We were recently asked by the You and Yours programme on Radio 4 to give some background comment on the practice of tattooing cremation ash into your skin.
Essentially the ash is mixed with normal ink and then applied to the skin as a normal tattoo. Bit unusual but when we’ve lost someone (or in the radio reports case, a dog) we often want to adopt some lasting reminder, so perhaps not an unusual desire.
From a medical point of view, the question is it safe?
Well cremations are done at temperatures of 800-1000’C so there isn’t going to be any organic compounds left in the ash, so no proteins, DNA or presumably, new variant CJD. Cremation ash is made up mainly of phosphate, Calcium,Sulphate and Potassium. It should effectively be sterile. Risk of infection is therefore low. Risk of a chemical reaction should also be low as these chemicals are obviously abundant in the body.
However the initial cremation ash does contain some larger lumps . So the ash is further crushed to a powder, usually with ball bearings which are then removed before handing over to the relatives/owner . This crushed ash is however never going to be as fine as the ink particles used to make liquid ink. Our concern would be that if you were trying to tattoo this mixture of particles into the skin you are much more likely to get a prolonged inflammatory reaction as the skin will likely try to expel or remove such larger fragments. As long as there is a persisting inflammatory reaction in the skin the risk of the skin being physically open to infection remains, and the longer your skin is itchy the longer you are likely to scratch it and introduce infection through your finger nails.
As Kevin Paul, tattooist, stated on the programme, most of the ash will probably also settle to the bottom ink container rapidly after mixing so you’re probably not going to be really tattooing that much ink into the skin. But it’s the thought that counts.
We’d love to hear from anyone who has done this and how the skin got on.