Cremation: Facts & Questions

PurpleFloerThere are many myths about cremation … Tuakau funeral director Mark Graham tells us what really happens!

Burial or cremation of human remains are the usual options when a loved one passes away. Of the two, it is cremation that seems to raise the most questions, controversy and myths. Cremation dates to at least 20,000 years ago in the archaeological record, with the ‘Mungo Lady’ (the remains of a partly cremated body found at Mungo Lake, Australia) the earliest example.

The first cremation in Britain took place at Woking in March, 1886. Formal legislation followed with the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902, which imposed procedural requirements before a cremation could take place, and restricted the practice to authorised places. In New Zealand, more than 60% of families now choose cremation after someone has died. This is still well below Japan, where cremation occurs after 99% of deaths, compared to Poland, with a cremation rate of under 10%.

How it works

During cremation, the casket containing the body is placed in the cremator furnace and incinerated at a temperature of 760 to 1150 degrees Celsius. The process usually takes 90 minutes to two hours, during which a large part of the body (especially the organs and other soft tissue) are vaporised and oxidised by the intense heat. Contrary to popular belief, what remains of the body (the cremated remains) are not ashes in the usual sense.

After the incineration is completed, the dry bone fragments are removed from the cremator and pulverised by a machine called a cremulator to process them into ashes, also known as cremated remains or cremains. A magnet is run over the ashes to remove any remaining metal, such as medical staples. This leaves the bone with a fine sand-like texture and colour, which can be buried or scattered. Ashes weigh about 1.8kg for adult human females and 2.7kg for males.

Practical planning

Funeral directors offer a range of caskets for cremation made from cardboard, ply, MDF (with or without veneer finishes), and timber. The choice is personal and may depend on preference or cost. After cremation, ashes may be buried in a cemetery plot or scattered in a memorial garden or on family property.

Many families choose to scatter the ashes in a meaningful place like the ocean, river, beach, the race track, or a golf course or sports stadium. In other cases, ashes are kept at home in an urn or other suitable receptacle. It is not uncommon for ashes to be divided amongst family members, or kept until a partner dies and then scattered together, or a portion buried in a cemetery plot for visiting purposes and the remainder scattered. Ashes can also be made into items of jewellery as a keepsake, usually a necklace or ring.

Display options

Most ashes are returned from the crematorium to the funeral home in a simple rectangular plastic container (slightly smaller than a shoebox). Or, your funeral director can offer a range of urns made from timber, ceramic, pewter, metal, or even eco-friendly material that will dissolve in the ground or if placed into water.

Suitable sendoffs

When planning to bury or scatter ashes, it’s important to seek permission where appropriate, and respect cultural values. Ashes shouldn’t be scattered in public locations such as gardens, as chemicals used during cremation can be poisonous to plants … and the discovery of human ashes can be upsetting for those maintaining the gardens. This became an issue some time ago when gardeners at Wellington’s Lady Norwood Rose Garden pleaded with the public to stop scattering cremains in the flower beds.

While there are few regulations about where ashes can be scattered, families should bear in mind that even public gardens might be sold or subdivided in the future. There has also been increased awareness of the potential problems of scattering ashes on public waterways since iwi raised concerns over the scattering of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ashes. Sir Ed said in his Will that he wanted his ashes spread “on the beautiful waters of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, to be washed gently ashore maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place where I was born”. This was done in February 2008, a month after Sir Ed died.

Mark Graham is an executive member of the Funeral Directors Association of NZ.

5 Cremation Facts … the nitty gritty, from FDANZ

What can go in the casket?

Families often place all sorts of things in the casket with loved ones: letters and photos, foot items and money, sports equipment like golf clubs, a tennis racquet, or fishing rods, and personal items like jewellery. You should not place batteries, aerosol cans, or glass bottles in a casket that will be cremated, as these could explode and damage the cremator. For this reason, if the body has a pacemaker, the funeral director is required to remove it and sign a declaration that this has been done.

What goes into the cremator?

An enduring myth is that the body is removed from the casket prior to cremation. This is not the case. The entire casket containing the body is placed in the cremator. Usually, the handles and even flowers on top are cremated the casket.

Whose ashes do you get back?

Another myth is that more than one casket will be cremated together and that the askes returned may not be “completely” those of your loved one. In fact, there is only room in the cremator for one casket, and the process is carried our according to strict guidelines to ensure the correct ashes are returned to the family.

What happens to gold fillings?

People often ask what happens to the god in teeth or fillings during cremation. These are vaporised during the process and not picked out of the ashes or kept for profit by the funeral director or crematorium.

What happens to metal medical parts?

If the body has titanium rods, pins or screws, these will not be reduced during the cremation process, and are removed before the remains are cremulated. Metal items are usually buried communally in a local cemetery, or can be returned to the family if requested.

© Family Care NZ

Photo:, Nikkytok