When making cremation arrangements, you will likely come across a line item in the services provided that says "crematorium fees." So what exactly is a crematorium and what is it used for?
You may wonder what exactly happens at these facilities. The short answer is is that a crematorium is a facility where human bodies are cremated. That is the process where extreme heat is used to reduce a body to skeletal bone.
For most people, that is all they need to know. If you want more detailed answers, including the history of crematoriums and what happens in the cremation process, read on the find the answers to all your crematorium questions below.
A crematorium is equipped with one or more purpose-made furnaces, which is typically called a cremator but is also known as a retort, crematory, or cremation chamber.
Cremation has been used as a funeral disposition for thousands of years. However, the process has become industrialized in the last few centuries.
Before the 19th Century, cremation was conducted outdoors, using an open pyre. A body was placed in a structure that was set on fire. The structures were usually constructed of wood, capable of sustaining hot temperatures long enough to cremate the body completely. Afterward, the cremated remains were allowed to cool and then gathered and placed in an urn for burial or scattering.
Outdoor crematoriums are still used in India, and their operation is still highly manual. By comparison, crematoriums in the Western world are highly automated and are usually facilities housed in industrial buildings.
Indoor crematoriums were first used in the Western world during the industrial revolution. A movement to make cremation a viable funeral option began in the 1870s with the introduction of early cremation furnaces. The first crematorium opened in 1876 in Milan.
Many countries followed the example opting for enclosed furnaces inside a building. These furnaces and facilities maximized the use of thermal energy and were designed to contain smoke and odours resulting from the combustion process.
Traditionally, crematoriums served a singular purpose – to cremate dead bodies. However, in modern times, these facilities often offer several services. In addition to providing a place for the dignified disposal of deceased loved ones, crematoriums may include a chapel and columbarium, which is a structure for housing cremated remains contained in cremation urns.
What is included in these facilities is often influenced by the funeral customs of the country. For example, crematoriums may offer a space to witness the cremation. While sometimes possible in Canada and the U.S., witnessing cremation is customary in Japan, where families may also pick bones from the ashes using large metal chopsticks. This unique process is not legal in North America.
The cremation process starts with the preparation of a body. This includes the removal of non-combustible personal belongings (e.g., jewelry) and medical devices (e.g., pacemakers). The body is correctly identified by funeral staff and tagged to ensure families receive the correct ashes at the end of the process.
To start the process, after identification, a body is placed in a cremation container or kept in the original casket if it is suitable for combustion. The casket or container is then placed in the cremator.
Many of the steps involved during the cremation process are automated. For example, computerized sensors can detect and adjust temperatures and the length of time needed to cremate a body. However, some cremators require more manual intervention.
For example, some have a start and stop function, and the crematorium operator will judge when the process is completed. Also, operators may be responsible for determining the temperature and time requirements. Therefore, operators must ensure the cremation process runs correctly and smoothly.
A typical cremator will usually contain two chambers – primary and secondary chambers. The casket will first be placed in the primary chamber and exposed to temperatures ranging from 760 to 980 Celsius (1400 to 1796 F). This will incinerate much of the organic matter. The remaining materials will pass into the secondary chamber.
The secondary chamber is often located above or at the rear of the primary chamber. Temperatures in this chamber are more than 900 Celsius (1652 Fahrenheit) which incinerate the remaining materials. This step also eliminates emissions.
After going through both chambers, bone fragments and non-combustible material (e.g., medical devices) may remain.
After a cooling period, the ashes are removed from the chamber, and any remaining metals (typically surgical implants) are separated from them and are recycled. Any remaining bone fragments are mechanically processed into fine, coarse sand particles of dust and placed in a temporary container or cremation urn provided by the family.
The entire cremation process can take 1.5 to 3 hours (or more) to complete. This varies depending on the size and weight of the body and the type of casket or container used.