Practicalities of cremation – your questions answered

In response to some of our most frequently asked questions, we have written a series of posts on those topics which require further explanation

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals in Sussex and Surrey since 1855. As we have been so long established as Funeral Directors, we have a good sense of some of the most common questions people have around funerals. Taking feedback from colleagues in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint as to what we are asked frequently, we have produced a series of blog posts addressing some of these issues.

Today, Abi Pattenden will be looking at some of the questions we often find ourselves answering specifically when the funeral is a cremation.

For all types of funerals, people often ask about items which can be placed in the coffin, but this is particularly relevant when the funeral is a cremation as there is – understandably – some uncertainty around what might be permitted. It’s most important to know that anything cremated will usually not survive the process. Some people believe metal and jewellery might come through the process but, while it may not be destroyed completely, it will certainly not retain its previous appearance. Therefore, the biggest consideration should be the permanent loss of the item and the possibility of regretting its absence later.

Crematoria are very clear that the cremation process cannot be affected by anything placed in the coffin, so anything large or bulky is usually difficult to consider, and of course flammable items are definitely excluded. Human ashes are not allowed (they can be mixed together afterwards, though, and we are happy to do this for you) but there is some flexibility over pets, particularly if a small amount was to be placed in the coffin loose or in a temporary container. Small keepsakes, particularly photos and cards, are usually fine and we will always try to think creatively to accommodate a request – even if it can’t be in the most straightforward way.

People sometimes want or need the ashes back relatively quickly after the funeral and ask us about this timescale. Firstly, the cremation process take several hours and may not happen immediately after the funeral. Some crematoria will ask for permission to keep the person for up to 72 hours before they are cremated. This is very rare – most people are cremated on the same day – but the ashes will probably not be ready that day and can never be guaranteed to be available until after a certain time the following day.

The Crematorium needs to produce confirmatory paperwork, which takes time. The Cremation Certificate, a document you will need if you wish the ashes to be placed in a churchyard, cemetery, or burial ground is one such piece of documentation, so it therefore makes sense to wait for both the documentation and the cremated remains to be ready for collection simultaneously. What also takes time is following the rigid procedures in place to ensure the ashes are constantly identifiable – such as their sensitive removal from the cremator before the process can begin again. We’re often asked about this, too, so the time needed to carry out these important processes should be reassuring.

We are sometimes asked if it is possible witness the cremation for either religious or personal reasons. This can certainly be accommodated (although the Crematorium may require notice of this request). Most crematoria are also happy to answer technical questions about their work, and if you would like us to help you with such a conversation, we would be pleased to do so.

I would like to address the long-established myth that the coffin is not cremated with the person, but that their body is removed and the coffin is then re-used. This is one of the things I remember being asked in my early days of working for Freeman Brothers and still a regular question for our team. Firstly, a lack of coffin would interfere with the cremation process itself, and this is reason enough to make such action impossible.

However, there is a service available, particularly in the USA and Italy, where funeral directors ‘rent’ a more expensive or ornate-seeming ‘coffin shell’ to be used for the funeral service, which is then removed afterwards, leaving the Deceased person to be cremated in the simpler coffin (purchased, not rented) which they were always held within, which was concealed inside. I have only known this to be mentioned to us once or twice, though, so I am not sure if it’s a custom that is widely-known here.

Also in the USA, there is a method of disposing of a body (which is not yet legal in the UK) which is technically called Alkaline Hydrolysis, but is usually known as Resomation, or water cremation. The body is subjected to a heated pressurised liquid. Coffins are not suitable for this procedure so the Deceased person is typically kept in a specially-designed shroud, and again this might be placed in an outer rental casket for the purposes of meeting expectations during a funeral service.

I am not sure how many people in the UK know about this necessity to rent an outer shell and if this informs thoughts on coffin re-use, but I don’t think it does. Therefore, it’s hard to identify where the idea comes from. It saddens me to say but I think in the past, people tended to have a less positive view of funeral directors and the work they do, and I feel sure the roots of this idea come from there and have just been propagated over time.

I can only stress that a funeral directors would never be able to ‘sell’ a coffin if really they were talking about it being temporarily rented and then re-used – this would contravene legislation such as the Sale of Goods Act.

The same applies to questions about the removal of fittings or fixtures from the coffins prior to a cremation, and perhaps this is where the question about articles to be placed in the coffin connects with this, as they may both have their roots in misconceptions about the process. Fittings which are specially designed to be cremated are widely available – you will notice that our coffin descriptions refer to fittings being ‘brassed’ rather than ‘brass’, for example – and so there is no need to do this.

There have been occasions in the past (probably especially before cremation became so widespread) when a particular coffin might have been requested which may not have been ideal to be cremated. I remember a family very much wanting their late father to be cremated in a coffin which came supplied with a mattress which could not be cremated, and they did not like the quite similar alternative which was suitable. In instances such as these, we would have an honest and transparent conversation about the alternatives and what choices there were – in this specific case, we removed the mattress and lined the coffin prior to the gentleman being placed in it for his funeral. Because of our long-established history and professional excellence of our staff, we are prepared to have these conversations in the interest of honesty and transparency.

Because a crematorium remains a mystery to many people, with the crematory understandably kept separate from the public-facing areas, it’s easy to understand why people have many questions about how cremations work. Some crematoria do hold Open Days, which are often well-attended – if you are interested in this please let us know and we can tell you if we know of any coming up or pass your details on. Equally, if you have any questions about any aspect of funeral service not covered here or elsewhere in our blog, please do get in touch and we’ll be happy to help in any way we can.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


February 13, 2020

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