Cremation: Answers to the Top 15 Most Commonly Asked Questions

Cremation: Answers to the Top 15 Most Commonly Asked Questions
12 minute read

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.