Cremation: History, Process, and Regulations

January 2003, Vol. 8, No. 1
ISSN 1540 5273

Marsha A. Goetting and Claire DelGuerra


In response to clientele interest in cremation, the Montana Extension Service developed a program and a MontGuide (fact sheet) on cremation. The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the history of cremation, cremation rates, reasons why people choose cremation, the cremation process, cost of cremation, and regulations regarding the disposition of cremated human remains. The article also makes recommendations for Extension educators who want to develop a similar program in their states.

Why a program on cremation was developed Montana

When the Cascade County Montana State University Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent presented “It’s Your Choice: Consumer Guidelines for a Funeral and Burial” to several service groups during the winter of 2001, she was surprised that most of the participant’s questions were about cremation. “Does my body have to be embalmed? Is a casket necessary? What does it cost? Is it legal to scatter ashes?”

Because the agent didn’t have answers to these questions, she contacted the MSU Extension Family Economics Specialist who “confessed ignorance” as well. They decided to team up and investigate regulations on cremation that were specific to Montana. Their goal was to develop a MontGuide (fact sheet) that could be used as a resource for follow-up presentations. In addition, the two Extension educators believed that other county agents in the state would be interested in presenting educational classes about cremation in their communities if they had materials that explained state and federal regulations.

The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the history of cremation, cremation rates, reasons why people choose cremation, the cremation process, cost of cremation, and regulations regarding the disposition of cremated human remains. The article also makes recommendations for Extension educators who want to develop a similar program in their states.

History of cremation

Cremation dates back to the late Stone Age as evidenced by finds of decorative pottery urns in western Russia among the Slavic peoples. Modern cremation began after Professor Burnetti of Italy displayed his model at the 1873 Vienna Exposition (Cremation Association of North America 2002).

In 1876, Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in the United States in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1884 the second crematory opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Groups behind early crematory openings included Protestant clergy who desired to reform burial practices and members of the medical profession who were concerned about the unhealthy conditions around early cemeteries. By 1900, there were 20 crematories in operation in the United States (Cremation Association of North America 2002).

Cremation rates

Countries such as Japan (97 percent), Great Britain (70 percent) and Scandinavia (65 percent) continue to have a high percentage of cremations. In Canada the rate is 38 percent (Cremationist 2000, 36(2):10).

During 2000, the cremation rate in the United States was 25.5 percent (2,367,000 deaths with 603,092 cremations). By 2010 the National Funeral Directors Association predicts the cremation rate will climb to 36 percent. In 2000, there were six states with a cremation rate above 50 percent: Hawaii and Nevada (61 percent), Washington and Oregon (56 percent), and Arizona and Montana (51 percent) (Cremation Association of North America, 2002).

Why people choose cremation

In a national survey respondents expressed the following reasons for their preference to be cremated.

  • To save money (24 percent)
  • To save land (17 percent)
  • Personal preference (11 percent)
  • Simplicity and convenience (9 percent).

Other reasons listed included: concerns for the environment, cold-weather constraints, and ease of transportation to distant burial sites (Cremationist 2000, 36(1):25).

Description of the cremation process

Prior to cremation, Montana law requires that the crematory have a written cremation authorization that is signed by the authorizing agent. The authorizing agent is the person entitled to determine the final disposition of human remains (MCA 2001). Montana statutes allow for a person or an authorized individual on the person’s behalf prior to death, to complete a prearranged authorization for cremation with a licensed funeral director or licensed mortician (MCA 2001).

In Montana, the right for another person to control the disposition of the remains (unless other directions have been provided by the deceased) is in the following order: spouse, majority of adult children, parent, or close relative of the deceased. The State of Montana does not require embalming prior to cremation nor is a casket required (Montana Board of Funeral Service 2001). Nationally, about 90 percent of cremations do not have a casket (Cremation Association of North America 2002).

Cremation takes place at a crematory or crematorium. The deceased person’s body is placed in a casket or durable cremation container. The container is then placed in the cremation chamber, where the temperature is raised to approximately 1,600 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. After approximately two and one half hours, all organic matter is consumed by heat or evaporation. What remains are bone fragments which are termed cremated remains or cremains. People outside the industry typically refer to the remains as “ashes.”

After the chamber is cooled the cremains are removed. Most crematories process the bone fragments into fine particles that resemble fine gray or white sand and then place them in a container or an urn provided by the family (International Cemetery and Funeral Association 2002).

Cost of cremation

The National Funeral Directors Association General Price List Survey conducted in January 2001 revealed that the national cost for a cremation (with a container provided by the crematory) ranged from $300 to $3,000. In Montana the average cost was $1,383 with a range of $850 to $2,299 (Refsland 2001). However, the total cost depends on what additional services are desired by the family and other products requested from the crematory. In comparison, the national average cost of a funeral in 2001 that included embalming, casket, vault, and other commonly selected services was $6,130.

Disposition of cremains

The final resting place for the cremains varies with the wishes of the individual who was cremated or the desires of family members. One option is a columbarium, which is a building or structure where single niche spaces or family units may be selected. Niches are recessed compartments enclosed by either glass or metal ornamental fronts upon which the deceased’s name and dates can be listed. Family lots may be used. Some cemeteries permit the interment of more than one person in an adult space if cremation has occurred. In many cemeteries there are specially designed areas for burial, which are called urn gardens. Another alternative is the scattering of the cremains on land, sea, or by air (Cremation Association of North America 2002).

Scattering of cremains

Appropriate state and federal government agencies were contacted and informed that the Extension educators were writing a MontGuide on cremation, and they wanted to include regulations for scattering cremated human remains. While two federal agencies, the Forest Service (United States Department of Agriculture) and Bureau of Land Management (Department of Interior), manage millions of acres of lands in Montana, each had different rules regarding the scattering and burial of cremated remains. The Forest Service does not authorize the scattering or interment of cremated human remains on National Forest System lands except in existing cemeteries. However, no federal permits are necessary for the scattering of cremated remains on Bureau of Land Management lands unless the process becomes a commercial enterprise.

Because Montana has seven reservations, information was also included in the MontGuide about the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act that dictates Tribal ownership of reservation land (25 USC 3001 et seq). Non-tribal members were informed to seek authority from the appropriate tribal council before attempting to scatter cremated remains on tribal trust lands. Similar cautions would apply on reservations located in other states.

Information was also included in the MontGuide about the process required for scattering cremated remains on National Park system lands. Because each national park has its own conditions for granting permission to scatter cremated remains, persons who want to scatter cremated remains should contact the superintendent of the park where the deceased requested to be scattered. For example, Yellowstone National Park, which has 3 percent of its 2.2 million acres located in Montana, requires a special use permit with a cost of $25. Glacier Park, which has 1 million acres located in the north western part of Montana, provides a form letter requesting that the Chief Ranger’s Office be notified of the exact area where the cremated remains were scattered and the day and time the scattering took place.

Shipping of cremains

Cremated human remains may be mailed if they are packed in a sift-proof container or other type of container that is sealed in a durable outer container. The U.S. Postal Service requires that the package be sent as registered mail with return receipt services. Cremated remains cannot be sent by overnight express mail, regular mail, or certified mail (United States Postal Service 1999). United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express prohibit the shipping of cremated human remains.

MontGuide review process

Members of the Montana Board of Funeral Service and Montana Funeral Directors Association reviewed the MontGuide drafts. Division heads from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks also reviewed the MontGuide drafts and provided additional information regarding state rules about the disposal of cremated remains.

The publication was near completion when the sad discoveries at the Tri-State crematory in Noble, Georgia made the headlines (Detroit Wire Services 2002). A section was added to the MontGuide that explained provisions and protections Montana has in place to assure families that the cremated remains they receive are the ones of their loved ones (MCA 2001). The Legal Affairs Task Force of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association has developed model guidelines for state laws and regulations to verify that the cremation container has some means of identification of the deceased and is accompanied by proper documentation.

Adaptation in other states

The MSU Extension MontGuide 200201 HR titled “Cremation”can be printed from the following Web site The publication could be adapted Extension educators in other states. A review process involving the state board of funeral service, state funeral and cremation associations, and other appropriate state agencies is recommended.

Although the federal information should be identical in all states, there may be additional federal agencies with jurisdictions that were not mentioned in the Montana fact sheet.

Also, state laws vary widely so Extension educators should contact various agencies to obtain state-specific regulations. For example, Montana law allows for a burial fund of up to $1,500 and an irrevocable burial contract on a state approved form with a funeral home that are excluded resources when determining Medicaid eligibility. Other states may have more stringent limitations.

Program impacts

As of November 2002, more than 2,400 individuals had visited the MSU Extension Cremation Web site. A PowerPoint presentation was prepared for use by Extension agents for their presentations to service groups. During 2003, the MSU Extension Family Economics Specialist has been requested to present programs during winter statewide events, such as Cabin Fever, January Thaw, and Winter Expo.

After reviewing the MontGuide, the Montana Funeral Directors Association provided funding to help defray the costs of printing. Copies (1,500) were made available in the 24 crematories located in 14 towns across the state. In addition, 1,500 copies of the MontGuide were distributed to Montanans as a result of newspaper articles and radio announcements of its availability.

Evaluation plans include contacting program participants to determine what actions they took as a result of reading the MontGuide or attending an educational program on cremation.

  • Did they discuss their cremation wishes with family members?
  • Did they put their cremation wishes in writing?
  • Did they make cremation preneed arrangements with a funeral director?
  • What method of disposition of the remains is preferred?

With at least 4,100 cremations in Montana each year, there is definitely a need for educational programs to inform consumers that cremation is an option. The MontGuide is one method of informing the public of costs and regulations.

Editor’s Note: For information on cremation laws specific to North Carolina, see Planning Your Estate: After Death Choices.




Cremation Association of North America. On-line:

International Cemetery and Funeral Association. On-line:

Montana Board of Funeral Service. 2001. Consumer Information About Funerals.

Montana Codes Annotated (MCA). 2001. 35-21-802, 35-21-810, 37-19-705/708, 37-19-101.

Ritualization and Memorialization: 1999 Update. Cremationist, 36(1):4-24.

Ritualization and Memorialization: 1999 Update. Cremationist, 36(2):8-29.

National Funeral Directors Association. U. S. Cremation Statistics. On-line:

Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. 25 USC 3001 et seq.

Refsland, Gary A. 2001. Montana Mortuaries 2001: Funeral Service General Price List.

Rural town’s task: ID corpses. February, 2002. Detroit News wire services. On-line:

United States Postal Service. July 1999. Hazardous, Restricted, and Perishable Mail.Publication 52.

Within Worldwide. January 2000. Executive Summary of the Funeral and Memorial Information Counsel Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization: 1999 Update.


Marsha A. Goetting, Ph.D., CFP®, CFCS, Professor and Extension Family Economics Specialist, Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, Montana State University.

Claire DelGuerra, Cascade County Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Great Falls, Montana.

Cite this article:

Goetting, Marsha A., and Claire DelGuerra. 2003. Cremation: history, process and regulations. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues 8(1).



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