Around 70% of Brits choose cremation for their final farewell. And yet the crematorium itself often seems to leave us a little squeamish. For many, crematoria are still places of mystery – perhaps even dread. So, what is a crematorium? What happens inside?

Time for some myth-busting. Whether you’re checking out your own options or just curious, we’re here to answer all your burning questions. 


What happens inside a crematorium?

A crematorium is a building where the bodies of people who have died are taken to be cremated. This means that their body will be placed in a cremation chamber (or ‘cremator’) and exposed to jets of flame. 

Of course, as a crematorium definition this actually leaves a lot out. A crematorium is often much more than just a cremation chamber. Many have spaces for every part of the funeral process, from preparing the body right up to scattering or burying the ashes.


The reception hall

Most crematoria have a large hall in where families can hold funeral services. This is a non-religious gathering place that can be used by people of any (or no) faith. Crematoria offer time slots of around 20 minutes in the hall for each service, although families can ask for two back-to-back slots for a small additional price.

Holding a cremation at a crematorium with a reception hall doesn’t mean you’re obliged to have your service there, however. If you’d prefer to go elsewhere (a church, for example) you’re entitled to do that.


Behind the scenes

You might assume that the cremation itself begins as soon as the coffin disappears behind the curtain at the end of the memorial service, but that’s not what happens. Once a coffin leaves the reception hall, it may stay behind the scenes for up to 72 hours, though most crematoria aim to keep them for no more than 24.

This is so that the staff has time to perform some essential checks. They need to know that:

  1. Nothing is in the coffin that shouldn’t be there. Soft toys and watches are often left with the person who’s died. Staff remove these as they can affect the cremation process.
  2. The person who has died didn’t have a pacemaker. The heat of the furnace will make the pacemaker explode, which is a lot more destructive than you’d think!

Once the checks are complete and there’s room available, the coffin (with the body inside) is taken to a cremator.


Inside a crematorium furnace

Each crematorium has one or more cremation chambers, or cremators. For the cremation itself, the coffin is placed in a retort – a cavity inside the cremator lined with heat-resistant bricks. 

So, how does a crematorium work in the UK? The temperature inside a cremation furnace goes up to 800-1000 degrees Celsius. This is up to four times as hot as most conventional electric ovens. This extreme heat vaporises most of the body and the coffin. 

What’s left are ‘ashes’ — actually fragments of bone — and any metal, like fillings, hip replacements, coffin handles and melted jewellery. The full process of cremation can take 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the body and the type of coffin. 


Behind the scenes at the crematorium (again)

Once the cremation chamber has done its work and the ashes have cooled down, crematoria staff pick out any metal pieces using tongs and magnets. These go to be recycled. A machine called a cremulator reduces the remaining ashes to a fine powder, which is placed in a temporary urn. The funeral director will later pick the ashes up and pass them on to the family.


The memorial garden

Most crematoria have a memorial garden where ashes can be scattered or buried, if the family of the person who has died would like. Some also have a columbarium for storing urns. Some of these are well-tended, lovely places to visit, while others are a bit more basic.


FAQs about the crematorium


What’s the difference between a crematory and crematorium?

There isn’t one, really – the words are often used interchangeably. But some use ‘crematory’ for the room or building with the cremation chambers in, and ‘crematorium’ for the whole complex.


Is it true that crematoria staff take bodies out of coffins and resell the wood?

No. There has to be a coffin (or at least a wooden board placed under the body) for the cremation to happen at all. 

This rumour likely came about because of coffin covers. A few crematoria offer the option of renting a fancy-looking coffin “shell” for display at a memorial, that goes on over a plainer coffin. This coffin cover is re-used, but staff cremate the coffin itself with the body.


Can staff cremate more than one person’s body at once?

No – it’s one per cremation. However, some places will make an exception for mothers who died with their babies.


Can you watch the cremation as it happens?

Sometimes. Quite a few crematoria let between one and five family members watch the process. Some Hindu families prefer to have a family member press the button to begin the cremation, as they would with a traditional funeral pyre.


How can you be sure you have the right ashes?

A lot of paperwork follows each person’s body throughout cremation, from the preparation stage to returning the ashes. Staff check this and sign it at every step of the way. This prevents cases of mistaken identity.
As you can see, the function of a crematorium goes way beyond that crematorium definition in the first paragraph. We hope this has helped you understand what happens inside a crematorium. If you’d like to know more, you can read our article about the cremation process here.


Arranging a direct cremation with Beyond

Here at Beyond, we partner with some of the best crematoria in the country to offer direct cremation. This is an affordable cremation, without a funeral service. Direct cremation is perfect for those who don’t like funerals or don’t want a big fuss. It’s also great for those who want a more unique ceremony with ashes, instead of a traditional funeral service.

You can arrange a direct cremation for a loved one now, or for yourself, ahead of time, with us. Find out more here.


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