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Cremation is the most popular type of funeral in the UK. In 2021, 75% of funerals were cremations and just 25% were burials (SunLife Report 2022). But if you’re not familiar with how cremation works and you’re thinking about different funeral options the below info will help. We’ll cover how cremation works and what to expect at a cremation service so that you can make a suitable choice.

What is cremation?

Cremation is the process of turning the body of a person who’s died into ashes using heat. It takes place in a special chamber where the ashes left behind can be cooled and collected. Later the ashes are returned to the family of the person who died. The family can then decide to store, scatter or bury the ashes depending on how they’d like to remember the person.

How does a cremation work?

Knowing exactly how the process of cremation works and what preparation is needed might help you make a decision about what’s suitable for you. We’ve put together the below info to make things easier.

What happens during cremation?

The special chamber where the cremation takes place is heated to about 800-900ºC. Once heated the coffin goes into the chamber. When the coffin is cremated the remains are left to cool down. Then a magnet is used to remove any metal left behind. The remains are then put into a machine called a cremulator. This turns bone into fine ashes so that they can be stored in a container or an urn which can be given back to the family.

How long does a cremation take?

The cremation process takes around 2-3 hours. The time will depend on how long it takes to cool and what the coffin was made from.

How is a body prepared for cremation?

When the person passes away the funeral director will collect them and prepare them for the cremation. They’ll be cleaned and dressed in a simple robe or an outfit chosen by their family. They’ll be kept safe in a mortuary in the funeral home. But if you have beliefs that mean you’d like the person to be prepared or kept safe in a different way make sure you speak to the funeral director about this in advance. They’ll be able to help you with any rituals that you’d like before the service. Before the cremation any jewellery the person was wearing will be given back to the family. Certain medical devices like pacemakers will also be removed.

Do you have to have a coffin for cremation?

Most crematoriums require a coffin for a cremation. This is because it makes the process of cremation easier. But some crematoriums may allow a shroud that covers the body. They’ll be placed on a flat board so that it’s easier to move them to the venue. Talk to your funeral director about what’s possible before making any arrangements.

What happens to a coffin at a cremation?

The coffin is cremated along with the body of the person who died. You can choose from several different types of coffin for a cremation. All of these will break down easily during the cremation.

What can you put in a coffin for cremation?

Personal items can be put into the coffin to be cremated with the person as long as they’ll break down easily and leave no harmful chemicals behind. For example, you could leave a photograph, a written message, book, or flowers. Make sure you check what’s allowed before making any plans.

How long does it take to get the ashes after cremation?

This will be as soon as possible. Sometimes on the same day or a day or two after the service. You can buy an urn before so that the ashes are returned to you in the urn. Otherwise the crematorium will store the ashes in a basic container to be returned to you.

If you’re not ready to collect the ashes straightaway, that’s okay. The funeral director or crematorium will store them for you. You can collect them at the time that’s right for you.

Who can collect the ashes from the funeral director?

The funeral director will expect the person who organised the funeral to collect the ashes. This is usually the person who signed the cremation application form. So make sure there’s no confusion over this before you collect the ashes. It’s sensible to take ID with you too.

What happens at a cremation service?

If you haven’t been to a cremation before it can help to know what to expect from the service. Each cremation service will be different from the next but a typical cremation order of service usually looks something like this:

  • The coffin will be brought to the venue for the service. This might be the crematorium. Or it could be another venue such as a place of worship or non-religious venue such as a community hall. The coffin is usually put onto a raised platform at the venue so it’s easy for everyone to say goodbye. This type of raised platform is also known as a catafalque.
  • Music is played as people enter the venue. This may be a song that the person who passed away loved or it may be something the family feel is appropriate.
  • The celebrant will welcome you all and introduce the service. They may also say a few words about the person who died depending on what the family has requested.
  • A poem might be read or a hymn sung. The choice of poem or hymn/song that’s sung at the cremation service is entirely up to the person planning it. If you’d prefer not to read a poem but would like to sing 2 hymns instead speak to the funeral director or celebrant when you’re planning things. It’s a very personal choice. So getting it right is important.
  • A family member or close friend may share a tribute. Someone may want to share a story or a few words about the person you’re all gathering to say goodbye to. Or you could ask the celebrant to read out a pre-written speech instead.
  • Someone may do a reading. This is a personal choice. A religious reading might be suitable. Or you may want to read an extract from a favourite book of the person who died. Again, the celebrant can do this reading for you if you’d prefer.
  • The committal will start. This is the part of the cremation service when the coffin is taken out of view. In a crematorium it may be lowered into the floor or hidden by some drawn curtains. This is so that the cremation process can begin after the service. If the venue for the service isn’t the crematorium, the coffin will be taken to the crematorium after the service. There may also be a second service at the crematorium.
  • Guests will leave the service. The celebrant will usually lead guests out of the room. Afterwards guests will have the opportunity to chat to family and friends and share their condolences. Or you may want to take a look at the flower arrangements that have been brought by friends and family.
  • Guests will travel to the wake. You’re not obliged to hold a wake. But if there is one guests will travel there and perhaps have some food and drink to celebrate the life of the person who passed away.

How long does a cremation service take?

A cremation service takes about 30-45 minutes depending on what readings, poems or tributes you’d like to have. You can ask to book more time for the service if you’d like to have more readings or music, for example.