Cremation: Answers to the Top 32 Most Commonly Asked Questions

Cremation: Answers to the Top 32 Most Commonly Asked Questions
19 minute read

Andy Walker

What is cremation?

Cremation is a funerary process in which all carbon content is removed from the body by exposing it to extremely high temperatures inside a furnace designed for such purposes. The extreme heat reduces any organic matter in the body, leaving behind only bone fragments from the human skeleton. This remaining material is called “cremated remains”. They are sometimes called “ashes”. The remains are reduced mechanically to fine particles that look like sand or coarse dust. They are packaged and are deposited into an urn, which is a container that contains cremated remains.

Types of cremation:

Generally speaking, there are two types of cremation - direct or flame cremation and liquid cremation. Details are below.

What is direct cremation?

Direct cremation is typically a cheaper process because it eliminates more expensive services such as visitation, viewing, wake, and casket purchase. The remains are sent directly to a cremation centre and ashes picked up or sent to the families. After this process, friends and family can choose to hold any funerary or burial services and ceremonies.

What is aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or “liquid cremation”?

Aquamation, sometimes referred to by some as “liquid cremation”, uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis instead of flames to cremate remains. The body is treated with a combination of water, alkali (potassium hydroxide), heat, and pressure, which produces a reaction that speeds up the decomposition of the body.

The entire process typically takes between three and sixteen hours to complete. When finished, it leaves behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid. This process leaves behind about 30 percent more remains than flame cremation, so a larger urn or container may be needed.

One thing to keep in mind about this process is that it is not yet legal in all provinces in Canada. Saskatchewan was the first province to approve of the process in 2012, and since that time, it has been legalized in Quebec and Ontario.

Aquamation is also often viewed as a sustainable alternative. The process has no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gases or mercury, no burning of fossil fuels, and uses less energy than flame-based cremation.

Traditional flame cremation requires the chamber to reach temperatures of 760 to 980 degrees celsius, so a large amount of energy is required to reach such high temperatures. Additionally, flame cremation emits toxic chemicals that increase its carbon footprint such as carbon monoxide, embalming chemicals (e.g. formaldehyde), and mercury from dental fillings and body implants.

Aquamation, however, does not need to reach as high of temperatures; around 160 degrees Celsius is needed for the process. Medical devices such as pacemakers, do not need to be removed beforehand with this method.

The liquid produced during the process can be disposed of through the sewer or wastewater treatment system. Therefore, this process uses less energy, produces minimal waste, and does not release toxic chemicals all while being at a similar price point to flame cremation.

Why do people choose cremation?

Cremation is a personal preference for many different reasons, including environmental concerns, religious beliefs, and simplicity. With a more mobile society where family members often live distantly from each other, in a different city, province or country, cremation allows the ashes to be divided among family members in keepsake urns and jewelry so their loved ones can be with them wherever they are located.

Another benefit is the increased flexibility it provides when you make funeral and cemetery arrangements are made. A person might, for example, choose a funeral service before the cremation or a committal service after cremation on a special date or later in spring or summer when the weather may be more suitable for family and friends to gather. A memorial reception can also be held in a funeral centre or, with approval, a place of special interest to you or your loved ones.

Cost is another reason some may choose cremation. Typically cremation is one-third the cost of a ground or mausoleum burial. However, the cost differs based on additional services. Someone may choose to hold a funerary service or visitation, which would cost the same regardless of remains preparation. The urn may also be buried, put in a grave, added to a niche, and more. Although the base cost is lower, the funerary and memorialization processes can add up.

Which religions allow cremation?

Many religions allow for cremation. Canon Law now permits cremation for Roman Catholics. Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, prefer cremation.

Faith-related questions about cremation should be directed to a clergy or faith leader of a specific religion to determine how cremation is viewed by a specific faith.

What faiths forbid cremation?

Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish Orthodox faiths forbid cremation.

What happens in the cremation process?

The direct cremation process consists of several stages that can take up to three hours depending on the size and weight of the deceased and the type of casket or container. The casket or container is placed in the cremation chamber that is inside a furnace designed to cremate human remains. There it is subjected to intense heat.

All of the body is consumed by the extreme heat in the chamber, except for bone and any non-combustible materials, such as any metals from medical appliances from prior surgeries. The cremated remains are removed from the cremation chamber. After a cooling period, any remaining metal or orthopedic implants are separated from the cremated remains and then they are recycled. Any remaining bone fragments are processed into fine particles by a mechanical process and placed in a temporary container provided or into an urn purchased by the family.

How are the cremated remains packaged?

Cremated remains are placed in a bag and placed in a temporary cardboard container provided by the crematory staff. They can also be placed into an urn or container that is selected or provided by the family. If the urn or container supplied by the family is not large enough to hold all of the cremated remains, then an additional cardboard container is provided for that purpose.

What are the urn options?

There are a variety of options for urns. They range in style, size, material, and price. Some commonly chosen urn materials include metal, ceramic, glass, wood, and biodegradable materials. Ceramic is one of the most widely used since it comes in many colours and designs and can be easily cleaned. However, ceramic and glass options are delicate. It is essential to leave it in a place where it is not likely to fall. Metal and wood are also commonly used materials that are less delicate than ceramic and glass options.

An option that has gained more popularity over the years is urns made of biodegradable material. These are made out of paper, clay, plant material, bark, wood, sand, and other material that will naturally decompose over time. This is a good option for people planning to bury the ashes or commit them to the sea or a river.

Some commonly chosen urn types include keepsake, companion, picture, infant, theme, and art. A common choice is a keepsake urn. These are smaller in size and used as a way to share remains with members of the family. The remains can be divided into separate urns or by other means such as keepsake jewelry pieces so they can be shared among family. Regardless of the type of urn selected, most options are customizable. Pictures, themes, and art can be displayed or added to honour the deceased.

The choice for urn type and material is a personal choice. However, it is advised that the urn choice be discussed with staff at the crematory. This ensures that the remains can fit into the urn. Ashes typically weigh between two and four kilograms (4.5 and 8.8 lbs), but this may vary depending on the body being cremated. Additionally, if the urn is to be placed in a niche, it is important to make sure it will fit.

Where are the remains kept?

Once cremation has been chosen, the family must decide what to do with the ashes. As mentioned above, one location for an urn can be a niche. A niche is a permanent, above-ground location for the urn. It is typically located in a mausoleum or chapel in a cemetery. It can stand on its own or in an arrangement of niches, called a columbarium.

Types of niches include single niches with one urn; double niches with two urns, and family niches with space for four or more urns. Niches typically have space for an inscription. There are also glass-fronted niches that allow for the urns to be displayed visibly alongside small pictures or tokens related to the deceased.

A benefit of choosing to keep remains in a niche or burying at a cemetery is that it provides a well-maintained and permanent space for future generations to visit their loved ones.

Other common options for urns include burial in a grave or lot, scattered in a location of choice, turned into a diamond or other form of jewelry, incorporated into hand-blown glass, buried at sea, buried alongside a loved one in a casket, launched into space and more. If loved ones are unsure of what they would like to do with the ashes, the ashes can be put in an urn and taken home.

In addition to these options, family and friends of the deceased may choose to memorialize their loved ones further. There are many options to do this, both temporary and permanent. For example, after the cremation, friends and family might choose to hold a celebration of life event, where people can gather to honour the deceased. Family may also choose to memorialize their deceased loved one in a permanent way. Sometimes a monument, bench, plaque, or similar is a good choice. Like a niche, this provides a permanent space for future generations to visit and honour the deceased.

In a similar vein, cremation does not limit the options for funerary services. Family and friends of the deceased can choose to hold visitation and funeral services before cremation, after the cremation, before burial, while scattering ashes, and so on.

Family and friends of the deceased may even opt to witness the cremation as part of memorialization or as part of a religious ritual if allowed at the cremation centre. This is something that can be arranged in advance.

Where can remains be scattered?

If remains will be scattered, it is important to adhere to local laws and regulations. Remains can be scattered on private property as long as there is permission from the landowner. On Crown land, including land covered by water, scattering remains is permitted if the space is unoccupied.

For municipality-owned land, contact the local or regional municipality to check for restrictions. Something important to keep in mind is that the space chosen to scatter the ashes may not remain in the same condition over time. The land can be sold, developed, become restricted, etc. For this reason, some may choose to scatter in a cemetery since these are generally well maintained and preserved for years.

What documents are needed to proceed with the cremation process?

For cremation to occur in Ontario, a Coroner’s Cremation Certificate is issued by an authorized coroner on behalf of the Office of the Chief Coroner.

A coroner must review the circumstances surrounding the death. This is documented on the certificate and kept on file at the crematorium.

This certificate grants permission for a service such as Eirene and the crematorium to proceed with cremation. It contains basic vital stats.

The second document needed is an application filled out and signed by the purchaser/next of kin for that crematorium specifically.

The third piece of documentation needed for cremation is a Burial Permit, which is issued by the province when the death is registered within a municipality. In Ontario, it is in turn sent to Thunder Bay to register at the provincial level. Original documents need to be submitted, however in some cases, electronic registrations can be initially issued, but originals must be submitted to the registrar within a time frame.

Funeral directors typically assist or oversee the process of getting this permit. If the family is not using a funerary service provider, it can be obtained in the Ontario municipality where the family registered the death.

Additional information and documentation needed to apply for the certificate includes scanned copies of Form 15 (Statement of Death) and one of the following:

  • Medical Certificate of Death (Form 16);
  • Medical Certificate of Stillbirth (Form 8);
  • Warrant to Bury the Body of a Deceased Person;
  • Non-Ontario Death Certificate

Other information required is the name and date of birth of the deceased, scanned electronic copies of the documents mentioned above, a clear indication that you are applying for a Cremation Certificate, phone number/contact information, and mailing address of the person applying.

The documentation must be sent to occ.inquiries@ontario.ca.

Once approved, the certificate is emailed to the registrant. It must be printed and given to the crematorium for the process to take place.

This application process and cremation authorization must be executed by those with legal authority over the body of the deceased. This includes an executor(s), court-appointed administrator or next of kin.

The decision to be cremated can be included in the will or told to the next of kin ahead of time. However, the deceased individual can not pre-authorize the cremation. The executor, or next of kin, makes the final decision and they must complete this application process.

The cost of the certificate is $75 payable to the coroner directly. This process can begin after at least 48 hours have passed from the time of death, as set out in the cremation application process.

More information on this application process can be found here, for Ontario.

Is a casket required?

Crematoriums require a “casket or rigid container” to cremate. Aquamation has no casket/rigid container requirements.

In a flame cremation, the entire casket is combusted during the cremation process. According to Ontario law, a closed casket made of wood or other combustible material is required for proper handling of the remains. Under no circumstances will staff handle the body directly.

The type of container used is decided by the loved ones of the deceased, although there are some restrictions. For example, metal caskets or caskets made out of non-flammable or hazardous material are not permitted. These types of material include white metal, mattresses, metal box springs, glass objects, chlorinated plastic, or fibre-reinforced plastic. Additionally, metal handles or fittings on the casket will be removed.

As long as these requirements are followed, the options are relatively endless. Some things to consider would be if a funerary service is taking place before or after cremation. If it is beforehand, some may opt for fancier or more ornate caskets. The family may also opt to embalm the body if a viewing of the body is planned or if the body is being transported to another location and the transportation time is extended.

If the services occur after the cremation, some may opt for more simple caskets as it will not be seen by family and friends. In some places, caskets with a removable lining can be rented for funerary services. After the rental period, the inner lining is removed and the body is sent to the cremation centre.

Before cremation, medical implants such as pacemakers must be removed before the body is transported to the crematorium. These devices may explode when exposed to high heat, which can pose a risk to staff and equipment.

This also applies to personal items. Items may be kept in the casket, as long as it is combustible and does not pose a health or safety risk during cremation. It is important to note that any items, such as jewelry, in the casket cannot be recovered after the cremation process. The extreme temperatures involved in the process will destroy these items, so if the family would like to keep the items, they must be taken out of the casket before transportation.

Can I transport cremated remains?

Yes, the transportation of cremated remains is permitted in Canada. If this is done by aircraft, there are some regulations set out by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. Remains are allowed to be brought on the plane with a passenger, but they must pass through an X-ray and pass security screening first.

TSA likes documentation to accompany the remains, usually a certificate of cremation, a letter of contents, both from a crematorium, and a proof of death certificate. Sometimes an actual medical certificate of death is necessary. It depends on the country.

It is advisable to contact the embassy of your destination country if crossing a border with remains. This ensures they don’t have specific requirements when repatriating remains via carry-on on an airplane

During the security screening, however, screening officers are not permitted to open the container and will not inspect contents if opened by the individual to which the urn belongs. If it has been X-rayed and the contents can not be determined, it cannot be placed in checked baggage. Additionally, some airlines do not allow cremated remains in checked baggage regardless, so it is important to check with the airline beforehand. It is also advised to have the death and cremation certificates on hand during travel and available for inspection by officials.

Due to the variety in shape and material, some cremation containers are more likely to pass a security screening. These include urns made out of plastic, cardboard, cloth, and wood. Containers made out of metal, stone, and ceramic are less likely to be permitted. Some may opt to use temporary containers for travel and transfer remains back into the preferred vessel afterward.

If the container does not pass screening, the container can be left with someone who is not traveling or who remains at the airpot. A flight can be changed to a later period to allow for time to make other arrangements. Tthe container can be shipped via mail, as an option.

More information about this can be found here.

Cremated human and animal remains can also be shipped via mail. According to Canada Post, remains must be shipped using a trackable parcel service. The destination and return address must be correct and complete, and the ashes must be housed inside two containers.

The inner container (e.g., urn) must be sealed and placed inside an outer container that is durable and sift-proof so that no ashes spill out of the package during transit. The parcel must also include a certificate of cremation enclosed in a plastic envelope and attached to the top of the parcel.

For more information on Canada Post’s shipping requirements, head to their website.

What is flame cremation?

Flame cremation is a term used to reference the act of using combustion to reduce a human body to ashes. The adoption of “flame” in the term is a clarification as a new end of life funerary practice called alkaline hydrolysis -- or more colloquially “aquamation” -- has entered common use in recent years. The practice uses chemicals and water to cremate the remains instead of open flame and so it is sometimes referred to as “liquid cremation”.

Flame cremation process consists of several stages that can take up to three hours, depending on the size and weight of the body and the type of casket or container used.

First, the casket or container is placed in the cremation chamber or retort, which is a furnace designed to cremate human remains. A temperature from 760 to 980 Celsius (1400 to 1796 F) is required in the cremation chamber to complete the flame cremation process.

The body is consumed by the extreme heat in the chamber, except for bone and any non-combustible materials. These include materials such as any metals from medical appliances from prior surgeries. The cremated remains are removed from the chamber. After a cooling period, any remaining metal or orthopedic implants are separated from the cremated remains, and are recycled. Any remaining bone fragments are mechanically processed into fine particles or dust and placed in a temporary container or cremation urn provided by the family.

How much does cremation cost?

The cremation cost depends on several factors, including the type of cremation and what is included in the cremation package provided by the funeral provider. However, the cost typically ranges anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. By contrast, burials and internment typically range from $4,000 to $12,000. Learn more about cremation cost here or read on.

The cost is variable and depends on if flame cremation or aquamation. The cost of aquamation is slightly more expensive than flame cremation, but the prices are not drastically different. The price for aquamation typically ranges from $2000 to $3000. Flame cremation can range from $800 to over $3000. At Eirene, it is $2500 as part of an all inclusive package. Eirene is a direct cremation provider and so the remains are cremated within a few days of death.

The higher cremation fees are attached to funeral home packages which can include costs such as ceremonies, visitation, casket purchase or rental, and more. This typically makes direct cremation the cheaper option as many of these services are eliminated. The price can be further reduced by personally handling other aspects such as government paperwork, newspaper notices, body preparation, ceremony costs, etc., in a process called family led deathcare.

Can a funeral service be held before cremation?

Yes, it is possible to have a service, viewing, or visitation before cremation. However, there are some things to consider.

In Ontario, embalming is not a requirement for final arrangements. Still, depending on the length of time between the date of death and the date of visitation, if requested, funeral professionals may advise it. The final decision is up to the family; funeral providers can help guide whether to move forward with embalming or not. Embalming can be replaced by refrigeration of a body, at least for a few days.

Can items be placed in a casket during cremation?

Yes, however check with the funeral provider. Most providers will allow items to be put in the casket during cremation if it does not pose a health or safety risk when the items are incinerated and provided they do not contain environmentally toxic material. These items will not be recoverable after cremation. Any residue from these items will co-mingle with the ashes when they are returned.

With items like jewelry, it is advised to remove them before cremation and to put them in an urn with the ashes afterward, if you so choose.

Are there regulations to where cremated remains can be kept?

Some rules, regulations or by-laws must be followed when urns are being buried or kept in a niche or columbarium. For example, the urn must fit within the dimensions of the niche. Again, this is something that families and providers should confirm with a cemetery beforehand.

If you keep the ashes, there are no legal requirements on the type of urn and no rules regarding where they are kept in a home.

If an urn is not provided to a crematorium beforehand, the remains will usually be placed in a temporary container that is acceptable for burial or transport to the family. Transfer of ashes into an urn after the fact can be handled by the funeral director at your funeral provider if you are not comfortable making the transfer yourself.

Can I witness the cremation?

Witnessing a cremation is allowed in many areas, but it is up to the discretion of a funeral home, service provider, or crematorium. In Ontario, witnessing cremation is permitted; however, there may be certain occupancy limits to allow for physical distancing requirements set out by public health units.

Some crematoriums have small, designated areas where members of a family can gather to witness the cremation and hold a small ceremony or celebration of life beforehand. They can watch as a casket is placed in the cremation chamber and witness the start of the cremation process. The cremation practice itself must be conducted by licensed professionals.

The choice to witness a cremation is largely personal. Families request it for a variety of reasons, including religious customs, for closure, cultural traditions, educational purposes, and more.

Do you need to purchase an urn or casket from the funeral provider?

No, purchasing an urn from a funeral provider is not required. However, there are some considerations you will want to think about. One of the most important choices you will want to make is the urn’s dimensions. An urn must be large enough to contain the cremated remains. It will also need to be a size that fits within the dimensions of a burial plot, niche, or columbarium, if that will be the final resting place for your loved one’s ashes.

Additionally, during the cremation process, the body must be contained within a casket or rigid container. Therefore, if you purchase a casket from a third party, you must ensure it is made from material that is safe for the cremation process and fits the cremation chamber's dimensions.

It is also important to note that Ontario does not have legislation that requires funeral homes to accept third-party products such as caskets. However, if the provider allows it, it cannot charge the consumer extra if it is safe and appropriate for the intended use and meets the requirements of the cemetery or crematorium.

Is the cremation process safe?

Cremation in one form or another has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Throughout that time, humans have refined the process to make it safe and effective. Most of the cremation process occurs in the crematory retort (furnace), and is conducted by trained operators. Safety features are put in place to help protect crematory staff. For example, the body is enclosed in a casket or combustible container to allow for it to be quickly and safely placed into the cremator.

In terms of environmental practices, cremation is often viewed as the more sustainable option.  However, cremation, particularly flame cremation, still has an environmental impact. Flame cremation emits greenhouse gases and burns fossil fuels in the cremator. In contrast, aquamation does not emit harmful greenhouse gases or burn fossil fuels, and the liquid by-product is sterile and does not contain compounds that would cause significant harm to humans or animals.

How long must you wait after death before cremation?

There is no set time frame for how long you must wait after death to cremate a body; however, cremation cannot occur until the appropriate paperwork is completed. In Ontario, this includes registering the death and obtaining a burial permit, which is required before a cremation can take place. Due to this, it often takes an average of 24 to 72 hours before cremation can be conducted.

What fuel is used to produce heat in a cremation chamber?

The furnace that conducts the flame cremation process is usually fueled by natural gas such as LPG (propane or butane). A propane flame burns at a temperature of approximately 1,980 C (3596 F). For butane, the temperature is 1970 C (3578 F).

Is it necessary to use the services of a funeral provider to cremate a loved one’s body?

Families of the deceased can handle many tasks, including body preparation, paperwork, transportation, and funeral arrangements (learn more about this here). However, the cremation process and final disposition in a cemetery must be handled by licensed funeral providers in Ontario.

When should you start planning for a cremation?

Like many aspects of a funeral, it is best to plan for cremation long before it happens. There is a lot of complexity in the planning process, so it is best to understand the responsibilities and make necessary arrangements with crematoriums, cemeteries, and funeral providers before death. Planning ahead of time also ensures you have the money put aside to afford a funeral. Funeral providers can be great resources to help guide you through the process if the death is sudden.  Most funeral providers have programs that guide and pay for a funeral. This is often called “pre-need” or funeral planning. For more information, see Eirene’s funeral planning page.

Can you donate your organs before cremation?

Yes, viable organs can be donated before cremation. However, it is essential to report the death as soon as possible. Depending on the organ, the donation window is as little as four hours and up to 72 hours after death. Therefore, reporting the death quickly helps ensure the viability of organs and tissues if they are being used to save someone’s life. Learn more about organ donation here.

Who should be contacted when a death occurs?

If the death is expected, families can call the doctor who was caring for the deceased. If the death is unexpected, emergency services should be called first. If there are no available doctors or emergency services in the area, the death should be reported to the local coroner's office. If you are unsure about the circumstances or who you should call, be sure to contact the local coroner's office. In the province of Ontario this is the Chief Coroner's Office.

If cremated, can you be buried with a spouse even if they were not cremated?

This depends on the regulations at the cemetery and any local municipal by-laws. It will also depend on if an urn can be placed in a casket before burial, if the cremated partner passed first. or internment, if cremated remains are allowed to be buried or interred at the head of the grave where the spouse is buried. It is best to contact the cemetery to discuss any rules and determine if this will be possible.

Is there financial help for funerals and cremation?

Yes, in most provinces and countries, families can apply for financial assistance to help cover some or all of the funeral costs. Some of these programs in Canada include:

  • Ontario Works
  • Canadian Pension Plan Death Benefit
  • WSIB Survivors' Benefits
  • Worker Funeral Benefits
  • Last Post Fund for Veterans
  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
  • Memorial Grant Program for First Responders

More information on these programs can be found in this article.

Outside of government assistance, families can also turn to insurance benefits, local charities, local churches, and more. If you are unsure, funeral providers will often be a good resource to turn to for help.

Can more than one person be cremated at the same time?

No, crematoriums prohibit the cremation of more than one person at a time in each cremation chamber. Cremation equipment is not designed to cremate more than one body at a time.