DNA or Deoxyribonucleic Acid is the molecule in each cell that contains genetic programming that defines a living organism. In the case of human DNA, it can be used to match family members to a unique individual. It can also reveal health and physical traits of the person it is from.
Some people want to know if DNA can be extracted from cremated remains of a human. This article will discuss what ashes are made from and if DNA can be found in them.
Cremated remains, or ashes, are the by-product of the cremation process. During the cremation process, the body is exposed to extreme heat in what is called flame cremation. A water-based cremation called aquamation involves heat and pressure. Both processes reduce organic matter from a human body to bone fragments. The remains are then reduced further into fine particles that look like sand or coarse dirt; this is referred to as “ashes” or “cremated remains.”
Cremated remains have high pH and are made mostly of calcium phosphate from the human skeleton, but can also contain small amounts of minerals like potassium and sodium.
Human DNA can be extracted from various sources in a variety of ways. Sources include bones, teeth, skin cells, saliva, blood, and more.
It is usually easier to directly extract DNA from a saliva sample or using a cheek swab. However, if those are unavailable (e.g., the body is decomposed), it is possible to extract from remaining body parts, such as bones and teeth.
Theoretically, depending on environmental conditions and preservation techniques, DNA can be extracted thousands or even millions of years later.
When it comes to DNA being found in ashes, there is no clear-cut conclusion.
In most cases, there is little to no DNA found in ashes. This is because of the conditions the body is exposed to during the cremation process.
With flame cremation the body is placed in a chamber and exposed to extreme heat, with temperatures ranging from 760 to 980 Celsius.
Similarly, with aquamation, the body is exposed to water heated to high temperatures (200 to 320 F / 93 to 160 C). Then agitation is applied to break down organic material. During the process, fats, proteins, minerals, and carbohydrates from the remains are reduced to basic organic components (i.e., fats get reduced to salts).
Human DNA breaks downs at around 95 degrees Celsius (203 F). Organic matter is exposed to temperatures much higher than this with both options. However, some bone fragments will likely remain.
In many cases, especially with decomposition, bones or teeth are some of the last parts of a body containing DNA, and scientists have developed many ways to extract DNA from these sources. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to obtain DNA from the by-products of cremation. However, these fragments are typically reduced further to make a coarse powder, so it is ideal to do this before pulverization and mixing with ashes occurs.
DNA can tell us many things about a person, such as their diet, how they lived their lives, how they died, their age, and more. However, during cremation, much of that is already known by the family and friends of the deceased. As such there is typically no need to obtain DNA from ashes.
Nonetheless, one of the main reasons families may opt for this is peace of mind. Although mix-ups in the funeral industry are rare, they do happen. Therefore, testing cremated remains can ensure that they have their loved one’s ashes and not someone else’s.