Burning Questions about Cremation: “Can I Watch?”

Every once in a while, a family comes to the funeral home to make arrangements for a cremation and somebody asks if they can watch some part of the process. Their reasons are varied, but most of the time, they are just plain curious.

In some cases, it means one last chance to view the body before final disposition.

Sometimes there are religious or cultural traditions that are carried out just before the body enters the cremation chamber.

Other times it means the family members don’t quite trust that we do what we tell them we do; they want to see for themselves that things are taken care of properly.

     I get it. I would want to watch too. I personally have no problem with people who request to watch a cremation. I will even go so far to say that I encourage it, as long as the desire is made known upfront and the individual(s) understand the gravity of the situation as well as the risks involved.

Typically, when family members or friends come to witness a cremation, they only watch the part where the body, which is in a ‘cremation container,’ or cardboard box, is rolled into the retort of the crematory. Part of this is because a cremation takes about 3 hours, and most people don’t want to stick around that long. There is also the fact that about an hour and a half into the process, the door of the retort is opened and the remains are re-positioned to ensure an even burn. When the retort is opened, flames are visible, and I would venture to say that most people would find it disturbing to witness this portion of the cremation.

Once the actual cremation is complete, the remaining bone fragments and ash are cooled and placed into a processing machine which grinds them into a powdery substance recognized as cremains. I’ll admit that this part is pretty neat. We even go through the bone fragments with a magnet to remove any small metal parts such as tooth fillings, staples, pins, or screws. Larger metal parts such as artificial hips and knees are also removed, but a magnet is not necessary for those: they’re pretty visible. The bone fragments are fairly dry and brittle, so grinding them with the processing machine is a relatively quick procedure. As the cremains are processed, the powdery mixture is collected into a plastic bag inside some type of urn(s). We affix a small metal identification tag noting the cremation number to the bag so that it can always be traced back in our records. At this point, a portion of the cremains can also be placed into memorial jewelry or saved out for scattering.

I would guess that most funeral homes would find the question, “Can I watch?,” a little uncommon and maybe even a bit unsettling, but there is really not much reason why you couldn’t watch at least some part of the cremation process. Some people even ask to help push the cremation container into the retort, and it is typically allowed. The crematory where I work has a viewing window into the room so that anybody who does want to watch the start of the cremation can do so from a comfortable couch in a private setting. I like this concept and it is one that many crematories have incorporated. The viewing window allows for a little bit of distance and helps to shelter the viewers from some of the potentially disturbing sounds and smells involved with cremation.

The moral of the story is: just ask. There is no shame in wanting to be a part of your loved one’s final disposition. It is not weird or freakish to want to watch a cremation, and I can almost guarantee it will be something you never forget. It’s a sobering experience to come face to face with a dead body, a cremation chamber, or an open grave; and I think people in our rat-race culture should do it more often.

What do you think?

Would you want to watch?

Crematory Retort (click for original website)

One thought on “Burning Questions about Cremation: “Can I Watch?”

  1. I think part of it would be interesting. I like the part where the family can watch from a viewing room, as I am sure the smells would be something I would not like to remember. Thanks for this info, as I plan to be cremated, and I would like especially for my family to be there , especially my oldest sister.

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