While the reduction of the corpse to less than 4% of its mass is spatially efficient, environmentally cremation is disfavored due to the required energy intensity, extensive use of non-renewable fuels in combustion, and the sometimes toxic hot gases released to the atmosphere during the burning, vaporization and redistribution of the body. Through incineration, the chemical and biological potency of human biomass is subverted to relatively inert carbon ash, greenhouse gases, and other pollutants. Bodies are transformed into ephemeral smoke, and an environmental taint lingers as an imprint of the life that once was.
Cremation was gradually accepted in the United States after the first crematory
was built in Pennsylvania in 1876. A small brick building containing two rooms,
one for reception and one for the furnace, was built on a doctor’s own land under
his conviction that contagions borne from buried corpses were leaching into
the soil and groundwater and spreading disease. But despite the reassurance
offered by incinerating diseased flesh to put an end to phantom graveyard
miasma, late 19th century society was slow to embrace this new disposal
option, and only forty-two corpses were cremated there in the first twenty-five
years of operation.(1) In 1965, shortly after the Catholic Church relaxed its ban
on cremation, the cremation rate in the United States was still less than 4%. By
2011, however, the Cremation Association of North America reported over 42%
of American corpses were cremated annually.
In contrast to the often slow pace of cultural evolution—with long standing
institutional and perceptual oppositions ossified in the built structures of our
lives and the organization of our cities—the choice of cremation has increased
radically over the past fifty years. This increase is not solely a response to
logistic and economic constraints, but also a reflection of changing attitudes
toward entrenched rituals surrounding death and memory.
1.) The body is prepared by removing any radioactive isotopes (used for cancer treatment), prostheses, silicone implants
and medical devices which can explode under extreme heat.
2.) A single body inside a flammable container is then entered into a pre-cremation chamber, similar in construction to a
brick oven. Once the incinerator has reached 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, mechanized doors are opened, allowing the
wood or cardboard container to enter the main cremation chamber, also called the retort.
3.) The body is than burned from the torso outward by a jet-enginelike column of fire. The body begins to dry, crack,
char and vaporize. The bone becomes calcified and crumbles into the white “ash”. Depending on the body mass and
bone structure of the deceased, the process takes from two to three hours and results in three-nine lbs. of bone ash.