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Cremation or Burial Is a Difficult Choice

When we are young that choice is furthest from our minds.

By Unravelling the UniversePublished 6 months ago 4 min read
Cremation or Burial Is a Difficult Choice
Photo by Matt Bennett on Unsplash

British spelling.

An estimated 117 billion humans have existed, and around 8 billion of us are still alive today, but none have escaped death, so there comes a time in our lives when we need to make a choice: cremation or burial.

Some people come to the end of their lives with no preference, leaving someone else to make the choice.

Cremation seems to be getting more popular in most countries around the world, but some religions are strongly opposed to the practice.

This article is not about religion, so it won’t be mentioned again.

An average-sized adult human consists of approximately 7 octillion atoms; that number is 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, and most of them are billions of years old.

An average human cell holds an estimated 100 trillion atoms, and there are trillions of cells in our bodies.

In all forms of life, atoms are put together in an extremely complex way, widely thought to be the result of evolution. We don’t notice the evolutionary process; our lives are too short to see the tiny changes.

Primitive life forms were living on Earth almost 4 billion years ago. Like millions of other species, we are the latest result of that extremely long evolutionary path.

There are about 90 known naturally occurring chemical elements that make up the Earth, and 21 of them make up the human body’s structure.

Roughly 96% of the human body is made up of just four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Most of the remaining 4% consists of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, and iron.

A chemical element is a pure substance that consists of atoms with the same atomic number, which is the number of protons in their nucleus, their centre.

Hydrogen, the lightest element, has one proton in its nucleus; helium has two protons, making it slightly heavier; and so on up the periodic table.

Apart from a hydrogen atom, all individual atoms contain varying amounts of protons, neutrons, and electrons, but that information is for another article.

During our lives, vast numbers of atoms are constantly leaving and joining our bodies. The lightest atom, hydrogen, came into existence well over 13 billion years ago, not long after the birth of the universe itself. The heavier atoms came much later; they were manufactured in stars and supernova explosions.

My favourite astronomer and presenter, Carl Sagan, once said, “We’re made of star stuff.” Carl is not with us now, but I can still hear his distinct voice.

Under normal conditions, atoms cannot be destroyed; they just keep on being recycled.

By Linus Nylund on Unsplash

The body of an adult human male contains about 60% water, and that of an adult female around 55%. Water is so important for all the life on our planet; without it, no life as we know it can exist.

When someone dies, the most complex object in the known universe begins to shut down. That object is, of course, our brain.

All our feelings, love, and millions of memories disappear forever.


When someone takes his or her last breath, nature starts to reclaim the matter we were made of; the atoms that construct a human being are just a temporary loan.

When we die, the atoms, molecules, and matter are no longer needed; they don’t die with us; they just carry on being recycled as they have done for billions of years.

The total amount of water in the oceans, seas, lakes, ice caps, and atmosphere is calculated at 1,386 million cubic kilometres. During our lives, our bodies use a minute amount of that water to live and function.

When someone gets buried, water is the first thing to leave our bodies; it leaches into the ground and makes its way up to the atmosphere, becoming part of the Earth’s water cycle once more.

Depending on the conditions, roughly 100 years after a human burial, most of the atoms that made that person will have dissipated, a few of the lighter atoms will have escaped to space, and some atoms will have become part of objects or other living things. The only thing left after that long time will be broken-down bone — just dust.


The cremation process is a lot quicker at dispersing most of the matter that makes a human being. Depending on the temperature and the size of the person, the process takes between one and a half and three hours.

Most of the octillions of atoms that make our complex bodies go up the chimney and disperse; their job is over.

Extreme heat does not affect individual atoms; as I said, they cannot be destroyed under any normal conditions here on our planet. All that is left after the cremation is bone fragments, which are mostly calcium phosphate.

Most families choose one of three options: bury the remains at a cemetery, scatter the remains at the person’s favourite outside location, or keep them in an urn.

I hope my article has not been too depressing!

The end.

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You may find my easy-to-understand stories about the universe and life interesting and educational.

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About the Creator

Unravelling the Universe

We can only imagine what our early ancestors thought as they gazed up at the night sky—were they curious about what the heavens had to hide? 

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Comments (3)

  • Phil Flannery6 months ago

    I love the simplicity of your article. You broke it down into the its basic bits. Much like we do when we die. Cremation for me, and plant a tree and put me under it.

  • Susan Fourtané6 months ago

    No, this was not depressing. It was rather interesting, indeed.

Unravelling the UniverseWritten by Unravelling the Universe

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