What happens at a cremation?

Cremation has been a funeral option in the UK for over 150 years, but it still remains a mystery to many people. Here, we look at exactly what happens at a cremation so you and your family know what to expect.

The cremation process explained

1. How is the person identified at the crematorium?

When someone is taken to a crematorium, they're given a unique identification number and physical tag. This is an essential safeguard to track them through the cremation process, and ensures that the ashes you receive are the remains of your loved one. When the ashes are transferred to the urn, the physical tag is replaced with a label.

The medical forms and certificate are also checked at the crematorium. This is to make sure the cremation has been authorised by a doctor and the cremation authority before the cremation takes place.

2. How is a body prepared for cremation?

It's always recommended that families remove any jewellery before their loved one is collected. If that’s not possible, the funeral director will also contact the family to ask if they would like any jewellery returned. To prepare the body for the cremation process, any medical devices (such as a pacemaker) are also removed. 

Under UK law, something must be in place to cover the body of a person who’s died – this is usually a coffin. Coffins can be expensive, so some people find it surprising that they go into the cremation chamber along with the body. But for many, it’s a mark of tradition and respect to send someone to their cremation within a coffin. 

With a Farewill direct cremation, the body is dressed in a simple white gown, and placed in an oak-veneer coffin. The body is then moved through to the cremation chamber.

3. How does the cremation work?

The cremation chamber is set to a temperature between 1000°C and 1300°C. Once the ashes have cooled, magnets are used to pull any remaining metal from the remains, before a grinder called a cremulator turns any bone fragments into a white powder. The cremated remains are then collected in an urn. This is then either delivered to the family or collected, or the ashes are scattered in the crematorium’s garden of remembrance.

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How long does a cremation take?

The cremation process itself takes around 2 to 3 hours to complete, creating between 1kg and 3kg of ashes. When people talk about ‘a cremation’, they’re often talking about more than just the process itself.

Traditional cremations

A traditional cremation usually involves a ceremony at the crematorium. This may take between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on the type of ceremony. At the end of the service, you may see curtains close around the coffin, or the coffin may be lowered through the catafalque (the platform it rests on during the ceremony). This is called the ‘committal’ and is the final chance to say goodbye, prior to the cremation. The committal is not the start of the cremation itself. This takes place in a room called the crematory, often up to 72 hours after the ceremony.

Direct cremations

A direct cremation is cremation without family or friends in attendance. Instead, families often choose to plan a memorial at a church, plan their own celebration of life, or a gathering that better reflects the person who has died. With a direct cremation, the ashes can be returned to the family and can form part of their own memorial.

Witness cremations 

A witness cremation is a small private ceremony that allows family and friends to watch as the body is cremated. This is offered by some funeral directors and must be agreed with the crematorium in advance. Depending on the facilities available at the crematorium, families may watch some or all of the cremation from a viewing room. This can take up to 5 hours.

What happens after a cremation?

Once the cremation has been completed, the crematorium staff collect the ashes. Any metals (for example, hip replacements) are removed, and the ashes are placed into a cremulator. This is a machine that grinds the ashes into a power. The ashes are then placed into the chosen urn and held safely until they can be returned to the family, or scattered in the crematorium’s garden of remembrance.

How long after a cremation do you get the ashes?

The time it takes to receive the ashes varies depending on the arrangements you’ve made with the funeral director. With Farewill, you can arrange to collect the ashes within 2 working days of the cremation date, or we can hand deliver them to you in an urn of your choice, within 30 working days. 

If you arrange a traditional cremation with a funeral director on the high street, the cremation ash may need to be collected from the crematorium or funeral home, or they may arrange to deliver them to you in a temporary urn.

Direct cremation vs. traditional cremation

In 2018, only 2% of funerals were direct cremations. By 2022, this figure rose to 18%. There are many reasons for this sudden increase in popularity, including the pandemic, cost, personalisation and convenience.

Here, we’ll explain the key differences between direct cremation and traditional cremation:

1. The service

A traditional cremation is more like a traditional funeral, and is usually arranged by a funeral director. The facilities available for the service vary between crematoria, and a funeral director will help the family or friends to arrange the service. A celebrant or religious leader typically leads the service, where they’ll talk about the person who has died. The service may feature readings from members of the family, or music. 

A direct cremation is a cremation without a service at the crematorium. Families are free to arrange a memorial service or a celebration of life at a time and place that suits them. Some people plan a formal memorial service, and others prefer something informal, like a gathering of friends, a family meal, or a tree planting. Lots of people prefer direct cremations because it gives them the freedom to plan a gathering that better reflects the person who has died.

2. Cremation fees

A traditional cremation costs around £3,673, and a traditional funeral £4,794, according to Sun Life’s 2023 Cost of Dying Report, 

A direct cremation is a more affordable option for many people. With Farewill, you can arrange a direct cremation without a service from £895.

3. A personal farewell

When arranging a traditional cremation, the funeral director will give you options for things like the coffin, urn, funeral flowers, or procession of cars. A celebrant may also help you choose things like readings or music for the service at the crematorium. Family and friends will gather at the crematorium, where the service is usually more formal.

With direct cremation, the funeral director will provide the coffin, choose the crematorium and set the date of the cremation. As there is no service at the crematorium, things are much simpler. The funeral director will tell you the date of the cremation, so many families make time for a quiet day of reflection or to visit a place that really meant something to the person who died. Rather than the formal service, the partner, children, grandchildren or friends may plan a memorial or celebration of life. Many people find this is a more personal farewell than a service at a crematorium.

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