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What It is Like to Witness a Cremation

This article describes what to expect if you ever choose to witness the cremation of a loved one.

burning body in a crematory (crematory Meißen, Germany/Saxony) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cremation is quickly becoming a fashionable way to deal with the remains of a loved one. Most people choose to pay their last respects and then have the body shipped to the crematory to convert it to dust and ash. The next time that they view the remains will be inside an urn. Even at that point, there are plenty of folks who are not really interested in peering inside. Occasionally, some family members will contact the crematory and ask to be present during at least the initial stage of the cremation.

It is doubtful that very many people can tell you the location of the nearest crematory or readily recognize one if they were to pass it.

Crematories are nondescript buildings for the most part. Many of them are not located near mortuaries or cemeteries. Normally, they are in a more commercial or industrial setting and are not really designed for accommodating large groups of people. About the only telltale sign of a crematory is that it will often be a smaller building with a really large metal chimney coming out the roof.

Crematories sometimes offer more than just cremation service.

Some crematories may have a lightly decorated office or lobby that can double as a small chapel. Fees are usually charged if the family wants to use the room for a simple service. The crematory owner or operator may even have a list of local clergy if needed. Various types of urns may be available at the crematory or sold by the funeral director.

Most crematories have a rate schedule that is made available to the public or through local mortuaries.

It is likely that most people believe that cremations are one-size-fits-all. This is not true. Some options are available. Surprisingly, additional cremation costs will be incurred if your loved one weighs more than certain prescribed limits.

The cremation experience begins in the lobby of the crematory.

Family members and guests will be coached on the order of the process if they choose to view the cremation. The instructions are simple. The group who will be viewing the process will be escorted into the furnace room. At that point, their job is to stand away from the furnace and just watch. A viewing of the body can be arranged, often for an extra fee, if it is desired.

A cardboard box holds the body.

Frequently, the body is also wrapped in cloth inside the box. Since the box is closed, this information comes from the furnace operator. The box, which is the length of the body and just big enough to accommodate the remains, rests on a cart with one end of the box touching the area where the furnace opens.

The furnace is a large metal enclosure with buttons and gauges on the exterior.

By itself, the furnace is not too impressive just sitting there. In reality, the furnace in the modern crematory is technologically advanced. It has controls to monitor heat, restrict access to the fire chamber, and plenty of things to pay attention to during the cremation process. It can be easy to get interested enough in the gadgets to forget for a moment or two what is getting ready to happen.

Igniting the furnace is the first step.

Like many contemporary furnaces, the crematory furnace makes a lot of noise with fans and pumps to make it energy efficient. The operator will tell you that nothing will happen after ignition until the interior temperature of the furnace is above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and approaches 1,500 degrees. The door of the furnace will not open to allow the body to be slid inside until the minimum temperature threshold is reached.

Once the base temperature has been achieved, the button is depressed to open the main furnace door near where the body is located.

At this point, the operator will lift one end of the box and position on the rollers that help when sliding the body into the furnace. The box with the body inside is then pushed into the furnace far enough to allow the door to shut easily. With the body inside, the door is slides down and latches shut. The furnace then continues to heat up to the final cremation temperature between 1,800 and 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. While the family is not always asked to leave, most choose to do so at this point since the cremation takes quite a while, and the furnace has to cool before the remains can be safely removed.

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