Understanding the Cremation Process: A Guide for Families

Table of Contents

  1. Understanding the Cremation Process: A Guide for Families
  2. Details about the Cremation Process
  3. What is a cremation container?
  4. The actual cremation process
  5. After the cremation process
  6. Mailing Cremated Remains
  7. How do families know they received the right remains?
  8. Contacting Neptune Society during times of need

Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest reasons for stress, and it’s not something families need during what can already be a time of worry and grief. Understanding the cremation process allows families to make educated decisions following the loss of a loved one. This article walks you through the basics of the cremation process, including required documents and what to expect before, during, and after the actual cremation process.

Please note that in an attempt to be as transparent as possible for families who are interested in all details about the cremation process, we have provided some in-depth information below. We understand that this level of detail may not be appropriate for all readers and advise reader discretion; some of the information may be too graphic for some individuals.

While we’ve worked to gather accurate, comprehensive information about cremation processes, please note that regulations vary by county, state and region. Families in need may want to contact local offices for the most up-to-date and relevant information.

What Happens Before Cremation Occurs?

Families can begin the process of cremation by calling Neptune Society for assistance whether or not previous arrangements have been made with us. When calling to discuss cremation services or schedule a cremation or related memorial, you’ll need to provide information about the decedent, including but not limited to:

  • Date of birth
  • Social security number
  • Father’s name and state of birth
  • Mother’s name and state of birth
  • A copy of the decedent’s driver’s license, if applicable
  • Form DD-214, if the decedent was a veteran

Provisions for Transportation of the Decedent

Once all documents have been received, Neptune Society can legally act to assist your family. The first act is usually to take the deceased into our care. Neptune Society arranges the transportation of the decedent from the current location to a climate-controlled holding facility. This provides you with time to finalize arrangements and gather family and friends, should you want to hold a memorial or other type of service.

Working with Family Members to Plan Services

After handling immediate concerns, Neptune Society reaches out to the appropriate member or members of the family, working with loved ones to gather information to facilitate a cremation service that aligns with the last wishes of the decedent and the needs of the family. Some types of assistance we provide can include:

Gathering Necessary Documents

The cremation process can’t begin until all appropriate documents are gathered and/or signed. Cremation providers must obtain a cremation permit — usually a low-cost formality handled at the county level — before they can move forward with services. The cremation permit requires a signed copy of the death certificate, which is executed by the coroner, medical examiner or a doctor. Death certificates can take a while to process, and the cremation provider is at the mercy of medical examiners, law enforcement officials or others in this process.

Neptune Society officials and representing family members must also sign either the permit or Neptune Society paperwork to set the cremation process in motion. To expedite the gathering of complete documents, someone from the family may want to work with Neptune Society and the appropriate medical officials to facilitate autopsies and any other processes that could cause delays.

The Cremation Documentation Timeline

The process of gathering the documentation necessary for cremation tends to follow a similar order for all cases. Understanding this order can save families a lot of time and frustration.

  1. The doctor or medical examiner must first provide a signed death certificate. For insurance and other purposes, you will need a certificate that states the cause of death. However, the certificate necessary to obtain a cremation permit does not require a cause of death.
  2. The next-of-kin must sign authorizing cremation services. In most cases, the family signature comes from a spouse or an adult child, though, depending on the situation, the next-of-kin might be a sibling, an aunt, an uncle, a niece, a nephew, or grandchild.
  3. The cremation permit is obtained from the county or other relevant office. Each permit usually requires a fee ranging from $10 to $40, depending on the location. For more information regarding the fees in your area, please contact the Neptune Society nearest you. Often, these fees are included in overall cremation service packages.
  4. Finally, the crematory is able to schedule the cremation services.

Average Timing of Cremation and Possible Causes for Delay

From the time a family calls Neptune Society to the scheduling of the cremation, the process takes an average of 10-14 business days. During that time, Neptune Society works closely with the family to ensure any delays are handled and that planning for any services or memorials can begin as soon as the details are taken care of.

One of the reasons that cremation can be delayed is that everyone involved must ensure that all affairs are in order, as cremation is a permanent process that cannot be undone after the fact. With burial, a body can be exhumed if necessary; that is not an option with cremation.

Some states do have a mandatory waiting period, which can cause a delay in the process. Other reasons for delay can include:

  • In some cases, doctors have up to 10 days to sign a death certificate. A hold up for this integral document means a delay in the rest of the documentation and cremation process timeline.
  • If any circumstance surrounding the death is called into question, local, state, or federal authorities can delay the process of cremation. Delays can be caused by police, federal, and state investigators, medical examiners or county coroners, for example. Authorities might be even more cautious about releasing a body for cremation because when remains are cremated, they can’t be exhumed if questions about the death arise again in the future.
  • If families can’t provide the information required for processing cremation requests quickly, the process might be delayed until they can. Estate planning can help reduce these types of delays, ensuring someone from the family has all the information on file in a readily accessible manner.
  • When the next-of-kin puts off signing the cremation authorization form for any reason, the entire process is on hold until the signature is obtained.
  • Finally, transportation of the decedent can cause delays, especially if the remains must cross national or state lines or if the family wants a traditional funeral-style memorial service prior to the cremation.

Preparation of the Deceased for Cremation

Not everyone wants to understand all the details that go into preparing a loved one for cremation, and Neptune Society understands that. It is important, however, for family to understand what cremation staff should be notified about.

Request for personal items to be returned after cremation

Sometimes, family might want certain items to be removed from the decedent prior to cremation. Some families choose to leave special pieces of jewelry, such as a wedding band, within the cremation container with the decedent’s ashes. Others want those items returned so they can be passed down to heirs.

Other, even more personal items, that might need to be removed can include:

  • Gold teeth
  • Prosthetic limbs
  • Pacemakers

Neptune Society will work with family members to ensure the proper steps are taken to return such property as requested.

If a family member wishes to have gold teeth extracted from the decedent, they must coordinate with a professional dentist. Funeral directors are not typically trained to do such procedures. After extraction, gold teeth can also be left in the cremation urn with the decedent’s ashes, if desired.

Notification regarding pacemakers or implants

Pacemakers and other types of medical implants can actually cause an explosion or other issue in the cremation chamber. When exposed to extreme heat, the batteries or other parts of these devices can cause an explosion, creating a safety risk for crematory staff and any family members viewing the cremation. Even if no one is injured, the damage caused to the inside of the cremation chamber can be costly. For this reason, Neptune Society asks that family members notify staff about such devices prior to cremation. Crematory staff will remove the pacemaker and return it to the family if desired.

Details about the Cremation Process

Once all the preparations have been made and the staff is informed of any special wishes, the cremation process can begin. The exact steps and timeline of the process depend on the deceased’s last wishes and what the family wants regarding memorial services. Some families want a full memorial service, with their loved one present in an open casket, prior to cremation and final disposition.

In other cases, families might want a private or small viewing, which Neptune Society can accommodate. This is not a funeral viewing and typically involves a few people taking some time to say goodbye just before the cremation takes place. The deceased can be viewed by family in the Neptune Society viewing room; this involves viewing the body without any embalming having taken place. Immediate family members can also request to view the cremation itself if they like.

Some families might ask about bulk cremations — having more than one body cremated at the same time. This might seem like a heart-warming practice if a loving couple passes away together, but in reality, it’s actually never done. Cremation chambers are not big enough to accommodate such a practice; it’s also illegal in most instances.

What is a cremation container?

A cremation container holds the decedent during the cremation process. Once the cremation process is complete, a funeral director will work with a family to choose a container for long-term storage or for temporary storage before they are transferred to a mausoleum or scattered in a desired location.

Urns come in all shapes, sizes and designs. The family can choose from traditional-looking pieces, temporary containers made for traveling or display pieces, such as mantle clocks or hourglasses that hold ashes.

The actual cremation process

During the actual cremation, the decedent’s body is placed in a special chamber and is exposed to extremely high heat and open flame. To fully convert everything in the chamber to ash, the heat must reach between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cremation processes are designed to be as safe and efficient as possible and to ensure that the family receives a clean, fine ash. To manage this, the cremation staff removes any large fragments that might remain following processing in a cremation chamber. They use special magnets and other tools to accomplish this; fragments are then processed further to reduce all elements to uniform ash that can be kept in urns or scattered as desired.

The actual cremation process takes from around one to five hours, depending on a number of factors, including the size of the body.

After the cremation process

Neptune Society works with families to ensure the most appropriate disposition for remains. This might mean assisting families with a placement in the Neptune Memorial Reef or another permanent location, but it could also mean providing ashes in formats appropriate to the family. Neptune Society can separate the ashes for inclusion in multiple urns, for example, so that each family member or group receives a keepsake of the loved one. To ensure proper separation of ashes, Neptune Society must be provided with the right number of urns or containers.

Some options for the final disposition of cremated remains include:

Mailing Cremated Remains

In some cases, family members or others may which to mail cremated remains to facilitate a memorial or to ensure the remains are housed in the appropriate location. Mailing cremated ashes is very typical and something that is done quite often. The only legal way to ship cremated remains is through the United States Postal Service, which provides a free booklet on how to pack and ship them correctly and safely.

How do families know they received the right remains?

It can be disconcerting to wonder if the remains sitting in an urn on the mantle are the right ones, but families don’t have to worry about this when they work with professional cremation providers such as Neptune Society.

Each decedent is provided with a numbered metal disc as soon as the cremation process begins. That disc is designed to stay with the remains throughout the entire process. When the ashes are placed in a temporary container to await final disposition, the metal disc is placed with them. Families can always check that the identification number on that disc matches the identification number for their loved one.

Another reason you know that you are receiving your loved one is that the law doesn’t allow cremated remains to be mixed. This is true even if related individuals are being cremated around the same time. However, families or individuals can make arrangements to inter cremated remains together. This means the ashes for each person are held in separate containers, but those containers are buried or housed together in a niche or other location.

Contacting Neptune Society during times of need

After learning about the cremation process, families are in a position to make the right decisions about end-of-life celebrations and the disposition of remains. While it might seem like a mysterious process, cremation is actually a very simple, practical procedure that can leave loved ones with closure or with meaningful ways of remembering a lost friend or family member.

At Neptune Society, we know that cremation is both a practical, necessary process and something that can be an emotional step for loved ones. Our professional staff will work with you every step of the way to ensure that practical concerns, such as death certificates, authorizations, and transportation, are handled appropriately.

We also provide a number of services and options so you can make cremation and any associated end-of-life memorial personal to the deceased and an appropriate emotional closure for loved ones.


The Neptune Society is the nation’s oldest and largest provider of affordable cremation services. Whether you have an immediate need or want to plan cremation services in advance, we are always available to assist you and your family.

Call 1-800-NEPTUNE (800-637-8863) today or contact us online to learn more.