How does a crematorium work?

Many people know very little about crematoriums and cremations until they arrange or attend one. This guide explores how crematoriums work for those feeling curious, unsure, or confused.

Crematoriums are non-religious buildings with a service hall, cremation facilities, and grounds or gardens. Both the funeral service and the cremation itself will happen within the same building.

A crematorium is a place for funeral services

If you don’t want to hold a funeral at a church for someone who’s died, you might choose to have a service at the crematorium building. They often have grounds or memorial gardens for laying plaques or scattering ashes after the service as well.

A crematorium service works in a similar way to more traditional funerals held in churches or other religious buildings. Crematorium attendants receive and prepare the body for cremation, help with arranging the service, and conduct the cremation process itself. 

Usually, a crematorium officer or director will lead the service, and speak about the person who’s died. A religious figure might lead a crematorium service too. Following introductions and readings by this person, friends and family who were close to the person who’s died will usually read eulogies. 

You can also choose to have a cremation without a funeral or service. Crematoriums call this a ‘direct cremation’. In this case, you won’t go to the crematorium at any point. The crematorium will carry out the cremation privately and return the ashes to you.

We can help you arrange a simple funeral

If you need to arrange a funeral, we offer guidance in many parts of the UK. We can also help you arrange a direct cremation without a service or funeral.

There are a few different terms for crematorium staff

If you’re arranging a cremation, the people you’ll speak to depends on the individual crematorium, its size, and how it’s run. You might speak to a crematorium officer or a crematorium director when you first make contact. You might also deal with their support staff. 

Crematorium technicians and crematorium attendants are usually ‘behind the scenes’. These are the people who will conduct the cremation itself, and look after the technical aspects like performing identity checks or preparing your loved ones’ ashes for collection.

Crematorium employees have several roles

In many cases, crematorium officers or directors are replacing the role of a priest or reverend. They don’t just perform cremations - they can also offer emotional support, and help with any service or ceremony you’d like to arrange. 

Crematorium staff are responsible for:

  • Identifying the body 

  • Preparing the body for the cremation itself

  • Arranging the service, speaking at the service, and coordinating guests and eulogies

  • Preparing the ashes to return them to the family

  • Providing a place for you to create a small memorial on the grounds.

Crematoriums have different rooms for the service, storing and cremating

Most crematoriums provide spaces to hold a service for the person who’s died. It’s now more common to have a service at a crematorium than at a church. The type of space available will depend on the crematorium. 

A typical service room consists of a large hall with seating, a podium for the people giving speeches or eulogies, and a place to rest the coffin. Often a ramp or moving belt transports the coffin out of the room after the service. It will go through a curtain into a cool storage area. 

The cremation may not happen as soon as the service is over. Usually, it will take place within 24 hours after the service has finished. Until then, the crematorium will keep the body cool and safe.

The crematorium staff prepare the body for cremation

One of the most important tasks for crematorium staff is to prepare the body for cremation. They will remove pacemakers and jewellery, but not things like fillings, braces, implants, and prosthetics. The technicians will recover them from the ashes following the cremation. 

Family members can collect these items, or the crematorium can take care of them for you. You can read more about the full process of cremation.

The cremation itself happens in a cremation chamber

Cremation takes place in a large furnace or incinerator. You might hear crematorium staff call them ‘cremation chambers’, ‘cremators’, or ‘retorts’. 

Cremation chambers usually have a square or arched opening. The bricks that line them are very resistant to heat. The chambers often have steel or metal doors that keep as much heat in as possible. 

Cremators need a huge amount of heat in order to break down human tissue. They reach extremely high temperatures of over 1000℃, and can complete cremations in 2-3 hours. Natural gas usually fuels cremators, but some crematoriums (especially those in rural areas that are far away from mainline gas) use oil.

Crematoriums will never cremate more than one body at once

Cremation chambers are usually only big enough for one body and it’s against the Code of Cremation Practice to cremate more than one body at the same time. 

The only exceptions to this are if family or friends wish to cremate a mother with her baby, or if parents want to cremate twin babies together.

Movement can occur in the cremation chamber

It happens when muscle tissues contract due to the extreme temperatures, meaning the elbows, knees, hands, or neck might appear to move. This is purely due to the body’s muscle tissue shrinking and changing shape under the heat of the cremator.

We don’t experience pain after we die

It’s impossible to say what happens after death, but we do know that our brains shut down. Because our brains are in charge of receiving pain signals, it’s very unlikely that we are capable of experiencing pain after death.

Because we’re unable to talk to people who’ve died to check, some of us feel uncomfortable or uncertain about the idea of cremation. It’s understandable if you don’t want to arrange a cremation for this reason, or don’t want to request one for yourself in your will.

Cremations can be just as meaningful as church services

It’s now very common for people to choose cremation over church funerals and churchyard burials. Some people prefer non-religious services, and some simply prefer to say goodbye in their own way.

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