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Straight Dope

Exactly what occurs during the process of cremation? What exactly remains after the process is done? I hear all kinds of opinions on this, but I would really like to know the facts. -- Lisa, via AOL

My assistant Jane asked if I wanted her to visit a crematory so she could experience cremation in person. I appreciate the thought, I told her, but don't kill yourself. Fact is, we have detailed knowledge of what happens during cremation thanks to investigators such as W.E.D. Evans, M.D., a "senior lecturer in morbid anatomy" at Charing Cross Medical School at the University of London. It's one of the great regrets of my life that I never took this guy's class.

In his book The Chemistry of Death, Evans describes the cremation process with the detached air of the true scientist. The body is placed in a special gas-fired oven and burned at a temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically a wooden coffin is used, which soon collapses, exposing the body directly to the flames. "The skin and hair at once scorch, char, and burn," Evans writes. "Occasionally there is swelling of the abdomen before the skin and abdominal muscles char and split.... Destruction of the soft tissues gradually exposes parts of the skeleton. The skull is soon devoid of covering," et cetera. He goes on in this vein for quite a while.

Here's something you might have wondered about. "There is a popular idea that early in the cremation process the heat causes the trunk to flex forwards violently so that the body suddenly 'sits up,' bursting open the lid of the coffin, but this has not been observed personally, nor has this been described to the author by anyone in attendance at cremations in the London district."

Forty-five minutes to an hour is generally sufficient to consume a body, though obese corpses may take 90 minutes or more. As soon as the ashes cool, they're crushed by a machine into three or four pounds of coarse white powder (more for big folks).

Sounds pretty grim, I suppose. But there's a lot to be said for cremation, and I don't mean just the fact that it's less expensive and wasteful than most burials. Cecil has heard of one fellow who left instructions that the urn containing his ashes be placed on a table with a spoon in it. At the memorial service mourners were reminded that the deceased loved to travel and were asked to scatter a spoonful of his ashes in some far corner of the world. They proceeded to carry his remains to Jamaica, Yosemite, Nepal, and dozens of other places. Something almost holy about it, don't you think? And it sure beats buying a wreath.

What is the difference between white- and dark-meat chicken? In other words, what makes white meat white and dark meat dark? -- Steve, via AOL

White meat is white because of the chicken's chronic lack of exercise, something to think about next time you're about to curl up in front of the TV for another I Dream of Jeannie rerun. Dark meat, which avian myologists (bird-muscle scientists) refer to as "red muscle," is used for sustained activity -- when it comes to chickens, chiefly walking. The dark color comes from a chemical compound in the muscle called myoglobin, which plays a key role in oxygen transport. White muscle, in contrast, is suitable only for short, ineffectual bursts of activity such as, in the case of chickens, flying. That's why the chicken's leg meat and thigh meat are dark and its breast meat (which constitutes the primary flight muscles) is white. Other birds more capable in the flight department, such as ducks and geese, have red muscle (and dark meat) throughout. Muscle type is genetically determined, so we can forgive the chicken for thinking, "Hey, exercise is futile! My breast is going to stay white no matter how many reps I do on the Nautilus!" A lot of humans have the same feeling. Where's that remote?

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Cecil Adams

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