Ashes to Ashes: What ashes are really like and where they come from

A real picture of 'ash' at the end of the proces

    I thought it would be good to examine some of the misconceptions and ideas behind 'ash', how it is made and what it actually is.  When most people think of ash they think of a fine powder with an even consistency.  This is how it is depicted on TV and in the movies, as actual ash just like what is left behind after wood or coal is burnt.  Yet 'ash' is not like this, it is actually quite lumpy and grainy much like sand.

 Now to look at how the ash is made.  Firstly and most obviously the coffin is often put into a 'burner' where it will be burnt.  The average body takes about three hours to completely burn, although some can take much longer if they are 'heavier'.

    At some larger crematoriums they will get more coffins than they can process in a day.  So they place the excess coffins into a holding room, which is a special fridge just like in any mortuary.  The coffins will sit in the fridge for no more than a day as crematoriums are only allowed to hold coffins for a certain time (a day or two if I remember right).

The default plastic urn.
    Once the coffin is completely burnt the remains are removed from the burner, either by being swept out, dropped through a special grate or vacuumed out with a special machine.  These remains are nothing like ash, they are broken and burnt pieces of bone as most bones do not burn down.  Think of those who die in a fire, there are a lot of bones left behind from teeth to bits of the pelvis.  The next part of the process is aimed at turning these remains into ash.

    After being taken out of the burner the remains are placed into an odd machine.  The best way I could describe it is as a stainless steel tumble dryer.  This machines has some rocks in it and metal rods fixed to the sides.  This means that as the remains are turned and tossed about they are ground down into a powder.  It is this powder that families will receive in an urn.

    The remains, now turned to ash are put into square plastic containers at the crematorium.  This is the default urn that all ash is automatically placed in.  The crematoriums can decant the ash into another urn if the family wants.  However sometimes families will decant the ashes themselves, or quite often get the funeral home to do it.  This decanting process is quite easy and simple, it just involves pouring the ashes out of the default plastic urn into another urn of the families choosing.

    However quite often there are more ashes in the plastic urn than can fit into the special urn purchased by the deceased or family.  Surprisingly often a good inch or so of ash will be left over, so what becomes of this left over ash?  It gets tipped ever so quietly into a garden, bin or somewhere else nobody is looking.  Other times as someone is decanting the ash a gust of wind comes by, blowing ash all over the person and the room.  There is a lot of ash scattered over the trim shop and certain employees at WNBull.

    Ash does present a unique hazard, it will burn if it gets in the eyes and I have o doubt it is not good for the lungs.  Both of these are quite possible when decanting ash as it blows about fairly easily.  Luckily most do not handle ash regularly and a few exposures over the years is obviously not too harmful or there would be fewer undertakers.  Just try to be same and careful with ash and everything should be fine.

A pile of default plastic urns.
The decanting funnel.
Also known as the 'fire warden hat'.

    I found this fairly good website on cremations, it has detail but is not too detailed.  So for further reading or advice on cremations I would highly recommend this website.

"What is Cremation?" - A very good webpage specifically about how bodies are cremated.
"Why Cremation?" - Reasons for cremation and cremation statistics in America.


1 comment:

  1. Are those basic plastic urns suitable for recycling? There seems to be no plastic symbol on the two I have. Some councils will only accept most. 1, 2 and 3 within the plastics identification code (the chasing arrow) others include 5 and 6. Clarification would be appreciated.


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