What happens at a cremation service?

Cremations are fast becoming the norm in Britain with over 70% of families choosing this type of funeral. But with much of the cremation process happening behind closed doors, it may seem confusing and somewhat mysterious, inviting many questions.

You may have questions that will inform your decision about whether and how to plan a funeral cremation service, this guide aims to give you clarity.

People singing a hymn at a funeral service

What is a cremation?

Cremation is a process that uses intense heat to turn the remains of a person who has died into ashes. The cremation process takes place in a specially-designed cremation chamber which holds one deceased person and exposes them to intense heat for a period of around two hours.

When the cremation process has finished, small amounts of bone will remain, these are taken from the cremator, cooled and placed in a machine which reduces the bone to ashes. These are the ashes which are put into a container. After the cremation, the family may choose to receive the ashes of their loved one.

What happens at a cremation service?

Mourners arrive at crematorium

At the crematorium mourners may assemble outside awaiting the arrival of the hearse, or they may take a seat in the chapel before the coffin is brought in. The coffin may also be brought to the venue before mourners arrive. It’s then placed on a platform called a catafalque which is usually raised, decorated and near the front for all to see.

Mourners are seated shortly before the service begins

A cremation funeral service normally lasts about 30 to 45 minutes before the actual
cremation process takes place away from the service. It’s therefore important that guests are on time.

The service is held

A cremation order of service can include a number of hymns or musical pieces and eulogies. Extra time can be booked if the family would like a longer service, which might also include prayers or poems.

The committal begins

As the service ends the coffin is typically obscured from view for mourners to pay their final respects before the cremation. Options include the coffin being moved behind curtains, glass, a gate or removed from the building entirely.

Mourners leave the service

This is time for guests to give their condolences to the deceased’s family, see the flowers and wreaths which have been given by friends and family, and make their way to the wake.

The wake begins

This is an optional arrangement which brings people together to celebrate the life of the loved one. This can include food, drinks and music plus displays of photographs of the deceased to encourage everyone to share memories in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Cremation FAQs

The cremation process can seem the most mysterious part of funerals as, unlike a burial, it occurs away from guests and family in most instances. But what happens at a cremation is actually very straightforward.

What is the difference between a cremation and a committal?

The committal at a cremation is the point when the coffin is removed from view at the end of service. This is different from a burial which is normally at the point of the coffin being lowered into the ground.

Do you have to have a service at a cremation?

It is possible to have a cremation without a service, this is called a direct cremation or unattended cremation. The cremation takes place with no family or mourners present, allowing family and friends to say their farewells in their own time and way. 

What paperwork is needed for the cremation process to go ahead?

When a family member registers the death of their loved one, they will obtain a Green form which is required to proceed with a burial or cremation. In addition, the majority of cremations need either the executor of the will or the deceased’s nearest relative to complete an application for cremation form.

The deceased will be identified and will require medical certificates signed by two separate doctors. It must be filled in and signed by the last doctor to attend the deceased who will confirm the death and cause of death. The second is an independent doctor who must also certify the death and cause of death. Both doctors must see the deceased.

If a loved one dies suddenly or unexpectedly, the coroner (or procurator fiscal in Scotland) will be involved. In this case, the paperwork will be handled by the coroner.

Your funeral director will ensure that all the documentation is received and submitted to the cremation authority, who will issue a certificate authorising the cremation after they are satisfied all documents are complete.

How is the deceased prepared for a cremation?

As part of the deceased coming into the care of a funeral director, they are cleaned and dressed in a simple gown or their own clothes. Many deceased are embalmed and held in professional mortuary facilities, which is a cooling system to preserve the deceased while awaiting cremation. Some clients may have specific religious traditions and different requirements for preparation of the deceased. Prior to the day of the cremation, jewellery and items such as any medical devices and artificial limbs are removed and returned to families to avoid any reactions in the cremation chamber.

Crematorium staff finally check a coffin’s nameplate at the end of the cremation service and assign it an identity card. This guarantees the right ashes are returned to loved ones.

Do you have to have a coffin for cremation?

Yes, you can choose from a wide range of veneer, wooden coffins and caskets. There are also affordable cardboard coffins and some environmentally friendly options.
You can find out more information about different types of coffin and crematorium requirements by contacting your local Funeral Partners funeral director.

When the deceased is cremated what happens to the coffin?

The coffin is placed in the cremation chamber with the deceased and is burnt during the cremation due to being made from highly perishable materials.

What can you put in a coffin for cremation?

Easily perishable items like wooden toys, books, flowers and photographs can be cremated with your loved one. This is provided they aren’t combustible and don’t produce harmful fumes, for example alcohol or latex.

Hard materials like certain metals may not be permitted, even on the coffin. It’s therefore vital to check what your chosen crematorium allows.

Are cremations done individually?

Yes, individuals must be cremated separately under UK law, partly due to the limited size of cremation chambers. They may be exceptions in special circumstances.

How long does a cremation process take?

Cremations last between one and three hours with cooling taking a further one or two hours. This depends on cremation temperatures, the size of the deceased, and coffin material.

Is cremation governed by a code of practice?

Yes. There is a strict code of conduct for crematoriums, which is usually on display in public areas.

What happens to the ashes?

The ashes will be placed inside a basic container to be given back to the family. You can purchase an urn beforehand, this can be a good choice for long-term and for a more personalised storage. A wide choice of traditional caskets, biodegradable urns or scatter tubes can be purchased.

How long does it take to get ashes back?

Most crematoriums are able to return a loved one’s ashes one working day after the cremation, and sometimes even on the same day, depending on the time of the cremation process.

Who gets the ashes after cremation?

Whoever signs the cremation application form is the only person who can collect the ashes from the crematorium or the funeral director. There is no clear law saying who can possess a loved one’s ashes, which can lead to tough divisions in a family if not decided quickly. To avoid this problem, many families choose the executor of the will to take possession, while others give responsibility to those in contact with the funeral directors or the relative closest to the deceased.

What do I do with the ashes?

You can arrange through your funeral director or at the crematorium for the ashes to be scattered or buried in the crematorium garden of remembrance. Some gardens of remembrance give you the opportunity to bury the remains under a bush or tree, or to put them in a sealed place for ashes in a wall and marked with a plaque. Alternatively, the ashes can be returned to you. You can bury the ashes in a private garden, you should consider a burial container which means you would be able to take the ashes with you if you decided to move house.

If you wish to scatter ashes elsewhere, you will need the permission of the landowner. There is also an increasing number of popular ways to retain ashes such as incorporating them into a glass memorial piece of jewellery.

Can I have a memorial at the crematorium?

Most crematoria offer a wide choice of memorials for the gardens of remembrance. This can benefit families by providing a peaceful place for families to return to and remember their loved ones.

Can the ashes be sent to another country?

If you want to take or send the ashes to another country, there will be a small fee to cover legal paperwork to enable you to do this.

How can I arrange a cremation?

No family’s circumstances are the same, so speaking with your local Funeral Partners funeral director is the best way to explore what works for you personally in a cremation and cremation service.

We can assist you in every step of the arrangement whether you are looking for a simple unattended cremation or a full service.

Search for your local funeral director here.


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