If you’re writing down your wishes for after you pass away, or planning a funeral for a loved one, it can be very useful to know all the facts. One area which sometimes causes confusion is cremation, including what happens to the coffin and its contents (including items placed inside by loved ones) during the process.
You’ll find out more about cremation in this article, so you’ll be able to make informed choices when putting together your funeral plan or making arrangements for a loved one.
What happens to the coffin during a cremation?
Unsurprisingly, many people don’t think about what happens to the coffin during a cremation. Faced with grief, distress and a very difficult day to get through, the details of the cremation process understandably aren’t at the forefront of many mourners' minds.
However, if you’ve ever asked yourself the question ‘does the coffin get burnt at a cremation?’, the answer is almost certainly yes. In nearly all cases, the coffin is enclosed, sealed and cremated along with the person. When the body is cremated, the extremely high temperatures also burn the coffin - no matter what material it is made of.
Here’s what happens during a typical cremation in the UK. On the day of the funeral, the coffin is brought into the crematorium followed by the person’s friends and family. There is often a short religious or non-religious service, before the coffin is removed or obscured from view. Some crematoriums may have slightly different systems for doing this - ranging from withdrawing the coffin through a gateway to lowering it from sight.
Once the service is over and the mourners have left the premises, the coffin is moved to an area known as the ‘committal room’. From entering the crematorium to this stage of the process usually takes around 40-45 minutes.
Essential details are checked by crematorium staff, such as the person’s name. At this stage, the coffin nameplate and records are cross-checked to confirm identity and the coffin is labelled.
Cremations usually take place immediately after the service, or at least on the same day. The coffin is placed into the cremator, a cubicle large enough for one standard sized coffin. It takes up to three hours to complete the cremation, after which the ashes are placed on a cooling tray. A machine is then used to reduce the ashes in size, before they are placed in a vessel ready to return to the relatives of the person within a day or two.
With the cremation process in mind, some people may choose a different kind of coffin when making funeral plans. Depending on availability at local funeral homes, you can choose a basic wood coffin or even something simpler such as cardboard or wicker. Many funeral homes now also offer eco-coffins, made from 100 per cent biodegradable materials which won’t leave any metal fittings behind. Materials commonly used in green or eco-friendly coffins include bamboo, banana leaf, cane, seagrass or even wool.
The items left at the end of the process can include the metal parts of the coffin (depending on the type of coffin used), as well as perhaps certain pieces of jewellery the person was wearing. Also a common sight among the ashes are steel hips and metal plates from false teeth, left behind after the cremation process. These will be removed from the ashes before they are handed over to the family.
What can you put in a coffin for cremation?
It can be hugely comforting for mourners to be able to place items in the coffin with their deceased loved one. This is a common practice all over the world, but in the UK there are certain rules about what can and can’t be placed inside a coffin before cremation.
Common items placed in coffins include pieces of jewellery, soft toys and teddy bears, photographs, wooden rosary beads and other symbols of faith. It is worth bearing in mind with jewellery that pieces can’t usually be recovered after cremation. Even if they survive the process, they may be very damaged and will usually be removed from the ashes with magnets along with metal screws and fittings from the coffin.
The items you are not permitted to put in a coffin for cremation include clothes, shoes and other items made from materials such as treated vinyl, leather and latex. This is because when burnt in the cremator, the chemicals used on these materials can release potentially harmful emissions into the atmosphere. This doesn’t mean you can’t request for your loved one to be dressed in certain items for the funeral, but these items will be removed before cremation and returned to you afterwards. Bear in mind these are just examples. To be certain of what you can include, it’s always best to speak with the arranging funeral director for clarity.
Of course, you can’t put any combustible materials at all inside a coffin before cremation. This sounds obvious, but many family members want to include tokens such as bottles of alcoholic spirits - for example, a miniature of ouzo if the deceased person loved to go on holidays to Greece.