Everything You Need to Know About Human Ashes

When a loved one passes, it is an understandably difficult task to decide what to do with their remains. Considering the enormous cost of funeral services and their related expenses, many people choose to have their loved ones cremated.

The process is clean, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. As a result, it’s now the preferred way to memorialize fallen loved ones, with some US states cremating more than 7 out of every 10 individuals after their passing.

When you’re facilitating a cremation, there are a lot of questions and concerns that come up—and handling these issues while you’re bereaved is overwhelming. This comprehensive guide will answer all of your questions about human ashes, from their history and formation to their handling and storage laws.

What are Human Ashes?

Cremation Urn with Human Ashes at Funeral Service

Human ashes, also known as cremated remains, are the final product of a human body after being cremated. Cremation is when a body is burned, and the ashes are saved.

The ashes are generally made up of bone fragments, teeth, and other soft tissues. Depending on the size and weight of the person being cremated, there can be anywhere from four to six pounds of ashes produced, usually around 3% of the person’s body weight.

However, just like the person they came from, every pile of cremated remains is unique. There is no set chemical makeup for cremated remains, as each person’s cremated remains will be different depending on their age, health, and the type of fuel used in the cremation process. In fact, even the person’s diet in their final days of life can influence the resulting chemical makeup of their cremation ashes.

Are Cremation Ashes Mixed?

The Cremation Chamber Lit

One of the most common questions about cremated remains is whether or not they are mixed with the ashes of the cremation chamber. The answer is no—cremated remains are not mixed with any other ashes. Crematoria take a number of precautions to prevent any ashes from being mixed, including using separate receptacles for each set of cremated remains and thoroughly cleaning the cremation chamber after each use.

The only other items typically left behind after cremation are fillings, surgical implants, and a few cremation casket components. Electronic implants like pacemakers are removed prior to cremation and disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way.

In order to be sure your receive pure, clean ashes, ask to be present for the cremation ceremony. This is commonplace and usually no problem, as the crematorium will usually want to ensure the family is comfortable with the entire process.

Do Human Ashes Decompose?

Human ashes in cremation box

No, cremated ashes do not decompose.

The point of cremation is to bypass the years-long process of natural decomposition. Fire burns away all of the organic material leaving behind only the mineral-based elements of the person. As long as the ashes are kept dry and airtight, they will not decompose or become susceptible to pests.

Do Human Ashes Smell?

Typically, there is no smell associated with cremated remains. Since all of the organic material has been burned away, there is no food source to attract microbes that would emit odors. Some individuals report a slight metallic smell coming from their ashes, but this is not common. Note that you might detect the smell of metal or other materials emanating from your urn or container, but this is not the same as an odor from the ashes themselves.

However, if the ashes are not kept in a sealed container, they can become moist and start to produce a mildewy smell. It’s important to keep ashes in a tightly-sealed urn or permanent encasement to prevent this from happening.

Will Human Ashes Dissolve in Water?

Technically speaking, ashes don’t dissolve in water because they’re not soluble. However, ash is an incredibly fine material and can be easily carried away by water. Avoid getting ashes wet at all costs unless you want them to be dispersed forever.

How are Human Ashes Made? 

Cremation Process in Progress

Cremation is far more complicated than lighting a fire. People make entire careers out of the process, and there is a lot that can go wrong if the cremation isn’t done correctly.

Improper cremation can result in injury or the emission of toxic chemicals. That’s why you must work with a certified cremation professional to have a loved one cremated. Here’s how it works behind the scenes at the crematorium.

Formation of Human Ashes

The body is placed in the cremation chamber, and the door is closed. The chamber is then heated to a very high temperature, typically up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes the body to break down into ash and bone matter.

But you’re not done just yet—there are raw remains that need further processing before they’re safe to handle.

Any remaining bone fragments are then cooled and run through a machine called a cremulator which breaks them down even further. Any undestroyed metal objects—such as fillings, surgical implants, or jewelry—are separated and dropped out of the ashes at this point.

Where is Cremation Done?

Historically, cremations were done in the open air. However, this created a host of environmental and public health concerns. Modern crematoria are highly regulated and use strict safety procedures to prevent any accidents or emissions.

As a result, today, most cremations are done in funeral homes and crematoria. Funeral homes will often have their own crematorium on-site, or they may contract with a local crematorium to handle the process. The crematorium will have its own set of procedures and regulations that must be followed, but they will make it as easy as possible for you and your family.

How Many Hours Does it Take for a Cremation?

Cremation time varies greatly depending on the size and weight of the person being cremated. Generally, the cremation procedure itself takes between two and four hours. Processing in the cremulator takes another two to three hours, at which point the cremated remains are ready for loading into a container and delivery to the recipient.

However, the cremation procedure itself is only the shortest part of your wait.

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may be subject to a waiting period before you may perform a cremation. Since there will no longer be a body for forensic investigation after a cremation, some states require authorization from a medical examiner. Even in cases of natural and unsuspicious death, a waiting period of 24 to 72 hours is common.

By the way, that waiting period only begins after the medical examiner’s authorization. In order to obtain that authorization, you must be able to produce a valid death certificate. Each state has unique requirements for obtaining a death certificate, so you’ll have to add that much time to your wait before you can receive the ashes.

How Much Does Cremation Cost?

Cremations typically cost between $2000 and $7000, depending on the location and other services that are included. Many funeral homes include the cremation fee in their overall package price, so you won’t have to worry about finding a separate crematorium. You can defer some of these costs by purchasing your urn privately since funeral homes add exorbitant markups to these keepsakes.

Direct cremation is the most affordable option, while a full funeral service with cremation typically costs the most. Direct cremation refers to the cremation process without any funeral or memorial service. Depending on your family’s needs, this may or may not be the right choice for you.

How are Cremation Ashes Turned into Diamonds?

A Variety of Cremation Diamonds

Under extraordinary pressure, the carbon in the ashes compresses into a diamond. The cremated remains are placed in a pressurized chamber and heated to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes the carbon in the cremated ashes to crystallize, resulting in a diamond.

Depending on the lab, it can take several months to craft the perfect diamond from your loved one’s cremated remains. This is because it takes a long time for diamonds to grow to their full size, after which a jeweler must cut and polish them to perfection.

Why Cremation is Done When People Die

At first, the act of cremation may seem like a strange or macabre way to deal with death. However, cremation has been around for centuries and is actually a very natural process. Burying bodies creates a host of environmental, public health, and economic complications.

Cremation eliminates all of these problems and leaves behind only a small amount of ashes, which can be safely stored or disposed of. Additionally, cremation allows you to keep ashes close by rather than entrusting your loved ones to a cemetery.

When Did Cremation Become Popular? 

Example of Bronze Age Carvings

Cremation is practically as old as humanity itself—researchers believe that 17,000-year-old human remains found in Australia show evidence of complex ritual burning.

Bronze Age Europeans adopted cremation as their preferred method of excarnation. By the Iron Age, that same region began to favor burial instead. And in Ancient Rome, both practices were commonly accepted. But then, by the Middle Ages, cremation was outright banned in many parts of Europe.

In other words, cremation has had a long and winding history, with ebbs and flows in its popularity. However, in the past few decades, cremation has once again become the preferred means of body disposal in many parts of the modern world.

Is Cremation a Religious Practice?

Religion and Cremation Urns

Different belief systems express profoundly different viewpoints regarding cremation. Some religions, like Hinduism and Jainism, see cremation as a sacred and honorable act. Other religions, like Islam and Judaism, view cremation as a desecration of the body. As a result, over 80% of people in India and Nepal receive cremations, while the practice is illegal in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

However, the practice of cremation by itself is not strictly religious, and many people who do not follow a specific religion choose to cremate their loved ones. You don’t need to be affiliated with any particular religion to choose cremation for your remains. However, if religion is a part of your life, you may want to consider how cremation will align with your beliefs.

Is Cremation Environmentally Friendly?

A Graveyard with Lots of Headstones

When you bury a body, it takes up a lot of space in the ground and creates a host of environmental problems. Cemeteries use up valuable land, which could be put to better use for housing, businesses, or recreation. Furthermore, it takes years for a body to decompose in the ground, creating an ecological hazard.

Cremation, on the other hand, is a much more environmentally friendly option. The ashes are placed in a special container and either buried or scattered. This eliminates the need for large cemeteries and takes up very little space. While crematoria use large amounts of power for each cremation, this is still a more sustainable option than a traditional burial.

Is Cremation Still Popular Today?

Yes, cremation is still a very popular means of body disposal. In the United States, over 50% of people choose cremation, whereas this number was a paltry 4% in the 1950s.

In some parts of the world, cremation is ubiquitous. In Japan, cremation is mandatory—over 99% of people are cremated after death. This is due to the country’s high population density and longstanding Buddhist hegemony.

Ultimately, the choice of cremation or burial is a personal one. The right choice for someone else isn’t necessarily the right choice for you.

Environmental Consciousness

With rising sensitivity to environmental issues, cremation has become a more popular choice for those who want to reduce their ecological footprint. Cremation is a more sustainable option than traditional burial, and it eliminates the need for dedicated burial sites.

Cremated remains don’t pose a threat to the environment, and they can be scattered or buried without any negative consequences. Scattering ashes, in particular, is a beautiful way to commemorate a loved one and connect with the natural world. Of course, you can also keep your ashes stored safely at home, where they can be visited and appreciated—all without creating any impact on the environment.

Cremation for Pets

Dog & Cats Hanging Out

In addition to human cremations, many people choose to cremate their beloved pets. This is a wonderful way to give your pet the dignity and respect they deserve. Pets often become like members of the family, and it can be very difficult to say goodbye.

Cremating your pet allows you to keep their cremated remains with you, providing a sense of comfort and continuity. You can also choose to bury your pet’s ashes, scattering them in a place that is special to both of you. This allows you to keep your pet close to your heart long after they’re gone.

Are There Any Health Concerns With Cremation?

Cremation doesn’t pose any health concerns, provided that the ashes are handled properly. All of the harmful toxins and carcinogens are eliminated during the cremation process. Do not ingest or consume cremated remains under any circumstances. However, accidental exposure to the ashes and contact with your skin shouldn’t cause harm.

For a more intimate connection with your ashes, you may consult a specialist regarding ash-infused tattoo ink. This is an extremely new and experimental procedure, and it is not widely available. Furthermore, the potential health hazards have not been adequately studied, and relatively few procedures have been performed.

Cremation vs. Burial

Burial vs Cremation: a headstone and cremation urn

Many people choose burial because they see it as a more traditional way to memorialize their loved ones. Additionally, there are some religious beliefs that mandate burial over cremation. 

Compared to traditional burial, cremation is actually much more environmentally friendly. When you bury a body, the earth must be dug up, the coffin must be built, and the grave must be maintained. All of this requires resources and creates emissions that are harmful to the environment.

Keeping cremated remains means that you get to choose how to commemorate your loved one in a way that is respectful and meaningful. You can choose to scatter the ashes in a place that was special to them, or you can have their ashes transformed into stunning jewelry. With a traditional ground burial, you may not have unlimited visiting access, and you may not be able to decorate the area in any way you choose.

Cremation vs. Aquamation

Aquamation vs. Cremation: Water and Fire Cremation

Aquamation, also known as water burial or alkaline hydrolysis, is a fairly new means of body disposal. It is similar to cremation, but the body is disposed of in a tank of water rather than through fire. Aquamation is even more environmentally friendly than cremation, although it can be more expensive.

Whether you choose cremation or aquamation, you still get to take home the remains of your loved one. The resulting remains are extremely similar to ashes but with a finer, more powdery texture. This means you can commemorate your aquamated remains exactly like you would if they were cremated.

What are the Different Ways You Can Memorialize Human Ashes?

When you retrieve cremated ashes from the crematorium, you will be given a plain container. This is simply a temporary holding place, and you will need to choose a more permanent memorialization method.

There are many ways to commemorate cremated remains, and the best option will depend on your personal preferences and the wishes of the deceased. In recent years, there has been a trend towards more innovative and unique means of memorialization. Here are some popular options:

Scattering ashes

Scattering ashes on rose petals

This is a very simple and traditional way to commemorate a loved one. Ashes can be scattered in any location that was special to them, or you can sprinkle them in a public place. A popular tradition is to scatter ashes at sea, giving them a final resting place in the ocean.

Other popular scattering locations include:

  • The base of a favorite tree or hiking trail
  • A particular garden or memorial site
  • At a loved one’s favorite hangout (with permission from the owner)
  • In a place that has personal significance, such as the birthplace of the deceased


A variety of Cremation Urns

The other most popular and traditional way to memorialize ashes is to place them in a cremation urn. Urns can be placed in a special location, such as a family home or mausoleum, or they can be buried in a cemetery. Urns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and you can even get specially made urns that resemble the deceased’s favorite item or hobby.

Urns form beautiful centerpieces for memorial displays, forming an ever-present connection to the deceased. And there’s no reason an urn has to be large—you can find urns small enough to fit on a necklace or bracelet to carry with you all the time.

Cremation Diamonds

A variety of cremation diamonds - earrings, rings and necklaces

One increasingly popular way to remember a loved one is to turn their cremation ashes into cremation diamonds. It only takes a small amount of ashes to create a diamond, so you can create a cremation diamond and still have plenty of ashes left to keep in an urn.

This option is perfect for those who want to keep their loved ones close by at all times. You can also choose to have the cremation diamond set into jewelry, such as a ring or necklace. This way, you always have a physical reminder of your loved one with you.


Examples of Cremation Sculptures

Cremation sculptures can take many forms, but memorial statues are most common. These statues can be placed in a special location, such as a garden or at the head of a gravesite, or they can be displayed in a home. Cremation sculpture crosses are also popular, symbolizing the crossing over of the deceased into the next life.

Many people choose cremation sculpture because it is a more unique and personal way to commemorate a loved one. These sculptures can be incredibly beautiful and moving, giving you a unique and inviting place to go to reflect on the life of your loved one.

Cremation to Become a Tree

Cremation Trees

Another increasingly popular way to memorialize a loved one is to have their cremains planted into the earth and grown into a mighty tree. This process, called human composting, uses the natural process of decomposition to infuse human remains into nutrient-rich soil.

This ash-infused soil is packed into a biodegradable seedling pod. Seed the tree of your choosing, then plant the pod at your desired location. A fertile, sunlit spot on your private property is a perfect choice for biodegradable urns, but if you don’t have a suitable location, consider planting your loved one in a memorial tree forest.

Where Can You Put Human Ashes for Inurnment?

There are a few things to consider before choosing a vessel for ashes. The first is the local laws. Some areas have specific regulations about where cremated remains can be kept, so it’s important to check with your local authorities.

The second consideration is personal preference. Some people like to keep the ashes in a prominent location in their home, while others prefer to hide them away. There are a variety of urns and vessels to choose from, so you can find the perfect one for your needs.


Cremation Urn with Candles and Rose

Cremation urns are decorated vessels often made from precious metals and stone. These include popular choices like bronze urns or marble urns. They may also be made from carved wood, ceramics, or glass.

There are a variety of urns to choose from, including traditional urns, cremation jewelry, and even urns that can be worn as a pendant. Urns can come in any shape or size, and many are specially designed to represent the deceased’s personality or interests—sports urns, religious urns, or military & veteran urns are elegant choices for a more personalized touch.

If you choose a cremation urn with a base, you can personalize your keepsake even further with engraved urn nameplates, photos, or even a brief memoir.


Cremation Vaults

Urn vaults are a popular choice for those who want to store ashes in a more discreet way. They are typically made from either metal or hard plastic and can be buried or kept in a special location, such as inside a mausoleum.

Vaults can also come with special features, such as a built-in urn or a locking mechanism. This way, you can be sure that your loved one’s ashes are safe and secure.

Keepsake Jewelry

Cremation Jewelry

Memorial jewelry is a beautiful and permanent way to keep your loved one close to your heart. You can have your human ash diamond set into any type of jewelry you choose, from a simple ring to an exquisite necklace.

Glass Encasements

Glass Art Keepsakes

Glass art keepsakes are a beautiful way to showcase your loved one’s cremated remains. These pieces often come in the form of pendants, paperweights, and ornaments. Streaks of ashes are sealed into the glass, keeping them preserved forever and providing a stunning visual tribute.

Laws About Handling Human Ashes in the United States

The laws about handling human ashes vary from place to place. While cremated remains may be your personal property, they’re regulated differently around the world.

In the United States, it is legal to keep cremated remains in your home, but there may be laws that restrict where you spread or bury ashes. Here are a few common questions and concerns about cremation laws and ash handling.

Do You Still Need a Casket for the Body You’re Cremating?

For sanitation and safety reasons, most crematories require that a casket be used for all bodies being cremated. This is because the body is still considered a biohazard, and the casket contains any ashes or debris from running off during the cremation process.

Fortunately, discount caskets are available for those who want to save money on their funeral arrangements. After all, if the casket is to be burned, it doesn’t need to be an expensive one.

Can Cremation Ashes be Spread Anywhere?

Ashes with a Rose in Them

Each state has different regulations regarding scattering ashes. In most cases, cremation ashes can be spread in outdoor public spaces, as long as they are not scattered on private property without the owner’s consent.

Some states have specific laws about where ashes can and cannot be scattered, so it’s important to check with your local authorities before scattering. Different entertainment destinations like sports venues and theme parks discourage the scattering of ashes, as they can be a nuisance and cleanup challenge.

However, there are certain exceptions—for example, fans of Manchester United, an English soccer team, are permitted to scatter ashes in a designated area of the field.

Some crematoria offer scattering ceremony services, which can be a helpful option for those who don’t want to scatter cremated remains themselves or don’t have a place to do so. The crematorium will typically scatter the ashes in a designated area and provide a certificate documenting the event, as well as help you plan a memorial service to commemorate your loved one.

Can You Get Cremation Without a Death Certificate?

Certificate of Death

Not legally. In most jurisdictions around the United States, crematoria require authorization from a medical examiner before proceeding with cremation. The medical examiner will only grant authorization once they’ve reaffirmed there’s no further need to examine the body.

The medical examiner will need the death certificate before they can authorize a cremation, meaning you can’t get around the legal process by cremating without a death certificate.

Can Human Ashes be Used as Fertilizers?

Unfortunately, ashes cannot be used as fertilizers. While cremated ashes are sterile and present no health risks, ash is not a nutrient-rich substance like soil or compost. In fact, the alkalinity and salinity of ashes can actually harm plants.

Some people choose to bury their loved one’s ashes in a special garden, where they can be used as compost to help grow new life. While the sentiment is beautiful, the ashes themselves do not nourish plants—rather, it is the soil and compost around them that helps to do so.

Is it OK to Touch Human Ashes?

Touching Human Ashes

Yes, you can touch cremated remains. However, once you’ve touched ashes with your hands, it’s extremely difficult to recover them. Ashes can easily stick to skin and clothing, so it’s important to take precautions when handling them. There are very few reasons to handle ashes directly, so it’s best to avoid doing so if possible.

If you accidentally spill ashes, sweep them up with a completely clean brush to avoid contamination. Touching them won’t cause any harm, but they can be a hassle to clean up if not handled properly. And since you can’t get them back once they’re lost, it’s best to take every precaution.

Can Human Ashes be Transported Internationally?

Airplane Travel

Yes, human ashes can be transported internationally. However, the law regarding cremated remains varies by country, so it’s important to check with authorities before transporting ashes outside of your home country. In some places like Turkey, transporting cremated remains may be legal under specific circumstances even though cremations themselves are illegal to perform.

Additionally, the transportation process must be carried out in a special TSA approved urn designed to hold cremated remains. The urn must also be labeled as containing cremated human remains. It’s important to check with your airline before attempting to transport ashes, as some have restrictions on what types of containers they will allow onboard.

Shop for Memorials Online to Save Loads of Cash

When it comes to memorializing a loved one, there are plenty of options out there. From custom engraved urns to beautiful memorial gardens, the possibilities are endless. However, many of these options can be quite expensive.

Memorials.com Logo

Funeral homes and crematoria are perfectly happy to sell you everything you need—and they’ll crank up the price tag. Mourners are vulnerable to high prices and often don’t have the time or energy to comparison shop, so they can end up spending far more than necessary.

Knowing where to go ahead of time can save you a lot of money. Memorials.com offers a wide selection of urns, cremation jewelry, and other memorial items, all at competitive prices. When you compare our prices with those of local funeral homes, you’ll be surprised at just how much you can save.