Can family members watch the cremation?
Yes. This is called a "witness cremation" or simply a "cremation viewing." Family members may watch as the body is brought into the cremation retort and the process of cremation is begun.
Read on to learn more about witnessing a cremation.
"Watching the cremation" is a bit of a misnomer. No one actually watches the body being incinerated.
When the decedent is placed into a cremation chamber, the body is already enclosed inside a casket or cremation container. Additionally, the retort (the chamber where the cremation takes place) is also completely enclosed.
So if you were to attend a cremation, you would not be watching the actual flames. Rather, you would observe as the casketed body is moved into the retort and then cremated.
The entire process takes around four hours (give or take). Depending on the machine, the actual cremation takes around 2-3 hours, plus another 2+ hours for the chamber to cool down before the remains are processed.
You can read more about the cremation process here.
Can a Cremation Be Viewed?
Cremation viewing (or witnessing) is, more and more, considered not only acceptable but perhaps even a right for the close family of the decedent.
However, there are no laws regarding the witnessing of cremation. So each facility will have their own rules and procedures regarding a cremation viewing.
Some facilities may not be set up to allow witnesses. This is often the case with independent crematoriums. If the crematorium is operated by the funeral home, it is more likely to be set up with a window and viewing area complete with seating for family members to watch the crematory operator at work.
You may be allowed to watch the entire process, or perhaps only the initial part as the body is placed into the chamber. There may be accommodations for a relatively large group, or perhaps just one or two people.
Contact local funeral homes and crematoriums to discuss the availability and options for witnessing. Note that you cannot watch or witness a direct cremation.
What Happens at a Cremation Viewing?
When the cremation is witnessed, the family will often have a small, intimate memorial service immediately before the cremation.
This service can be lead by the funeral director, a professional celebrant, pastor, or religious leader. It can take place in a nearby chapel or in the cremation viewing room, and may include readings, prayers, singing, sharing of memories, and a brief eulogy - or just a few words to commemorate the occasion.
Once the witnesses are in the area for viewing, they notify the crematory operator that they are ready. The operator will take the body, which will be in a "cremation container" (a cardboard or other purchased casket), and begin the machine's process.
Sometimes family members will decorate the casket with drawings, signatures, and farewell notes. Talk to the funeral director or crematorium if this is something your family would like to do.
Once the casket is loaded into the retort, the machine is closed and the process begun. Some contemporary crematoriums are equipped with a button which a family member can press to seal the machine.
Because the incineration process takes over four hours (plus more time for the remains to be processed after coming out of the machine), most crematoriums do not allow witnesses to stay the entire time. And most families do not wish to remain for the duration. However, you are welcome to ask if that is an option.
After the Cremation Viewing
Typically the family and loved ones will stay for a few minutes, in quiet contemplation. The officiant may say a final prayer or some closing words, and then gently usher everyone out.
From there, it's generally a good idea to have a small reception planned. Whether you go to a restaurant or have hors d'oeuvres at a family member's home, the sense of community from sharing time, space, and food with loved ones bring a welcome resolution to an emotional time.
You may be able to come back the same day to collect the ashes, but most often it will take a day or several days for the crematorium to complete processing the remains.
Be sure to have the cremation urn purchased ahead of time. Give the urn to the funeral home and they will return the ashes to you already securely placed into the permanent urn.
You can also bring the urn in with you when you pick up the remains. The funeral director or crematorium staff can inurn the ashes while you wait, as this usually takes just a few minutes.
Otherwise they will give you the ashes in a plastic inside a temporary urn. This is a minimal plastic or cardboard box. From there, you can place the remains into the permanent urn yourself; here's how (instructions and video).