How do they prepare a body for cremation?

Treating people with care and respect does not stop when their lives end. Hospital and crematorium workers take lots of care in washing the person who’s died, transporting them safely to the crematorium, and keeping them in a safe, cool room.

If someone close to you has died, you might have questions or concerns about what happens between their death and their cremation.

How do hospital staff prepare a body?

Content warning

This article involves descriptions of taking care of a loved one’s body and minor medical procedures, which some readers might find distressing.

When a person dies, hospital staff have a few duties to carry out

Before a funeral director takes a person who’s died into their care, doctors or other hospital staff will: 

  • Record the time of death 

  • Inform the family

  • Issue a medical certificate of death. 

They will also wash the body of the person who’s died, making sure it’s clean of any blood or bodily fluids. 

Medical staff will only remove the organs if the person was an organ donor

If the person was a registered organ donor, medical staff at the hospital will remove the organ(s). They will only remove the organs the person gave permission to donate when they were alive. If the person was not an organ donor, doctors will not remove them.

Medical staff might also remove pacemakers and mechanical prosthetics

If the person who’s died had a pacemaker (an electronic device that regulates peoples’ heartbeats), medical staff might remove it as a safety measure. This is because pacemakers have gas-powered batteries that can explode in the cremation chamber.  

However, it’s more common that trained staff will remove pacemakers at the crematorium, rather than medical doctors. The crematorium staff will also remove anything else with machinery or batteries, including watches, jewellery, and mechanical prosthetics.

You can read more about how crematorium staff remove pacemakers in this guide.

What does a funeral director do with the body?

The funeral director will then collect the body 

Funeral directors are responsible for collecting the person who’s died, whether it’s from the person’s home, the hospital, or a hospice. Medical staff place a tag on the person who’s died, either around their toe or their ankle, so the funeral directors can check their identity. 

 The funeral directors will take the body to the crematorium and place it into a very cool storage space. This helps to keep the body preserved until the cremation. 

 Funeral directors don’t usually embalm bodies before cremation 

Embalming is where an embalmer or undertaker removes the blood and fluids from the person who’s died and replaces them with water, colourants, and chemicals that help preserve the body. 

Funeral directors will only embalm the body if the person who’s died or their family have requested an open-casket funeral, where guests can view the body before cremation. This isn’t a common practice in the UK - most families choose closed coffins. But open-casket funerals are quite common in America. 

The only exception is if the body needs to travel overseas 

This might happen if the person died in a foreign country, and their family are bringing them home for burial or cremation. In this case, it’s a legal requirement for medical staff to embalm bodies before they travel. 

You can read about embalming in our guide.

What can loved ones do to prepare a body for cremation?

A family member or religious figure might visit to wash the body

It’s traditional in some religions for a religious figure or the family of the person who’s died to wash the body again at this stage. If the person who’s died was Muslim, an imam will wash the body. If they were Hindu or Sikh, their family will often wash the body. 

You can choose the clothes for a person’s cremation 

If you were close to the person who’s died, you might like to choose some clothes for their cremation. This might be their favourite outfit, something simple like a nightgown, or religious robes.

You can give the clothing to the crematorium, and they will dress your loved one before the cremation. In some cases, the crematorium or funeral director will allow or help you to dress the person who’s died yourself. 

Most materials (like cotton, linen, and wool) are safe to go into the cremator. But some synthetic fabrics might not be. The crematorium staff will advise you on whether the clothes you’ve chosen are safe.

 There are a few decisions to make when arranging a funeral

Things like choosing clothes and a coffin for the person who’s died are just some of the decisions you’ll need to make. If you’re worried about ‘getting things right’, you might find this guide on arranging funerals helpful. Remember there’s no such thing as a perfect funeral - you only need to do your best.

What happens at the crematorium?

Many crematoriums offer funeral robes or gowns

Simple linen or cloth robes are safe to go into the cremator and are easy for funeral directors to dress the person with. Most crematoriums provide these. You might ask for a funeral gown if you’re not sure what to dress the person who’s died in. 

 At a direct cremation, the body will enter the cremation chamber in the clothes or hospital gown they were wearing. 

A direct cremation is a cremation without a funeral

If you’d rather not have a funeral service at the crematorium, the crematorium staff can collect the body, carry out the cremation, and then return the ashes to you. Crematorium workers call this a direct or ‘unattended cremation’.

With this option, you can choose to remember the person who’s died in your own way afterwards - whether alone, or with family and friends. 

Crematorium staff place a unique metal disc on the coffin before cremation 

Every time someone moves the body, for example from the hospital to the crematorium, or the cool room to the cremator itself, they will check the identity. 

When the body is ready to go into the cremator, crematorium staff place a metal disc with the person’s name on it. When it comes out, the metal disc stays with the ashes, so the crematorium staff always know who they belong to.

Article reviewed