Direct cremation – when is it the ‘right’ choice?

Direct cremations have been in the news again: Abi Pattenden discusses the pros and cons, and the reasons behind making this choice...

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers

There have been several conversations on social media recently about direct cremation. Many of these have been prompted by Carolyn Harris MP, a long-time campaigner on issues around death and funeral benefits, who discussed her own late father’s recent funeral in positive terms and described it as a ‘direct cremation’. Here, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, gives her personal view on direct cremations…

Firstly, it might be helpful to talk about how I define direct cremation. For the purposes of this blog, I take direct cremation to mean those occasions when the coffin is taken to the crematorium and there is no service at all – the coffin will usually be conveyed direct to the crematory, although this may not happen in all instances. The Chapel may be used with the coffin carried in there before being brought to the crematory, but there will be no service and no one present. It is therefore not (to me) a simple service such as Carolyn Harris MP describes for her father. If there is a service in the Chapel without attendees being present this is also not a direct cremation under my definition here.

There are several very good reasons to have a direct cremation. The first of these is in the scenario where the funeral service has taken place elsewhere and there is no desire to go to the crematorium as well. If the funeral service has been designed to be less formal or traditional, attending might feel counter-productive.

There is also the scenario that there may be no-one to attend the funeral, or no-one who wants to, which occurs for a variety of reasons. Difficult as we may find it to think about, this does happen, and having a service for the sake of it might not seem sensible.

On the reverse of this, there are two circumstances when I consider a direct cremation to be less of a good idea. I will stress that this is my own personal view, based on my experience of arranging funerals and spending time with many bereaved people.

The first is when a direct cremation is chosen purely to reduce the costs, without plans to do anything commemorative. There is no denying that funerals cost money, but how much is often not well understood. For example, a lot of publicity about funeral costs is from insurers, in whose interests it is to make funeral costs seem as large as possible, so they might give the price of an average funeral (which by definition will be more than many people will pay) plus the cost of items which for many funerals will be superfluous. Therefore, the assumption that an attended funeral is outside the budget might be incorrect.

There are actually relatively few components which have to be included for a funeral to go ahead. One of these is the cost of the crematorium. It might be that you have two crematoria within relatively close proximity and that the cost of a cremation-only service at one might be comparable to an early service at the other, as some venues charge reduced prices at earlier times. It might also be that other costs of an attended service could be reduced and so it is more comparable than might be first expected.

However, some people may have a necessity to carry out the funeral as cheaply as possible and may find that a direct cremation is the best way to achieve this, taking into account what’s available to them. In this case, I would encourage them to also carry out some kind of commemorative event (which doesn’t need to come at a cost).

The other occasion when I think direct cremation is not a good idea is in a specific set of circumstances, but one which I have heard quite regularly: namely, that the person who has died didn’t want a funeral service because they didn’t want the people close to them to be upset, and those arranging the funeral want to respect this wish in spite of the fact that it is in opposition to their own preferences.

I am the last person to discourage people from discussing funeral wishes and I know that the first priority when someone dies is often giving them the funeral (or lack of, in this case) that they wanted. Therefore, it is good to know that the person who has died didn’t want a funeral service; however, this is complicated when their reasons are based on a misunderstanding. Not having a funeral will not stop people being upset. Yes, people do get upset at funerals sometimes, but without one, that sadness will not go away, because the cause is not the funeral, but the death itself.

This is why we encourage people to have a proper conversation about funeral wishes, giving those who will arrange the funeral the chance to understand – and, maybe, push back slightly. If someone tells you they want a direct cremation because they don’t want you to be upset, and you have the courage to reply, ‘but I will be upset because you’ll have died’, then who knows what might come next – a compromise might be reached. My late father, who died ten years ago last month, always said he didn’t want a funeral, but we took this to mean that he didn’t want a service in a church, a large number of attendees or anything too ostentatious. The simple, non-religious service we held for him in the crematorium chapel, with just four of us in attendance, met his criteria as far as we were concerned.

You have to know what someone thinks a funeral looks like to understand what they mean when they say they don’t want one. Marking someone’s dying doesn’t have to look like a funeral, and you don’t have to call it one. Current regulations notwithstanding, it can be a few friends having a quiet drink in a pub; a gathering at a beauty spot or a park; a sit-down dinner in a hotel; a trip away to a favourite place.

My concern is that for those whom an alternative might be more suitable, choosing direct cremation instead might later affect their grieving process. I base this on nothing more than what I have found through my work at Freeman Brothers: firstly that, for most people, the funeral is cathartic – attending it seems to bring comfort (along with the sadness that often comes too), and often seems to mark an end of the first part of the grief. Secondly, I compare this to what people report from experiences of being bereaved many years ago, when funerals were often arranged very quickly and it was not unusual for someone to die and have their funeral within a week. People often say that this felt ‘the right thing to do’ because it was ‘normal’, although they knew they wanted more time. As a result, the process felt rushed and the funeral service itself is either a blur, or wasn’t what they felt it should have been, or perhaps both. The result of this can be as simple as a slight nagging feeling, but some people who find it makes arranging a subsequent funeral traumatic. I worry that people who arrange direct cremations outside of their own choice, and especially in those cases when nothing else is then done to commemorate the life of the person who has died and remember them, may have similar regrets of their own in future.

If you would like a free guide to discussing funeral wishes, you can download our ‘Big Deal, Small Talk’ leaflet here.

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Written by Abi Pattenden

Manager

April 7, 2021

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