How to Arrange for Cremation

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Step 1: Choose a cremation service.

Parents or other older adults who have been members of a funeral or memorial society, or who have other written wishes or prepaid plans for cremation, may also have specified which cremation service they prefer. This information will be available in the funeral or memorial society contract or in a separate written directive. (If you're unsure whether they had such a plan, check through personal papers or talk with their attorney or estate planner.)

If no preferences are specified, you can search for local cremation services online and choose the one that offers the most convenience, best prices, or best service, depending on family preferences.

Cremation costs

The cost of cremation varies widely depending on locale, but the charge for processing the body alone generally ranges from $100 to $500.

A number of other charges may also be added for:

  • Getting and processing a death certificate.
  • Securing the certificate releasing the body for cremation.
  • Transporting the body.
  • Disposing of the cremains.
  • Obtaining a casket or container.
  • Removing a pacemaker or other potentially explosive device.
  • Covering the handling and service fees charged by funeral industry personnel.

Having cremation witnesses

Some mortuaries and crematoriums have been disciplined for mixing the remains of bodies that have been cremated, which is forbidden by law. While this doesn't faze some people, others are horrified by the possibility and want to take extra steps to prevent it. One possibility is to appoint someone to witness the cremation, which virtually assures there will be no illegal mixing. Some mortuaries and crematories don't allow witnesses, however. If this is an important concern for you, choose an institution that welcomes the practice.

Embalming and cremation

Contrary to popular belief, and to what you may be told by an unscrupulous member of the funeral industry, embalming is rarely required when a body is to be cremated.

Exceptions may include situations in which:

  • The body is going to be transported by air or rail.
  • There is a long period of time before the cremation takes place.
  • In rare circumstances, where the death was due to a communicable disease.

Step 2: Get a death certificate.

You'll be required to produce a copy of a death certificate before a crematory will process the body.

  • If you don't already have a death certificate, staff at a crematory may help secure one for you. (Be sure to request 8 to 10 extra copies, as you'll need them for everything from canceling credit cards to dealing with banks.) If you're using the services of a funeral home, the funeral director may also help complete the death certificate and secure copies for an extra service fee.
  • If you want copies soon after a death, contact the local county records office. A few months after a death, you can get a death certificate from the state records office. Find information on the price of copies and how to order through the National Center for Health Statistics.

Step 3: Complete the authorization for cremation.

If a body to be cremated is first held at the county coroner's or medical examiner's office, a survivor must complete a Release to Cremate or similar document that includes personal information about the deceased person, including:

  • Date of birth
  • Time, place, and cause of death
  • Whether the person had a pacemaker or other type of implant
  • Whether the deceased had an infectious or communicable disease

The cremation service may also request that an agent for the deceased person complete a written Authorization for Cremation that includes the above information as well as directions for how to dispose of personal effects, such as dentures, hearing aids, eyeglasses, prostheses, and jewelry, and who should take and dispose of the cremains.

Many forms also allow the agent to specify that DNA or a fingerprint should be taken from the deceased person's body before cremation begins. Some people opt to do this to create a complete medical history.

Step 4: Arrange transportation for the body.

While it's most common for a crematory or funeral home to provide transportation for the body from the site of death or storage, survivors who have the authorizing paperwork can transport the body on their own or hire a private transport service to do so. Transportation charges from all outside sources are generally based on the distance the body will travel.

Step 5: Buy or provide a casket or container.

Most crematories require that the body must be placed in some type of rigid container before being cremated. However, caskets are never required for cremation -- and as caskets are the most expensive of all funeral goods and services, this alone can offer substantial savings over a body burial.

Many mortuaries will now rent a casket to survivors who want to have a body present for visitation or a funeral service, then transfer it to an inexpensive container before the cremation. This also allows for substantial savings.

Under a federal law called the Funeral Rule, funeral directors who offer direct cremations, in which the body is not embalmed and there is no viewing or visitation, must follow these rules:

  • They may not tell consumers that state or local laws require a casket.
  • They must disclose in writing the right to buy an unfinished wooden box or an alternative container.
  • They must make such simple containers available.

Survivors are also free to make or furnish their own suitable containers.

For more information about cremation containers, including sources for low-cost and unique alternatives, see "Caskets: Everything the Mortician Won't Tell You and Some Better Places to Shop," published by the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Step 6: Arrange to scatter, bury, inter, or store cremains.

During cremation, a body is heated in an ovenlike device (called a retort) until it is reduced to an ashy powder and bone fragments. Depending on the size and composition of the body, the process takes from two to four hours -- and renders cremated remains, or cremains, weighing between three and nine pounds and fitting in a container somewhat larger than a shoebox.

Crematories will usually return cremains to a family member or other designated person in an inexpensive plastic or cardboard container. They can then be placed in an urn or other container to be buried, stored, or scattered.

Scattering cremains

Many people find it meaningful to scatter cremains in an area that was important to the deceased person during life.

  • Some local and state laws control where and when scattering may take place, but there are fewer legal controls than most people assume. For example, all states simply require written permission from the landowner for scattering on private property, and that cremains be released a certain distance from the shore if scattered at sea.
  • To check legal controls in your area, go to the local affiliate of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Commercial scattering services may also be hired to do the task. And while some people prefer to designate a firm to handle the details of the scattering, be advised that there are often hefty charges for this. Many commercial operations also append the word "Society" to their firm names, which implies that they operate as nonprofits, even though they do not.

Burying or interring cremains

Cremains may be buried in a cemetery, either in a regular grave or designated urn garden. They may also be placed in a columbarium -- usually a grouping of niches specially designed to hold cremains. They are most often located in a mausoleum, although some churches also provide them.

Some people choose to buy or provide a special container, usually called an urn, in which to place the cremains. There are no legal controls on the type required -- although a columbarium or cemetery may impose them if cremains will be interred or buried there.

Keeping cremains

Survivors are also free to keep cremains, usually stored in an urn or other container.

Barbara Kate Repa

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer and journalist, has devoted her career to editing and writing about legal issues for consumers. See full bio