March 09, 2017
Cremation is growing in popularity in the United States.
In 2015, 48.6 percent of Americans who died were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). That number is expected to rise to 54.3 percent by 2020.
New Jersey's cremation rate was below the national average at 42.2 percent in 2015, but up from 36.6 percent in 2011.
Stanley Cohen, 83, never thought much about cremation, but that's what he chose for his daughter, Cheryl, when she died in 2008 at the age of 45.
Cohen, a retired Scotch Plains dentist, said he made the arrangements at a nearby funeral home.
"More than once [the funeral director] said to me that all we would get back were Cheryl's ashes," Cohen said, noting that Cheryl had a metal rod in her leg from a car accident, and the family wasn't interested in having it back.
But sometime later, a light bulb went off.
Retired dentist Stanley Cohen shows some of his white gold teeth.
"I don't know when it hit me but I realized, especially as a dentist, that if the deceased have gold crowns in their mouths, that we would not get that back," Cohen said.
Cheryl had no gold teeth, but Cohen and Cheryl's mother do. Cohen, for example, said he has 12 full crowns -- white gold on his molars and several others, which are porcelain fused to gold.
"The funeral home and the crematorium are probably dividing up the gold in some fashion," Cohen said. "They are not throwing it away."
Cohen went back to his contract, and nowhere did it state what would happen to items that wouldn't be destroyed in the cremation process.
"At today's price of gold of more than $1,230 an ounce, those gold caps, which are not 100 percent gold, could be worth lots of dollars," Cohen said. "And if the family is short of funds, it could make the burial expenses easier on their wallets."
This was an unusual question for a Bamboozled column, but we didn't know the answer.
Could families get the metals back? Or would a crematory or funeral home keep, discard or sell the items?
We decided to find out.
First, there appears to be no state law governing what happens to metals that are not destroyed in the cremation process.
So we took the question to the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA).
"Families may request that gold teeth be removed prior to cremation or burial, however they must arrange for a dentist to do so," Barbara Kemmis said. "This act is considered practicing dentistry."
But, she said, too often the gold crowns or implants aren't worth enough to warrant the procedure.
The American Dental Association said it has no policy on the matter.
Retired dentist Stanley Cohen wants to know what happens to gold teeth after someone dies.
Kemmis said typically, metals are recycled and the specifics of the practice are disclosed to the family on the cremation authorization form.
There was nothing of the kind on Cohen's forms.
CANA, along with the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA), actually have a position statement on the issue.
The groups say they embrace environmentally-friendly efforts that are consistent with its members' business missions, and they offer a list of items that might be recovered from the deceased in the cremation process.
These might include casket hardware, orthopedic hardware, pacemakers and defibrillators.
And yes, dental implants.
It says pacemakers, defibrillators and other battery-powered implants should be removed before cremation, sanitized and returned to the manufacturer.
Not to the family.
Then we get to the teeth.
"There are certain items of the deceased, such as gold teeth, which a family may request," it said. "Any item that a family requests from a deceased should be obtained pre-cremation and through applicable consents, releases, authorizations, and third-party involvement."
It doesn't specifically say the teeth must be removed by a dentist.
But if teeth are supposed to be removed by a dentist, does the crematory bring in a surgeon to remove pacemakers and other medical implants?
"Licensed funeral directors and embalmers are trained to remove these implants," CANA's Barbara Kemmis said, noting that certain battery-powered medical implants can explode and pose danger to the operator and the equipment.
The position statement further says metallic waste should be recovered and recycled using recycling services.
It has suggested guidelines, including disclosing to the family the crematory's intent to recycle, saying it should be part of authorization forms.
Then it addresses "compensation," because metals may have monetary value.
"The owner(s) of the crematory or the party recycling the waste must determine a compensation policy in line with their disclosed practices and governing laws," it said. "Any disclosed revenue may be accepted as in income stream, donated to a recognized charitable organization or redeemed for goods and services in provider-sponsored programs."
In short, they can do what they want with the cash.
We're not saying that's wrong, illegal or anything else. But to us, it's all about disclosure.
Consumers have the right to ask for gold teeth to be returned to them. And if a funeral home or crematory plans to recycle them, it should say so on the paperwork.
So, dear readers, we're asking you, our army of consumers, for help.
If you've recently lost a loved one, let us know your experience. Does your paperwork specify what happens to metals or include an authorization to recycle metals? Did the crematory or funeral home volunteer any information? Did you ask for any items back from your loved one's body? What happened?
Photos: Alexandra Pais/For NJ Advance Media