What are human ashes like

If you’re preparing to receive ashes, you might not know what to expect. This guide will be let you know what ashes are like ahead of time.

Human ashes aren’t always exactly the same. They can vary slightly in colour and weight, but they’re usually odourless and always safe to touch.

The colour of ashes can vary

Ashes are between grey or grey-brown in colour. They are usually mid-to-light grey, but it’s normal for them to be darker grey, or to have a brown tinge.

The colour of a person’s skin doesn’t affect the colour of the ashes. Metals we absorb into our bones from the environment is what affects the colour. For example, if the person lived in an area with lower-pH drinking water, they’re more likely to be exposed to traces of copper, lead, and cadmium. 

Those who lived near factories may also take in more metals throughout their lives by breathing in metal particles. In this case, a person’s ashes might be slightly darker in colour. Certain metals from our diets (like iron, manganese, and cobalt) can also affect the colour of our ashes.

Ashes are heavier than some people expect

When we think of ashes, we tend to think of the ashes we sweep from fireplaces. But human ashes aren’t the same type of ash - they’re made of bone. Bones are made of various acids, minerals, and salts, which means they’re heavier than many people expect.

How heavy the ashes are will depend on the person who’s died. Men and young adults have the most solid bones. Women, children and elderly people’s bones are usually less solid. So the overall weight of the ashes will depend on the person’s age, height, gender, and health. 

On average, human ashes weigh between 2 to 4 kilograms. That’s about the same weight as a full 3-litre water bottle.

You can choose to have a direct cremation

A direct cremation service is where we collect the person who’s died, carry out the cremation, and return the ashes to you. You might consider this option if you don’t want to have a traditional funeral service.

Ashes are non-toxic and safe to touch

Human ashes consist purely of bone matter and trace amounts of minerals like sodium and potassium. Sodium is the main compound that forms salt. Potassium is a nutritious mineral found in certain foods like potatoes, bananas, broccoli, and spinach. Neither are toxic or unsafe to touch. 

You won’t be harmed if you accidentally touch ashes. The only thing to bear in mind is that they can stick to your skin quite easily. You might like to lay down plastic sheeting or wear gloves if you need to transfer them.

There are lots of different options for storing or scattering ashes

If you’re unsure what to do with ashes after a cremation, our guide will give you several suggestions.

Human ashes are more like sand than fireplace ashes

Many of us are familiar with fireplace or campfire ashes. They tend to be very light and soft. If you were to touch human ashes, they would feel more coarse and sand-like than ash from wood.

You won’t be able to see teeth in the ashes

Teeth and bones are not quite the same. Teeth are softer on the inside, and harder on the outside. 

The cremation process causes the soft ‘pulp’ inside the teeth to evaporate. The harder outsides, including the tooth’s enamel, may remain, but they will be ground down along with the bones. No teeth will be visible in the ashes when you collect them. 

Things like dental fillings and crowns may remain intact after the cremation, but the crematorium will remove them from the ashes. You can collect these items, or you can ask the crematorium to handle them for you.

Human ashes are odourless

In a small number of cases, people say they can detect a slight metallic smell. But it’s more likely that ashes won’t smell of anything at all.

It’s difficult to extract DNA from ashes

You’ll only need to worry about this if you plan to have the remains DNA tested at some point. You might be considering this if you want to find out about the person’s ancestry, or to establish their biological parents. 

It’s not impossible to extract DNA from cremated remains. It’s much more likely if remaining bone or teeth fragments can be found among the ashes. But modern cremation involves the grinding or ‘pulverisation’ of the bones and teeth, so it can be very difficult to find large enough fragments. 

Ashes are clean and safe to touch

And there’s no right or wrong place to keep or scatter them. Focus on doing what’s comfortable for you, and what feels right for the person who’s died.

Article reviewed

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