If you are planning to dispose of your recently cremated loved one you may have questions about handling the ashes themselves. What should you do, it is safe, are you in any physical danger from the cremains?
Human ashes are in no way toxic to other humans when touched or if they make contact with the skin during a botched scattering. The cremation process doesn’t introduce or release any toxins into the cremated remains and thus they are 100% natural. Essentially ashes are just pulverized human bone.
Although touching human ash is going to be safe in most situations, there are some things that people do with cremains that may actually be harmful to you and the environment. So, to be fully aware of the situation, I invite you to keep on reading.
What are cremated remains exactly?
Generally when people think about human ashes, and I was guilty of this too until I started this website, they imagine them like a wood fire. Unlike ash from burnt wood or charcoal, human ashes are made up entirely of bones.
All other tissue is incinerated in the initial part of the cremation process, including the casket if one was used (see my article here for how to cut cremation budgets in half).
This escapes the cremator in the form of gas which is released into the atmosphere. What is left are the bone fragments which have also been reduced by the heat.
Cremated bone is mostly made up of calcium phosphate but there can also be other minerals present in varying degrees, particularly the salts of potassium or sodium, as well as trace amounts of carbon.
These bone fragments are then placed into a processing machine that pulverizes them into powder, or what we call ashes. So, in essence, touching human ash is the same as handling a bone that you might give to a lucky pup.
As far as anything else being in the ashes, generally, there are no non-organic materials as the crematorium lookout for surgical implants, fillings, and metalwork from the coffins and removes it with a magnet. Even gold, which can become magnetic with heat, will be picked up assuming that it hasn’t been removed before cremation.
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Are human ashes toxic to humans?
We often use the word toxic incorrectly, it means that something has the ability to seriously harm us and lead to death.
Human ashes are in no way toxic to other humans and will not lead to instant death when handled even incorrectly. The principal component of cremains, calcium phosphate, has been known to cause skin irritation and respiratory irritation for some people, so scattering ashes correctly is important.
This is why it’s best not to allow human ash to get into your eyes, nose or mouth if you can help it. Some people may also get some sort of irritation if they handle the ashes. However, this doesn’t make it toxic!
Can human ashes carry diseases?
When someone dies of a contagious disease the usual rules of the disposal of human remains are suspended and the person is usually cremated quite quickly. Which begs the question, how safe our their cremated remains?
Cremation, which is in excess of 1400°F, is hot enough to kill off any pathogens that may have killed the deceased. Even if the person who died had something as transmissible as the bubonic plague, you would not be at risk handling their ashes. In fact most bacteria is killed above 150°F.
So, if your loved one unfortunately died of a tragic illness, do not be afraid to give them the respect they deserve by spreading their ashes in a treasured location, or even keeping their urn in your home for years to come.
What happens if you inhale human ashes accidentally?
Scattering ashes, especially on a windy day, is not an easy exercise even for someone who has done it before. So unpleasant accidents, such as cremains in the mouth, can happen more often than you’d think.
Although human ashes are in no way toxic, the calcium phosphate in the cremains can be a mild irritant when inhaled. It is likely that you will have upper respiratory tract irritation and if the ash makes it to the lungs, pulmonary irritation. If this happens, visit your doctor for an examination.
The key thing to know is that exposure to calcium phosphate has not been observed to cause death, which means that you don’t need to panic but you do need to get some help if you start to feel uncomfortable.
Ultimately the worse thing about an accident like this is the psychological element of knowing you have inhaled your deceased loved one. It may be an immensely humous scene in a TV show, but much less funny when it happens in real life
Can you get sick from smoking human ashes?
Apparently, there is quite a movement in the ‘stoner’ community about smoking human ashes alongside cannabis. The most well-known story was about Tupac Shakur’s crew who apparently smoked his cremated remains. Even Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones claimed to have snorted his late father along with copious amounts of Cocaine:
So, the anecdotal evidence points to the fact that smoking human remains doesn’t automatically lead to extreme sickness. However, the ritual of smoking ashes isn’t a particularly healthy one. Natural deposits of calcium, the main component of bone, doesn’t produce toxic gases when burned.
It could also be construed as quite a disrespectful act too, but that really depends on you.
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Are human ashes edible?
There are many ways to commemorate the dead, but is eating their cremated remains one of them you are thinking about trying?
It is possible to eat cremated human or pet remains and not get sick. Cremated remains have been mineralized and are largely calcium, sodium, and carbon all of which are digestible compounds for humans. Ashes do not, apparently, taste that great but in theory, will do you little harm.
According to an interview with Rolf Halden Director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Biodesign Institute, human remains are not toxic and any risk of heavy metal poisoning is severely reduced by the removal of fillings and other metals before pulverizing the bone fragments.
The have been several reported cases of people eating human ashes, either directly or as an ingredient.
One woman, Cassie admitted to an addiction to consuming her late husband’s ashes. Cassie lost her husband suddenly and presumably as a coping mechanism began to consume his remains
Another instance of known consumption of human ashes was when a teenager at the Davis High School decided to bake her grandfather’s ashes into some cookies and share that with classmates. Many of whom did not know what was in the cookies.
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