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"Bones of Contention: Understanding Cremation and Its Historical Cousins"

Let's talk about a topic that's often whispered about but rarely discussed openly: cremation and what really happens to our remains. Today, we're addressing a common question that many people have but might be too shy to ask: "Will I find actual bones in cremated remains?" To answer this, we need to take a quick journey through history. (Below left is an Ossuary container. And below right is the Sedlec Ossuary (any space can be an ossuary): the 'Church of Bones' in Kutna Hora near Prague).

For centuries, Western civilizations have had various ways of handling human remains. From about the 7th to the 18th centuries, ossuaries were common in many parts of Europe. These were special containers or rooms where skeletal remains were stored, often after the body had decomposed elsewhere. Think of the famous Catacombs of Paris, established in the late 18th century, as a grand-scale example.

Now, fast forward to modern times. Cremation began to take hold in the United States in the 1960s and has been steadily growing in popularity ever since. In fact, the cremation rate in the U.S. is expected to reach about 80% by 2035, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That's a significant shift in how we're choosing to handle our earthly remains!

But cremation isn't just about fire anymore. Enter aquamation, also known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. This newer method uses water, heat, and alkaline chemicals to break down the body. Both traditional fire cremation and aquamation end up using a cremulator (see below).

Let's clarify what actually happens during these processes. In traditional cremation (also known as cremation by fire), the body is placed in a special machine called a cremation chamber (also known as at retort), where it's exposed to extremely high temperatures, typically between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. After 3 to 4 hours, what remains are primarily bone fragments - not ash, as many people assume. In aquamation, the process is gentler but achieves similar results. The body is placed in a pressurized chamber with water and alkaline chemicals, which is then heated to around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Over a period of 6 to 20 hours everything dissolves but the hard tissue (bones and teeth).

Here's where it gets interesting: whether it's fire or water cremation, the remaining bone fragments don't just get scooped into an urn. They go through a process that's a bit like a very specialized blender. The machine, called a cremulator, pulverizes the bone fragments into a fine, sand-like powder. (Same exact process for pets). This is what we commonly refer to as "ashes." Before the cremulator does its job, there's an important step. Any metal objects - like hip replacements or dental work - are carefully removed. These are often recycled, contributing to a more sustainable process.

So, unlike an ossuary, which might contain whole bones, a modern cremation urn contains this fine, sand-like powder. You might find small, smooth bone fragments, but you won't be discovering any full-sized bones (or anything you could recognize).

The confusion between ossuaries and cremation urns, or the expectation of finding intact bones in cremated remains, is more than just a simple misunderstanding. It's a fascinating reflection of our cultural, religious, and psychological relationship with death and human remains. So, what might lead someone in our modern Western culture to have these misconceptions?

Historical and Religious Influences:

  • Many Western religions have traditionally preferred burial over cremation, emphasizing the preservation of the body for resurrection.

  • The historical use of relics in some Christian traditions, where bones of saints were preserved and venerated, might contribute to the idea that bones should remain intact after death.

Pop Culture and Media:

  • Movies, TV shows, and books often depict urns as containing recognizable remains for dramatic effect, reinforcing misconceptions.

  • Archaeological discoveries of ancient remains, widely publicized, might lead people to expect similar preservation in modern practices.

Lack of Education:

  • Death and funeral practices are often considered taboo subjects, leading to a lack of accurate information about modern cremation processes.

Psychological Factors:

  • The idea of a loved one being reduced to ashes can be psychologically challenging. Some people might find it comforting to imagine that something more tangible, like bones, remains.

  • The concept of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is deeply ingrained in Western culture, potentially leading to a literal interpretation of cremated remains.

Cultural Diversity:

  • In our multicultural society, practices from various cultures can blend and be misunderstood. For instance, some cultures such as the Buddists, do preserve the remains after cremation which can placed in a stupa, a monument constructed to house relics, or scattered in a meaningful location to the deceased, symbolizing life's impermanence.

Generational Differences:

  • Older generations, who grew up when burial was more common, might have less familiarity with modern cremation practices.

These various factors create a complex tapestry of beliefs and expectations about death and remains. It's a reminder of how deeply personal and culturally influenced our understanding of death can be. Understanding these influences can help us approach the topic of cremation with more empathy and openness. Whether someone is comfortable with the idea of cremation or finds it unsettling, their feelings are valid and rooted in a complex web of cultural and personal factors.

And the confusion between ossuaries (bone boxes or relic boxes) and cremation urns (containers for ashes) is understandable. Even if you've never heard of the term, we've all seen buildings or charnel vaults near churches or cemeteries. These ossuaries are often associated with the practice of exhuming bodies from overcrowded graves to make space for new burials. Both serve the purpose of preserving human remains but represent different historical periods and cultural practices. Ossuaries were traditionally used to store bones, often in an elaborate and sacred manner, while modern cremation involves reducing the remains to their most basic elements, typically ashes.

Cremation, whether by fire or water, is a modern, efficient, and respectful way to handle our earthly remains. However, both methods have environmental costs that need to be mitigated through better technologies and best practices. One such practice is blending ashes to dilute the high toxic levels or cremains, specifically sodium, before conservation spreading or burial. This is an important and often overlooked step for reintegrating ashes back into the Earth in a safe manner.

Reintegrating ashes thoughtfully, ethically, and environmentally, is crucial for memorial gardens, tree plantings, or living memorials such as house plants or conservation preserves. By addressing the environmental impacts, we can ensure that our final tribute to loved ones contributes positively to the environment.

Image: a modern "barrow" at Sacred Stones UK. Barrows date back to the Middle Neolithic era (approximately 3500-2700 BCE) and are found extensively throughout the British Isles. They are related to other forms of contemporary tomb-building. This barrow serves as a columbarium. The spaces are niches for urns. It could be argued that the structure and niches are indeed ossuaries.

It's natural to be curious about these things, and learning about them doesn't have to be uncomfortable or morbid. Remember, discussing death and funeral practices openly can help us all feel more at ease with this natural part of life. It's okay to ask questions and seek understanding - after all, knowledge often brings comfort.

Stay curious, stay respectful, and remember: understanding these processes and their historical context can help us approach end-of-life matters with more confidence and less anxiety. Whether it's an ancient ossuary or a modern cremation urn, these practices reflect our ongoing human desire to honor and remember those who have passed.

By: Eric Cathcart, Founder of Inremember and our new sister company, Greenwood Burial Company LLC.  Copyright 2024

We tried our best to trace the original source of the other photos, but regrettably, no photo credits were provided. The content focused on the most frequently asked questions we get from the public. And  The credit for the barrow photo belongs to

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