Since When Does Cremation Not Include Fire?

Hey Cremation Association of North America (CANA), what's up with the new definition of "cremation"?

Cremation-ashes-300x240I write this with the greatest of disappointment. As a former CANA (Cremation Association of North America) member for many years, I’m discouraged by the organization having allowed a redefinition of “cremation” to sometimes not include fire.

Come on CANA members, really – why are you not up in arms about this? Going in opposition to common knowledge tarnishes a reputation, calling into question an organization.

Before we take a look at CANA’s revised definition, let’s revisit cremation as we all know it (well except CANA). When we think of cremation, we think of fire – and yes, flames! First we’ll take a look at Merriam-Webster’s definition via a screen shot:

Screen shot 2014-07-09 at 9.26.12 PM

Hmm yes it clearly says “burning.” Now we’ll check out Wikipedia: “Cremation is the use of high-temperature burning, vaporization, and oxidation…” plus one of the many images of fire illustrating cremation Wikipedia provides. This image below sure looks like some seriously hot flames to me!


Credit: Wikipedia

I’m more than a little surprised at an attempt at a new definition. Let’s face it, cremation is not new. The first known example of cremated remains dates back 40,000 to 68,000 years ago to Mungo man, where 3 cremated bodies were found in Australia. Cremation was practiced by most early civilizations—many of whom transitioned over time to burial away from paganism. India and Nepal are historically known for their open-air pyres extending into our modern age.

OK now let’s visit the CANA site ( and click on the menu “What is Cremation?” and here’s the answer:

“People generally understand what the term cremation means. When we are asked for a detailed definition, however, we tend to hesitate while searching for appropriate words. A suggested definition of cremation is the: “The mechanical and/or thermal or other dissolution process that reduces human remains to bone fragments.” Cremation includes the processing and usually includes the pulverization of the bone fragments.

This definition covers a variety of technologies that may be applied in order to achieve reduction to bone fragments, including traditional flame-based cremation, calcination and alkaline hydrolysis.”  – CANA

(note: the definition has been changed again since this post was written)

Yes we do “understand what the term means” and why exactly is CANA “hesitating” and “suggesting” a new one? Puzzling?

Why would they redefine cremation you ask? The clue is in the last words “alkaline hydrolysis.” It’s a new form of disposition with no fire whatsoever as part of the process. It seems they are folding alkaline hydrolysis into the organization. Sure, that’s OK, but here’s my suggestion – a rethink on the organization’s name instead. It’s certainly common for organizations to change names as they morph and transition forward over time.

Meanwhile CANA members and our SevenPonds readers take serious note of this and voice your opinions! So please let us hear from you – just what are your thoughts?

SevenPonds explores cremation and other dispositions:

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5 Responses to Since When Does Cremation Not Include Fire?

  1. avatar Daniel Nanty says:

    I’ve been following your blog for some time now. I encourage you to write more about topics such as this. As a consumer I loath to be uneducated when death comes knocking. I hope CANA responds to this in the best way possible.

    Keep up the good work!


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  2. avatar Michael J. Ryan says:

    Nice of my friend Caitlin to direct me here. Good article – touche’!

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  3. I just got input from a member of the Funeral Consumer Alliance and it was pointed out that the latin origin is as follows:

    Late 19th century (as cremation): from Latin cremare’burn’

    Nice of her to contribute this!

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  4. avatar Ron Wilson says:

    Why does the funeral industry insist on doing themselves in. When I was arranging my mom’s funeral I kept getting charged for extras unexpectedly. Everything had a fee. It was like I had to pay the person to just pick up a shovel and then another fee to dig the damn hole. Ok I’m exaggerating but it was so painful to be taken advantage. I will spare you the laundry list of complaints.

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  5. Dear Suzette and Seven Ponds readers,

    CANA is, indeed, the only industry association to take a position on Alkaline Hydrolysis that reflects current law. The revised CANA definition first adopted in 2009 and reaffirmed by the CANA Board of Directors in 2014 references legal definitions as outlined in the nine state laws currently in place. This has proven to be a controversial position, but we chose this for two reasons:

    1) Funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories offering Alkaline Hydrolysis are legally allowed to market their services as cremation, and are doing so successfully as “bio-cremation”, “green cremation”, “water-based cremation”, etc. Even state governments are counting alkaline hydrolysis procedures as cremations on death certificates and reporting them as such.

    2) The mission of the Cremation Association of North America is to serve as the authority and leader in all aspects of cremation through advocacy, education and expertise. CANA leadership elected to pursue a “big tent” approach and be inclusive of all current and future cremation and related technologies.

    Thus far, the controversy over how Alkaline Hydrolysis is related to cremation appears to be limited to the death care industry and has not reached popular culture. From the consumer’s view, the decision-making process, timeframe and the resulting cremated (or hydrolyzed) remains are similar. From the industry’s view, there are other concerns, which you have outlined in your post.

    Of course Alkaline Hydrolysis is a very different procedure than traditional flame-based cremation. CANA continues to work with state regulators to develop and implement updated procedures for regulating these new businesses.

    Thank you for starting this spirited discussion. I have enjoyed following it and hope that my contribution is helpful. I welcome further comments and questions.

    Barbara Kemmis
    Executive Director
    Cremation Association of North America (CANA)

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