When it comes to people's exit strategies when they die, most really just have two options – get a burial or be cremated.
Most people put off thinking about death and what they want to happen after. This type of delay usually benefits no one and may only complicate situations further down the line.
This is why it is vital that people have all the necessary information they need to make an informed decision. This is especially true when it comes to cremation because much of how the process works is shrouded in secrecy.
We know the final outcome, of course, but what happens before – once the curtain is pulled across at the chapel and the coffin disappears from sight? It’s something of a mystery for people who are too afraid to ask.
“There are a lot of myths about what happens. People are convinced that afterwards, the person will be removed from the coffin and the coffin recycled, or the handles will be taken off and reused, and that’s absolutely not true.
"Basically, what you see in the chapel is what goes into the cremator,” says Julie Dunk, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management.
“If people are afraid, I want to put their minds at rest that nothing untoward goes on. The people who work in crematoria are lovely people who care very much and want to do their best for bereaved families. They also have to be trained and qualified to operate cremators as it’s very technical and strictly controlled.”
Cremation was formally legalised in the UK by the Cremation Act 1902.
In the early part of the 20th century, the numbers of cremations rose slowly each year, but this accelerated after World War Two.
By 1968 cremation accounted for over 50 per cent of disposals for the first time, and has continued to rise to the current 78 per cent of disposals.
Dunk believes people “might be quite shocked” when they see where the cremation takes place.
“It’s a lot more industrial looking than they probably think, and very different to the funeral chapel, but it has to be industrial because we’re operating machines under high temperature.
"The cremator’s also designed so it’s one coffin at a time, and there’s a process that ensures identity throughout the entire cremation process, so we can guarantee that the ashes received are from that person only,” explains Dunk.
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“The coffin will burn away completely during the cremation process, which is why a coffin must be suitable for this purpose. The coffin handles, which look like metal, are in fact plastic so they burn away too.”
At the end of the cremation, there may be some metal nails and staples used in the coffin construction left. These are removed from the ashes and recycled as part of the metals recycling scheme (if a crematorium is part of the scheme), which launched in 2007.
“With the permission of the next of kin, any metals remaining at the end of the cremation, such as hip and knee replacements, are also taken out and go into the recycling scheme,” says Dunk.
“Periodic collections are made by a company and the metal is taken to a factory where it’s sorted, split and sold back onto the metals market. The money raised is then donated to bereavement related charities nominated by the participating crematoria. So far, we’ve raised over £10million.”
Of course, cremation isn’t the final event, and a decision will need to be made as to whether the ashes are buried, scattered, or kept in an urn.
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“In the past, the majority would’ve been scattered at the crematorium, in a garden of remembrance, but over the past 20 years, more people are taking the ashes away and doing something more personal with them.
"It may be they’re scattered in a favourite beauty spot, or possibly kept until another family member dies and then they’re scattered or buried together.
“A licence isn’t required to scatter ashes, but if the scattering is to take place on private property, the landowner’s permission is required.
"If the scattering is to take place in a cemetery or crematorium, the person planning the scattering must liaise with the owners before going ahead.
"Careful thought should also be given to the location as it is important not to have a negative impact on the local ecology.
“Burying ashes is more complicated, and advice should be sought before going ahead. Once ashes are buried, they are protected by law and it would be illegal to remove them without appropriate lawful authority, which would be either a licence from the Ministry of Justice, or a Faculty from the Church if the land is consecrated.”
Even if you’re not particularly interested in what happens to you once you’ve passed away, making plans will prevent further grief and anxiety for your loved ones left behind.
“I’ll talk about death until somebody tells me to stop quite frankly, but some people are still quite uncomfortable talking about it,” says Dunk. “I think some feel by talking about it, it’s going to make it happen [imminently], so they get quite nervous about it.
"But it’s important to think about what you want, and to discuss that with the family, or at least put something in writing so that when the time comes, people have got somewhere to start.”
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