Is It Dangerous to Inhale Human Remains?

Tupac’s former bandmates say they smoked his ashes.

Members of Tupac Shakur’s rap group, the Outlawz, announced last month that they’d sprinkled Shakur’s ashes into a marijuana joint and smoked it in his honor after his murder in 1996. The story brings to mind Keith Richards’$2 2007 claim to have snorted his father’s ashes with cocaine. The article below, first published four years ago, goes through the possible health consequences of inhaling cremated remains.

Tupac Shakur at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards 

Earlier this week, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones announced that he once snorted a mixture of his father’s ashes and cocaine. Richards and his publicist later claimed that he was just kidding. But if he did snort his dad, would that have been unhealthy?

Only if he made a habit of it. There are diseases and conditions that can occur from getting small particles in your lungs, but they develop after repeated exposure—for instance, coal miner’s lung occurs after years of breathing in coal dust. Experts say Richards should be more concerned about the health effects of the cocaine, his cigarette smoking, and past drug use.

Snorting a cremated body could cause irritation if the ashes got into the respiratory system. Water-soluble substances, like cocaine, can be absorbed through the mucous lining of the sinuses. But human remains would pass straight through the nose and could hypothetically make it into the lungs. Still, the odds are good that most, if not all, of the ashes would simply get swallowed or sneezed out of Richards’ body.

Luckily for Richards, the cremated remains wouldn’t have included any big bone fragments that might get stuck in his nose and obstruct his breathing (or interrupt the snorting process). His father’s body would have spent a few hours in a 1,400- to 1,800-degree cremation chamber, and then the ashes would be run through a processor, like a giant blender, to give them a uniform texture and smooth out any remaining bone fragments. Magnets help remove any metal objects—like surgical pins or shrapnel—from the ashes.

If Richards’ dad had been embalmed, his body would have been treated with highly toxic disinfectants, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethyl alcohol, and formaldehyde, which is a likely carcinogen. Large doses of formaldehyde can lead to poisoning; smaller amounts irritate the respiratory system. (There have been reports of people smoking marijuana or cigarettes that have been laced with embalming fluid, to get a longer high or hallucinogenic effects.)

But Richards wouldn’t have had to worry about these embalming fluids, because almost any chemical present in his father’s body would have burned off during cremation. Hypothetically, if Richards’ father had mercury amalgam fillings in his teeth, and if those fillings were not removed prior to cremation, Richards may have faced a slight risk of mercury poisoning. But small amounts of mercury are typically harmless.

Explainer thanks Ernie Heffner of Heffner Funeral Chapel and Crematory, Scott Randell of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and Paul Shepson of Purdue University.