Cremation and Contagion
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Eliminating Fears and Myths
The question has arisen a time or two: Is it dangerous to expose yourself to the cremation ashes of a person who has died of a contagious disease such as AIDS? The answer, of course, is no.
But, because some have asked the question, it is apparent that a discussion is in order of what happens during the cremation process. An accurate understanding of that process will surely be enough to assure even the toughest of skeptics that the molecules of dangerous diseases stand no chance of surviving a cremation. (In fact, this is why cremation has historically been the body disposal method of choice in times of famine and plague throughout history.)
Scientists such as the late W.E.D Evans of London have taken a matter-of-fact approach to observing and cataloguing exactly what happens during a cremation. Experts then study these observation records for a wide variety of useful purposes, most of which are beyond the grasp of the layman. For our current quest, which is decidedly a layman’s venture, Evans’ general description of a cremation is probably of greatest value.
During a cremation, Evans tells us, a body enters an oven that quickly heats to more than 1600 degrees Celsius. Usually, the body is in a hard wood casket that breaks down completely in the first few minutes, leaving the body completely exposed to the oven’s heat and flames (which sprout from the casket’s burning wood, not from the oven itself. In modern cremations, the ovens are not usually heated by flames but, rather, by an electric or gas source.) From there, the body’s outer layers – hardly more sturdy than the tough wood of the casket – begin to likewise, catch fire and simply melt away.
Except for incidental metal that may be in the casket or the body, the body’s bones are made of the least flammable material in the oven. But even they are, eventually, no match for the oven’s heat. After about 2 hours in the oven, the tough molecules of bones (which, left alone, could last thousands of years under ground) loose their grip on one another and turn into, well, ashes.
The fact is, nothing that is not metal comes out of a cremation oven in anything close to the same form as it went in. The intense heat breaks the molecular connections of nearly everything in the oven, and completely new substances form. That means, since they are not metal, the bacteria of dangerous diseases are, of course, no longer the bacteria of dangerous diseases.
Where, exactly, all of the different molecules go and what new substances they form (from gases to ashes) is still a matter for chemists and other scientists to ponder. But, in the meantime, since no one has ever been known to contract a disease from cremation ashes, it is very clear that the molecules do not form new dangerous bacteria of any kind.
If you find yourself still unconvinced, then, well, you might re-consider eating meat again. Is not cooking meat supposed to kill any dangerous lurking bacteria? And even the hottest grill is far cooler than the inside of the average cremation oven, right?