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Cremation Insights & Options


by John F. Llewellyn

Practiced in Asia for thousands of years, cremation was seldom used in the United States until the twentieth century. Its popularity, however, has grown in recent years, particularly on the West Coast. Although the popular media often makes it seem as though there has been a rapid shift to cremation, in reality in most areas it has been only a slow but steady change in acceptance. Today, cremation is an option available through nearly every mortuary.

Often when people talk about "cremation" they are using the word as shorthand for practical, no-frills, no-service disposition. In coastal areas, including Southern California , "cremation" is often understood to mean cremation" disposition, there is no requirement that this be the case. Indeed, some families who choose cremation spend more than they might on a traditional Ceremony and burial. Families choose cremation for many reasons, and many choose it specifically because they feel cremation gives them more options and more control.

Families who decide to cremate often hold a Ceremony and have a family memorial in a cemetery. Cremated remains may be memorialized in many ways-ground burial (either in a full-sized space or a smaller cremation space), indoor or outdoor columbarium, mausoleum crypts, or other private memorials. Some families take home the urn containing the cremated remains, while other families choose to have the cremated remains scattered. Scattering should be considered carefully, because it's a once-and-for-all, cannot-be-undone decision. Once cremated remains are scattered, their retrieval is impossible. Cremation can take place before or after a Ceremony. When the cremation follows the Ceremony, the deceased is often present at the Ceremony and a casket is used. When cremation precedes the Ceremony and the family wants to have the cremated remains present, an urn containing the remains is at the Ceremony. In many cases, those who choose to memorialize their loved one at a service may require a casket in addition to the urn. While the actual cremation itself is an added expense, the total cost may be somewhat less because the price of the smaller cemetery space or niche may be less than that of a burial space or mausoleum crypt that is large enough for a full-sized casket.

A 1995 study by The Wirthlin Group-and a 1999 update of that study-showed that Americans were increasingly likely to choose cremation. The interesting thing was that people were more likely to accept cremation for themselves than for someone they love. Often what they said in effect was, "It doesn't matter what happens to me; I'll be dead." However, they did not have such a cavalier attitude about someone they love.

A Process, Not An End

Many people say "I want cremation" thinking that is the only decision they will have to make. That isn't so. Cremation is only a process. The process of cremation, described later, changes a full sized body into a smaller quantity of cremated remains. Although the body is in a different form, you must still make a decision about what to do with the cremated remains-scatter them somewhere, bury them in a cemetery, or take them home.

Some people think of cremation as a practical or pragmatic disposition-no fuss, no muss, no hassles, and no decisions; just get it over with. In reality, this isn't quite true. Actually, people choosing cremation have even more options than are available to people who choose traditional Ceremonies and burial. Deciding upon cremation doesn't decrease the number of decisions that must be made; having a cremation may actually increase the number of decisions to be made.

Cremation With A Ceremony

Choosing cremation doesn't mean that there will not be a Ceremony. With cremation, there can be a traditional Ceremony with the deceased present, a Ceremony with an urn containing the cremated remains present, or a memorial service. Cremation does not take away the opportunity for a meaningful Ceremony that helps family and friends share the experience of loss and celebrate the life of someone they knew and loved.

The 1999 update of the Wirthlin study found that better than 80 percent of people who said they would choose cremation also wanted some form of Ceremony. All of the reasons for having some sort of Ceremony are just as valid with a cremation as when there is not a cremation. A Ceremony that allows you to say goodbye your way is entirely possible and appropriate with a cremation.

More Options

As mentioned earlier, families choosing cremation actually have more options than families choosing traditional burial. Cremated remains can be buried, placed in an above ground crypt or columbarium niche, scattered, or taken home. A variety of containers can hold cremated remains-from simple sheet metal or plastic boxes to urns made of bronze, marble, or other materials. Some manufacturers now offer pieces of sculpture that are also urns. Here are a few options available to those choosing cremation that are not available otherwise:

  • Take the cremated remains home in a suitable urn.
  • Split or divide the cremated remains into multiple urns or "keepsakes," so all members of the family can feel close to the deceased
  • Scattering (even in more than one place)
  • Shoot a portion of the remains into space
  • Make a portion of the cremated remains into jewelry

Urns And Keepsakes

A wide variety of materials are used to make urns. Many think of urns as being vase-like containers of bronze. However, now there are many more choices of styles and materials. Some urns are sculptures that have a space in the base for cremated remains, others are hand crafted wood boxes, and still others are made of fine ceramics.

In addition to the wide variety of urns, keepsakes of various sorts are widely available. Keepsakes can be pieces of jewelry or small statues that have space for a small portion of the cremated remains. Sometimes family members do not all share the same opinion about whether or not it's "proper" to split or divide the cremated remains of someone they love. I personally am not comfortable with splitting cremated remains-it may be irrational, but I'd like all of my parts (other than organ donations) to end up together. Nevertheless, I respect the right of any family to make a choice, provided all of the proper family members authorize splitting the cremated remains.


Scattering needs to be considered carefully for several reasons. The concerns expressed here are not meant to discourage scattering, but to put it into some perspective.

First, scattering is irreversible. This is true wherever the cremated remains are scattered. If it's in the ocean or another body of water, it's obvious why the deed can't be undone. That doesn't make it a bad or wrong decision, just one that shouldn't be taken lightly. If in doubt, wait-it can be done later. At the time you've lost someone you love, you shouldn't be making hasty decisions about anything, scattering included.

Second, be careful where it's done. There are laws that differ from state to state about where it's legal to scatter. Generally, it's not legal to scatter cremated remains on private property without the owner's permission. This is true whether it's a cemetery or a residential backyard. Laws vary about permissibility of scattering on public property. In the United States , the law prohibits scattering on property owned by the federal government. States and local governments each have their own rules that should be checked before scattering is done.

For anyone wanting to do scattering at sea, the requirement is to go three miles offshore and within thirty days of scattering file a report with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If you are doing this yourself, check with local authorities to find out if your state or local government has additional requirements for permits or filings. Mortuaries, and individuals that scatter cremated remains at sea on their behalf, are required by many states to have government issued licenses and must comply with all government requirements. If you scatter without obtaining appropriate permits and making required filings, you could be charged with violations of the law.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, try to project how you will feel in the future about the irreversible scattering. Many grief counselors have worked with people who scattered their loved ones cremated remains and later came to have a sense of unease and regret about their decision. This regret isn't universal, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to underscore the irreversible nature of scattering and to encourage soul searching to avoid potential regret later.

I recently ran into Mary, a widow who had lost her husband last year. Paul was an avid golfer and had expressed a desire to be cremated and have his cremated remains scattered at six different golf courses. Mary told me she wanted to come to Forest Lawn to make arrangements for herself and to get "some sort of plaque" to remember Paul. Today, many families that choose scattering also choose to have a permanent memorial at a cemetery. Sometimes this decision is made at the time of the cremation, but it also can be made at a later date. A plaque or memorial to remember someone who isn't buried at that place is called a cenotaph.

So, do some soul searching before scattering. Not scattering doesn't mean that you have to buy cemetery property immediately. You can take the cremated remains home and give the decision some time. If, after a while, you are still comfortable with scattering, then go ahead. The important thing is to be cautious about actions that are irreversible, because you could change your mind. A previous section stressed the importance of talking about death and funeral arrangements. Well, that same concept applies here. Talk to family members about this. Ask them if they feel they need a place to visit that represents the person they have loved. Examine your feelings before you proceed.

Description Of Cremation Process

Although the following disclosure may, at first reading, seem insensitive or even unpleasant, it is factual. The romantic notion of cremation resulting in fluffy ashes that can be lifted to the sky by a gust of wind is entirely wrong. Cremated remains are not ashes, and they are not fluffy. To correct the popular misconception and avoid misunderstanding by consumers, California now requires the following statement on all cremation authorizations and includes the description in its "Consumer Guide to Funeral and Cemetery Purchases" which mortuaries and cemeteries are required to give all consumers. Not all states require statements similar to this one.

The human body burns with the casket, container or other material in the cremation chamber. During the cremation, the contents of the chamber may be moved to facilitate incineration. The chamber is composed of ceramic or other material which disintegrates slightly during each cremation and the product of that disintegration is commingled with the cremated remains. Nearly all of the contents of the cremation chamber, consisting of the cremated remains, disintegrated chamber material, and small amounts of residue from previous cremations, are removed together and crushed, pulverized, or ground to facilitate inurnment or scattering. Some residue remains in the cracks and uneven places in the chamber. Periodically, the accumulation of this residue is removed and interred in a dedicated cemetery property, or scattered at sea. Crematories also require removal of pacemakers before a cremation takes place because the devices often explode with the intense heat in a crematory retort.

The Right Cremated Remains?

Because of the nature of the process, you really are relying on the integrity of the crematory you are dealing with as far as making sure the cremated remains returned to you are those of the person you loved. If you have any doubt, ask the crematory if they will let you witness placement of the casket or container in the cremation chamber. If not, ask "Why?" For safety reasons-noise, hot equipment, and so on-few crematories will let you witness the entire process. But that shouldn't stop you from asking a crematory what their procedures are for ensuring the integrity of the cremation process and that each family receives the correct cremated remains.

As an example of procedures that can help maintain the integrity of identification, let me summarize some of what Forest Lawn does. As each deceased is brought to one of our mortuaries, he or she is assigned a unique identification number. This unique number is stamped on a thick steel disk that stays with the deceased at all times-regardless of what options are chosen: burial, cremation, or shipping to another cemetery. The material the disk is made from was chosen because even after going through the cremation process the unique identification number will remain legible. After cremation and processing of the cremated remains, the disk is placed in the urn with the cremated remains. We also have various logs and other documentation to ensure the integrity of the process. However, this is certainly not the only way to ensure correct identification of cremated remains. Some crematories will have similar procedures, while others will have developed different methods that they believe are appropriate.

Facilities that have well thought out plans and procedures will be more than willing to tell you about their operations and what safeguards they have in place. If they've put a lot of effort into establishing reliable means of handling cremations, they will want you to know how seriously they view their responsibility.


Over the years, there has been a lot of publicity about cremation scandals. While it's true that some terrible things have occurred, the majority of crematories are sound, ethical operators. Nonetheless, cremation buyers should know how to choose a crematory that they can rely on.

Many of the problems we've heard about have involved third party crematories -crematories that perform cremations for a number of independent mortuaries. Because cremation facilities are expensive, some mortuaries cannot justify the investment in a cremation facility of their own. So they will subcontract the actual cremations to another company. Ask the mortuary if the cremations it sells are performed by the mortuary's own employees in facilities it owns.

If the mortuary does use a third party crematory, ask for more information about it. How long have has it been in business? Where is the crematory located? Has the management of the mortuary visited the facility? When was the last visit or inspection made? What is the crematory like? Is the mortuary aware of any problems with it? Once you know the name of the facility, you also can contact your state,s crematory regulatory agency to find out if the crematory has a history of consumer complaints, has a valid license, or has been cited for violations of the law.

Regardless of ownership, not all crematories operate under the same philosophy. Broadly speaking, there are two extremes. At one end of the spectrum are the crematories that are primarily concerned with providing low cost, practical disposition. Their facilities will tend to be Spartan and often are located in industrial or other low cost areas.

At the other end are crematories that are most concerned with dignified, respectful handling of the deceased. They even may have facilities designed to allow families to witness the beginning of the cremation process. Of course, providing the respectful, reverent and careful handling of each deceased coupled with a crematory facility that is more upscale does cost more to operate, so their prices often may not be the lowest.

Neither of these operating philosophies is good or bad. The important point here is that there are different approaches to operating a crematory. Many years ago, Forest Lawn decided that it would not try to compete for cremations on price. It,s important to us to treat each deceased with the respect and reverence that each cremation deserves. Our culture is to remember that each deceased was a father, mother, child, or sibling who was loved and important to someone else. We,re fanatical about performing each cremation with care and providing respectful care for each deceased.

Shipping Cremated Remains

Although cremated remains are not hazardous, not all common carriers are willing to transport them. This is primarily due to a fear of litigation if they should happen to misplace or damage them rather than from sensibility about handling a box with cremated remains in it. At the time this was written, the most common means of shipping cremated remains within the United States was as certified mail through the United States Postal Service. United Parcel Service and FedEx would not allow sending cremated remains using their services.

The reason for using some form of certified mail or express mail by the Post Office is that letters and packages sent that way receive individualized tracking while regular parcel post does not. The assumption is that this special handling will result in fewer mistakes. When mistakes do occur, the package can be located and the mistake corrected.

You also may carry cremated remains with you on a common carrier-bus, plane, or train. However, you may need to have a permit for disposition or similarly titled document accompanying the cremated remains.


Excerpted from Saying Goodbye Your Way: Planning or Buying a Funeral for Yourself or Someone You Love by John F. Llewellyn. Copyright © 2004 by John F. Llewellyn. All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with Tropico Press. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.888.4741 or click here.


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