freeze drying”, used in many commercial applications.

The frozen, brittle remains are then lightly vibrated at a closely controlled frequency and amplitude, transforming them into an odorless, hygienic organic powder, which is then introduced into a vacuum chamber where the water; of which seventy percent of the human body is composed, is evaporated away.

The dry powder is then processed to remove any metal parts or residue (including mercury, more below), and it can be sterilized and disinfected.

The Promessa plan reduces human remains to about 40-70 pounds of an organic powder. It should be noted that conventional cremation reduces the remains to a fine ash, weighting much less.

Promessa’s plan includes placing the powder in a starch coffin, which is buried in a very shallow grave. The starch coffin degrades in six to twelve months allowing the powdered remains to be absorbed by the soil. A tree, plant or shrub may be planted on the grave, their roots absorbing the nutrients from the remains.

Promessa claims their environmental process does not cause any impact on the environment, and should eliminate restrictions.

This should make it possible to locate gravesites freely in places where it is not currently legal or practicable to do so; on ones property, or family property, or other places with emotional ties to the deceased and family. It will also make it possible for family and friends to visit gravesites at their convenience.

Churches in Sweden have backed the plan, describing the issues as ethically similar to those addressed when approving cremation about 100 years.

The ashes remaining from conventional cremation are often scattered by families per the deceased’s wishes. Scattering of cremation ashes from human remains are often bound by state and local regulations.

Many European countries consider mercury as a highly toxic heavy metal that has been linked to damage to the brain and nervous system, and are actively legislating to eliminate mercury and other heavy metal emissions into the atmosphere.

The previously mentioned city in southern Sweden, Jonkiping, will convert its crematorium into a “promatorium” next year. The city’s decision to do this was driven by new strict environmental laws, restricting or eliminating mercury and other toxic emissions resulting from the cremation of dental amalgam fillings.

The alternative was to add an expensive gas scrubbing system and furnace at its fifty year old cremation facility.

In England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has advised all cremation authorities and companies in the UK they have until the end of 2005 to consider their options for a fifty percent reduction in the emissions of mercury by 2012.

It is estimated that crematoriums release up to sixteen percent of the UK's total mercury emissions. As cremations account for about 70 per cent of the 650,000 funerals in Britain every year, the negative environmental effect of mercury emissions from cremations has become a cause for concern.

Officials in some of the local community’s (councils) environmental health departments have stated: "More and more people are dying with their own teeth, and mercury emissions released in cremations are set to increase by sixty five per cent by 2020 unless action is taken.”

Several Councils are looking to install special equipment in their local crematoriums to absorb the mercury emissions resulting from the cremating of mercury amalgam dental fillings.

One council has established a task group to investigate the long-term benefits of Promession with a view to phasing out cremations as early as 2007.

Other countries, including New Zealand are carefully studying the Promessa’s process as an alternative to cremation.

NASA Is Considering Promessa’s suggested cryogenic method to be able to return the remains of deceased astronauts on board their interstellar spacecraft. Danish engineers commissioned by NASA for project “Body Back” have studied various methods for handling deceased astronauts in space. In their report to NASA they suggest Promession as the best method available to return Astronauts remains from extended space travel.


The author, DA Roth builds and markets unique hand crafted hardwood cremation urns for human and pet remains. He is interested in sharing knowledge about cremation and cremation urns with others. Please see:


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