Once a while, I would get questions from people saying they worried about the ashes they collected from crematorium might not be their loved ones. And seriously, what might be the worst to know that the ashes you thought were your loved ones, and it turned out to be mixed with others, or not even your loved ones’? The rare case of ashes of two different people were mixed in Hong Kong’s busiest crematorium few months back.
This incident came to light after the authority launched and “completed” the investigation of the mixed-up ashes. The crematorium’s incinerator comprises an upper and lower compartment. When cremation process begins, bodies would send into the upper compartment for 70 minutes burning with high temperature. Then the incinerator would move the remains to the lower compartment, and continue burning in a comparatively lower temperature for another hour. Meanwhile, a second corpse is then moved into the upper compartment to maximize cremation efficiency.
Sadly, due to a claimed mechanical error in April, the contents in both upper and lower compartments were mixed. Crematorium apologized for the accident and the error to affected families. And returned them the allegedly separated and identified remains, by measuring temperature differences of the remains as the methodology.
Cremation is a rather popular funeral practice in modern society. With the power of fire, all bones are burned into pieces. All the organic components would be gone. Due to the body composition variation in one body, energy uses for each part of the body is different. Hence, time for burning each body aspect would be slightly different. If the remains were mistaken (or identity was questionable) during the burning stages, it is still possible to recover the less damaged remains for DNA testing.
After burning, technicians or morticians would collect the bone fragments and take them to the grounder. And this would be the point of no return. As the bone is grounded to ashes, no identification could be done through fragments recognitions.
From the abovementioned case, if the authorities figured the mistaken identifies or the incident right after the bones leaving the compartments, it might be still possible for anthropologists or experts to separate the cremains (cremated remains) through bone fragments analysis by using extensively antemortem data. This kind of data includes pathology histories, medical history and dental record of a person throughout the life time. Certainly, it does not mean it would be a 100% perfect match or telling a detail report. Yet, it is doable to separate the mixed-up remains, especially if we are talking about two sets of remains from opposite sexes.
Since the incident, the crematorium claimed that the incinerator only handling one set of remains at a time. Sacrificing the efficiency to prevent this type of incident from happening again. But is this the first incident happened in Hong Kong crematoriums? Certainly not! In 2007, a 88 year-old man’s body was cremated instead of the original 77 year-old man through a local hospital. The chief of the hospital later admitted that the corresponding staff was not completely following the protocol on confirming the identity of the individual.
Today, the remains have already returned back to the family. One of the families though is not satisfied with the statement, reason, and the monetary compensation gestured by the government. To us, what they are after might be ashes from a fire only. But to them, that is a person. It is the psychological comfort the ashes gave soothing the families grief on losing someone they loved. Logically, mixing-up remains would bring psychological discomfort, and rage to the families. This type of incident not only hinted the need for better staff training, internal audits and a more smoothly operation system. Yet, it also questions how the staff in the death-related industry see their work. Will they see it as a simple job for burning corpses? Or if they see it as a job with respect, in order to send someone’s beloved away? From a macro-level, it is the efficiency of cremation more important? Or, should help the families’ grief, finding peace and comfort comes first? I am sure authorities and the public should both contribute to find the middle way, in order to truly prevent this type of incidents ever happen again.
Coconuts Hong Kong. (2017, June 01). Crematorium combines ashes of two bodies in literal mix-up. Retrieved from: https://coconuts.co/hongkong/news/crematorium-combines-ashes-two-bodies-literal-mix/
Farigrieve, S.I. (2007). Forensic Cremation Recovery and Analysis. CRC Press.
Mok, D., L. Goh, M. Ann, and M. A. Benitez. (2007, April 12). Family cremates wrong body. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from: http://www.scmp.com/article/588579/family-cremates-wrong-body