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The Chemistry of Cremated Remains

How to have more peace of mind when burying or scattering cremated remains.

When we think of ashes, there are many images that might come to mind—the powdery remnants at the bottom of a fireplace in deep winter, the soft bed of a crackling campfire in the mountains, volcanic ash that nourishes a landscape after the lava flow has calmed and cooled. But for many of us, we think of our loved ones above all else.

According to recent statistics calculated by the Cremation Association of North America, the cremation rate in the US is over 57% and continues to climb each year. There are compelling reasons for this increase. Cremation is more affordable than full body burial and gives families more time to plan a funeral or burial since ashes can be buried months or even years after death. Having time after a loss to get one's bearings and make decisions can be advantageous, especially if no disposition wishes were expressed by the loved one, or if challenging family dynamics are involved.

Ashes also occupy less space if buried and are portable. They can be divided and shared among loved ones, and they can be scattered at a specific location that was special and meaningful for the deceased. Ashes can even be made into jewelry and glass art. Having some small remnant of a loved one’s physical form close to home is a way to feel connected to that person and honor their memory.

There are additional psychological factors why someone might choose cremation as their preferred form of body disposition. Those who struggle with claustrophobia may find the idea of body burial deeply unsettling while others may fear that their body could be disturbed or exhumed in the future.

Religious and/or spiritual considerations may also play an important role. In cremation, the body is incinerated so the spirit can be purified and released, or cremation may feel “light” after a lifetime of the soul carrying the weight of the mortal body through illnesses, suffering, and hardships. Cremation also evokes images of freedom and flight, the ability to become airborne and vanish in the wind.


There are two common misconceptions about cremation that I would like to touch upon. One misconception is that fire or flame cremation is friendly to the environment. Flame cremation produces millions of tons of carbon emissions each year and according to the Green Burial Council, “results in toxic emissions including persistent pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDDs/DFs), co-planar polychlorinated biphenyls (co-PCBs), and heavy metals.” Current research indicates that carbon emissions in the United States each year from cremation are the equivalent of burning 400 million pounds of coal. Not a good “carbon footprint.”

The second misconception is that ashes nourish the soil when buried or scattered. Human cremated remains are technically not ashes, but pulverized bone. While there might be a variety of elements or heavy metals present, such as lead, iron, and copper, the primary chemical makeup of cremated remains is calcium phosphate and sodium. This highly alkaline chemical composition is not bioavailable to the surrounding soil and will not help a tree or any other kind of plant life grow. It is inert bone dust. Plant life will grow around a pocket of buried cremated ashes, but not through it.

Encouraging News

There is some good news. Cremated remains can be amended or modified so that a loved one’s ashes will fully integrate into soil and truly support the growth of trees, plants, flowers and grasses. There are products on the market that have changed the game when it comes to making human cremated remains bioavailable for surrounding soil and plant life. When blended with cremated remains, these organic mixtures neutralize the harsh compounds in the remains so that a loved one’s ashes can indeed sprout and nourish new life.

What if someone likes the idea of being cremated, but they do not like the pollution associated with flame cremation, or perhaps they have a fear of fire?

Water cremation, also known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis, is a more sustainable cremation option, but it is not widely available in the U.S., and this is something that needs to change. The attraction to water cremation is grounded in its reputation as a “greener” form of body disposition, but it also resonates as a slower, kinder, and more gentle procedure for those making end-of-life decisions.

In the aquamation process, the body is placed in a chamber along with water and alkaline chemicals, which combined with heat, dissolve the body's soft tissue. It requires water, but the Green Burial Council asserts that aquamation "has a smaller carbon footprint, using less fuel for heat, and releasing no emissions from the body itself. Additionally, the organic liquid produced during this type of cremation can be used for fertilizer." But just like fire cremation, water cremation leaves behind bones that are pulverized in a cremulator and turned into "ashes.” Regardless of which cremation process is chosen, decisions about how to handle the cremated remains still need to be made.

Peace of Mind

Many people choose cremation for financial reasons, or because they do not want to be embalmed and encased in a large casket and concrete vault underground. Flame cremation is the default choice when no other options appear to be available. And often, those who are cremated want their remains to integrate into a landscape or another life form in some way, such as a favorite tree or garden. If the care of the ashes includes interacting with the more-than-human natural world, the fact that cremated remains are biologically inert will not likely bring comfort to someone who is facing death or offer peace to their friends and family who want their loved one’s wishes honored.

Ashes of all kinds have long been considered nutrient dense. Some plants may prosper with a sprinkling of wood ash over a garden, and years after an eruption, the landscape surrounding a volcano can rebuild and re-colonize into a lush and thriving ecosystem. With a little modification, human cremated remains can also be nutrient dense. This can bring a little peace of mind to those who choose cremation as their preferred form of body disposition and will help families bury or scatter the ashes of their loved ones in a way that is more ecologically sound

An earlier version of this article was previously published in the Heritage Acres Spring 2022 Newsletter.

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