OMG Cecil, “spoons" made me think this was going to be, you know what, being asked to ingest a spoonful and deposit the remains that way.

I hope there were little plastic bags next to the bowl of ashes to hold the spoonful.

**I’d like to encourage those interested in cremation to consider signing up as an anatomical donor. I think you can do this at most universities that have university hospitals. (I’m registerd at Stanford.)
At your death your body will be picked up by the hospital and taken for dissection by medical students-- an essential part of their instruction.
On completion of the dissection, the body will be cremated by the hospital and the ashes returned to the family for disposal as they wish.
Cadavers for dissection are in short supply and all donations are really appreciated.
Why waste a perfectly good body? Make your final act a learning experience!


This reminds me of something I’ve long wondered: You hear stories about things like death camps, where bodies were supposedly stacked in big piles and burned. But will a human body burn without a lot of external heat applied? If we’re almost 80% water, it seems unlikely. Of course, we also have some fat, which will burn once the water is boiled off.

So can you make a self-sustaining fire out of human corpses?

(This also relates to the supposed phenomenon of “spontaneous human combustion,” which I find highly dubious at best.)

To dive into the rhelm of the extremely morbid and utterly disgusting–
The NAZIs experimented with burning bodies by putting the fatter ones at the bottom. This didn’t work well so they turned to natural gas ovens.
There are numerous sources that describe the NAZI atrocities in detail.
(As far as I’m concerned, this is unforgivable. Some who were involved were executed. Many were not. Some are still alive today.
I’m an agnostic and I doubt there’s a Hell, but this is one of those times I hope there is a God. Burning for eternaty doesn’t seem like punishment enoufgh.)

As for “spontaneous combustion,” see “S” under The Skeptics Dictionary.

All I know is that I looked cremation up on YouTube and ran across a little film of a mortuary cremating remains.

It started off with the bodies wrapped up in plastic and twine, and then put into cardboard caskets. These were then put into the actual ovens- you saw the box catch fire before they shut the door.

Not too terrible so far, right up until the point when they open up the door. So there’s a bunch of bones glowing orange in the heat, and a recognizeable skull, and gas jets flaming down onto it all.

Then the attendant has this fire-poker/shovel tool, and just sticks it in and starts smashing up the bones, skull and all. So in the span of a few seconds, it went from recognizable remains to just chunks.

Then later after it had all cooled, they raked it all into a little container and put it in some sort of machine (cremulator) that ground it all up into a relatively coarse powder.

A Certain Kind of Death (YouTube link). The LA morgue workers shown are really that nice IRL. (My brother’s remains are currently in their care and will be cremated and put into their plot with the rest of 2012’s)

Just a clarification of Santa Cruiz’n’s post: the med students will be dissecting you, but it may be to retrieve organs and tissues for whatever use they can be put to, including resale to non-medical industrial processes. You are helping your fellow man one way or another, but you’ll also assist somebody else’s for-profit business. And your estate may be billed for transportation to their facility as well as shipping of your cremains back to your family.

Actually, the clip I talked about was from the end of that documentary apparently- around 56 minutes in.

Having watched documentaries on Hindus that showed their cremation ceremonies out in the open, you get to see the oldest man in the family break up the remaiming bones-- starting with the skull.
That’s just the way it is.
If you find that gross, I’m sure you can find accurate descriptions of what happens to a body that’s buried in a casket.
To me, creamtion is a much more civilized way of disposing of remains.
And it’s more ecological and it’s far cheaper.

Thanks, Slithy Toves. I wasn’t aware of that.
Stanford Medical just said they would pick up the body and deliver the final ashes to my family. They didn’t say anything about selling body parts or transporation costs.
I really don’t mind so much about selling my parts as long as the money goes to Stanford. But it seems to me that they should cover the transportation.

I’ll be making inquiries.

Thanks, Slithy Toves. I wasn’t aware of that.
Stanford Medical just said they would pick up the body and deliver the final ashes to my family. They didn’t say anything about selling body parts or transporation costs.
I really don’t mind so much about selling my parts as long as the money goes to Stanford. But it seems to me that they should cover the transportation.

I’ll be making inquiries.

I suppose it may vary, but my mother’s remains were donated to UNM. No charges whatsoever were billed to us. It occurred to me that it would be a great way for a low income person to get a free cremation. But she also passed away in the same town in which her body was to be dissected. If the body had to be shipped to another town I don’t know what they would have done. Hospice took care of everything for us, but it needed to have been notified and had the right documents notarized ahead of time. If pre-arrangements were not made, the would not accept her. If she had died without being on hospice, I think we might have had to do more ourselves.

Each state has its own laws and each university has its own policies.

Her body needed to be preserved in a special preparation, different from the normal embalming techniques. This preparation made all of her organs and pieces useless for anything other than dissection by students or researchers. I suppose they could have sold, for example, her head to a dentistry school. But her skin, for example, could not have been sold to some place doing facelifts, creating profit. But all of their dissections were done by their doctor/nursing/anatomy students.

Am told that some learning institutions will re-use bodies for a few years, but UNM evidently receives several donations per year so many students can train properly and have fresh cadavers annually. At the end of the year, the students have a memorial for their donors families. I did not attend because I lived far away and also because I had a strange feeling of jealousy that strangers got to be so intimate with my mother, more intimate than I ever got to be. I felt like I deserved to have been there in that class with them while they dissected those muscles that used to hold me and examined her organs that I used to feed with my best cooking.

But we sent pictures for their slide show.

It surprised me that I was bothered that we couldn’t have a “proper” memorial for her with her cremains there.

These feelings surprised me a lot and I got a little counseling at our local hospice. I am grateful to my mother for having said to us kids that she wanted her remains donated to education from when we were old enough to understand. For those of you who are considering donation, may I suggest that you tell your family early and often so they don’t think there is any possibility that it was just a passing fancy (pun intended).

But back closer to the topic: the University gave us the option of having her cremains sent to us or for them to “take care of”. We asked for them to be returned. They came via postal service marked “human remains”. The “femail man” offered her condolences while we signed for the package. I was surprised at how small it was. The femail man told me that every human remains package has a different weight.

I was afraid to open it because I thought it might just have been a plastic bag in the cardboard box, but there was a decent looking plastic box inside. Her cremains were sealed in plastic inside that. When I looked, I was surprised to see a few larger pieces there that were recognizable as bone. But mostly it was granular, the size of sand.

I’m sorry I’m a little off topic but I thought you might appreciate my experience and hope it will help you make the best decisions you can make.

I recently had a friend to die and his request was to be cremated. He mentioned this to me earlier this year. Your column was very informative, now I know what his body went through. This doesn’t make his loss any easier to deal with, but it lets me know what his final process in this world was like. Thanks

“Spontaneous human combustion” is actually relevant. The lore around it is complex, but the premise is that (a) there’s no evident ignition source; (b) the body burns to ash without disturbing the surroundings or spreading; (c) this apparently happens in a supposedly short period of time.

Investigation of events labeled thusly are typically found to have certain similarities. Noteworthy for (a), there often is an evident source for ignition. Many victims are either elderly or impaired by alcohol, and thus not mobile and possibly self-sedated. Often, they are smokers who fall asleep while smoking. Occassionally, there are other ignition sources, but the idea that there aren’t any is mistaken.

For (c), this is also fallacious. The victims are often unwitnessed overnight or for long periods of time. The idea that it only takes a short time is based upon the fact of the lack of the fire spreading to the surroundings but burning hot enough to destroy the body, or most of the body.

With regards to (b), this is surprisingly true. Often the head and torso are burned to ash, no bones or only skull fragments remain, while the legs and arms may be intact. Typically, there is charring and signs of burning where the body lay, but damage not spreading far, and certainly not engulfing the house. Sometimes there are reasonably flammable materials nearby that are unsinged.

The mechanism has been discovered. The person, who is inebriated or otherwise incapacitated, is lying in bed or perhaps a soft chair. They get a fire going on their clothing, often from smoking and passing out. The fire begins by burning the relatively flammable clothing and such, but begins a strange process whereby the body fat from the torso is rendered to liquid, soaks into the surrounding cloth, and thereby begins to burn like a candle. In a candle, the wick is primarily a support to keep the liquid wax in the flame, and the liquid is the fuel that burns. Same way a lantern works with a gas blown into a charred mantle, or an oil lamp works. The body fat is drawn into the cloth of the bedding and clothing and thereby burns hot enough to sustain the fire, but it is a fairly low fire that is contained around the body, and thus does not spread very easily. Thus the surroundings are not disturbed.

The fire is undisturbed and burns for several hours, often overnight. This allows the fire to fully consume the part of the body immersed in the fire - the torso and head. However, limbs that are further away and lower in body fat may not be burned, and are thus left behind. Eventually the fire burns itself out.

What makes the fire able to completely destroy the bones as opposed to cremation is the length of time. Cremations run for a couple hours, and busting up the bones and grinding them is a time and fuel saver. But SHC fires burn for eight hours or more.

Experiments have been run using pig carcasses and they confirm the wicking effect and the results.

So SHC is rather a misnomer.

Or, what Cecil said.