Everything you need to know about cremation in the UK

Everything you need to know about cremation in the UK

by Jon Crawford2023-04-240

Cremation is the most popular funeral choice for people in the UK. For those short of time or limited by budget, it is usually cheaper and simpler to organise a cremation than a burial. 

When you’re mourning a loved one, however, even simple tasks can seem harder. 

With this in mind, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to cremation; its history in the UK, the science behind it, the variations and alternatives, and the personal services we offer. 

Whether you need help planning a cremation funeral service or a direct cremation, we are here to offer empathic, transparent advice at any time.

How much does a cremation cost?

The average price for a cremation with a service in the UK currently starts at around £3,600 outside of London, but can cost up to £5,000 in the capital. It is usually a more cost-effective option compared to a traditional burial service. A burial may also involve further costs for a headstone and cemetery plot maintenance.

If you are recently bereaved and don’t know where to start, we can help with every aspect of organising a service at a crematorium

When you organise a cremation with a service through Fenix, we help you deliver a truly personal send-off. We can arrange flowers, a celebrant and many other elements to make the service as unique as the life you are celebrating. 

Because our aim is to lessen the pain and stress of bereavement, we also manage planning, collection of the deceased and the official paperwork if needed, along with support from our Bereavement Team. 

For those who want a simpler service or to arrange their own non-religious celebration after a simple cremation, an alternative service - direct cremation - is becoming common in the UK.

What is direct cremation and how much does it cost?

Direct cremation is growing in popularity in the UK. Essentially it’s a cremation carried out by certified professionals in private, which offers a low cost, respectful alternative to a burial or crematorium service. 

Our direct cremation packages include collection and care of the deceased. You can make a direct cremation truly special by choosing from a wide range of coffins and personalising them with floral tributes.

Direct cremation can save you from having to make complex arrangements at the point of bereavement, giving you more time to plan the ideal thanksgiving or memorial service. This can be preferable to having to ‘rush through’ funeral service arrangements at a time of stress.

If you need further support after the death and cremation of a loved one, we can help you to arrange a separate service to complement a direct cremation. Our team can assist you in planning a service which can be held at any time after the event at an appropriate venue.

A direct cremation may also be referred to as a silent cremation or unattended cremation.

What is the average time between death and cremation?

  • Cremation with a service: 2 weeks on average. This depends on crematorium availability and the nature of the death. An unconfirmed cause of death may lengthen the process.
  • Hindu cremation: traditionally within 24 hours of death, though this is not always logistically possible.
  • Sikh cremation: traditionally within 3 days of death, if possible.
  • Direct cremation: up to 3 weeks on average. Direct cremation has a wider timescale and you may not be able to choose a specific date and time. Direct Cremations are often conducted out of peak hours when the crematorium is not booked for attended services.

Are there any other costs involved in a cremation?

There are other charges to factor in to cremation costs, such as:

  • Doctor’s fees for a cremation certificate -  £82/164.

Extra possible costs that apply to a cremation with a funeral service:

  • Crematorium fee - from £365
  • Celebrant fee - from £265

And remember, we can advise on any other extras you may need to add a personal touch to your service -  from floral tributes, dressing and viewings to limousines and memorial stones.

When did cremation become popular in the UK?

With cremation now such a popular funeral choice in the UK, it may be surprising to learn that it only became widely accepted around 150 years ago. 

Cremation and the use of funeral pyres were common in ancient civilisations across the globe, but once Christianity became more prevalent, this was to change. Cremation largely disappeared from the British Isles around the 5th century AD.

The first cremation in the UK

It was not until March 1885 that the first official ‘modern’ cremation took place in the UK, at Woking Crematorium. Thanks to the Cremation Society of Great Britain, formed a few years earlier in 1874, more crematoria were built around the country in the following years. 

Today there are almost 300 crematoria in the UK and cremations account for around 75% of all funerals.

The UK’s first ‘official’ cremation  

March 26, 1885, Woking Crematorium, Surrey

Jeanette Pickersgill - a painter who was a well-known figure in literary and scientific circles - was the first person to be legally cremated in the UK.  

Although her cremation took place six days after her death, two doctors were called to certify her dead, so prolific was the fear of being burnt alive at the time.

Christian views on cremation

The Bible does not specifically endorse or forbid cremation, but the Christian concept of resurrection - and the concept that all humans are made in the form of Christ - lead to some strands of the church, particularly Roman Catholic and Orthodox sects, opposing cremation. 

This kept cremation from becoming more widespread until society in the UK started to become less dominated by Christian doctrine.

For the Church of England and other Christian denominations these days, cremation is popular and widely accepted. A Christian service will often accompany a cremation.

The Catholic church’s stance on cremation softened in the 1960s, and it is no longer forbidden, though a traditional burial is still favoured by more devout Catholics.

What is the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Humanist take on cremation?

The major religions of the world have varying opinions on cremation. 

  • In Islam cremation is forbidden. The body must be ritually washed and draped and then buried as soon as possible after death.
  • Orthodox and Conservative Judaism also forbids cremation, though it is accepted by reform Jews and becoming more popular.
  • Hindu belief calls for cremation as soon as possible after death as it is thought to be the quickest way to release the soul from the body.
  • Sikhism traditionally calls for cremation within three days of death if possible. Burial is permitted only if cremation is impossible - and no headstone or monument is allowed.
  • Buddhists believe that burial, mummification or cremation are all acceptable, although cremation is the preferred method for disposing of bodies after death.
  • Humanists are not aligned with any religion and cremation is a common choice for those who identify as such. Woodland burials are also popular as Humanist funerals.

The cremation process from start to finish

Here we take an in-depth look at what to expect when arranging a cremation. We’ll guide you through every stage: from the collection of the deceased, to what happens during the cremation process and then finding that perfect final resting place.

Most of us know the basic premise of cremation - it is the transformation of a deceased body into ashes by combustion. However, when you are planning the right send-off for a dearly loved person in your life, it’s natural to want to know a little more about the process to decide if it’s the right option. Sometimes taking the mystery out of things that are painful to deal with helps us to process them better and think more clearly.

Cremation step by step

  • Contact us for assistance in booking all funeral/cremation services
  • We help you with all the paperwork and booking of services
  • The deceased is collected and cared for with dignity and respect
  • The deceased will be stored in a temperature controlled environment 
  • On cremation day the deceased is transported to the crematorium 
  • Cremation (2-3 hours) takes place (either unattended or with service)
  • Ashes can be collected after the service or delivered to your home up to 28 days after the service for a small charge
  • You can hold a special service to honour your loved one anywhere and anytime
  • You are free to scatter/release ashes at a special place if you decide to do so

Preparing the body for cremation

It’s natural to want to know how the body of your loved one will be prepared for cremation, and people often have questions about what happens to the coffin, jewellery and other items like floral tributes.

Once the deceased has been collected by your funeral director, it will be stored in a temperature-controlled room until the cremation service or the unattended cremation if you have opted for direct cremation.

The body of the deceased will be officially identified before any items that cannot be cremated are removed. 

What happens to medical items during a cremation?

It is at this stage that any medical items that could be hazardous during the cremation, such as pacemakers, will be respectfully removed by trained staff. Medical items are often melted down and recycled or reused through official schemes.

Besides the commonly known pacemaker, any medical device that uses a battery, radiation, pressurisation or silicone in its manufacture must be removed before cremation for safety reasons. However, there’s no need to worry about this, as any equipment unsuitable for cremation will be noted on the cremation medical certificate, completed before the cremation day.

Can jewellery be worn during a cremation?

It’s common for people to have a special item of jewellery, a wedding ring or a locket perhaps, that holds great significance. When we lose someone close to us, it’s common to want to send them off dressed in their finest clothes, perhaps wearing the jewellery they loved.

A common question, therefore, is what happens to jewellery during a cremation. Put simply, jewellery that is left on the body will melt during cremation and be unrecoverable. 

For this reason, most crematoria advise that jewellery be removed from the deceased before the coffin reaches the crematorium.

Any jewellery left on the body during a cremation will mingle with ash and other compounds. When the process is complete, it will be removed by the crematorium staff. Many crematoria now recycle the metal and donate some of the proceeds to charity as it cannot be given back to the deceased’s family or friends after cremation.

Of course, you can leave items of jewellery on the body of the deceased if you wish, but if there are valuable or emotionally significant items of jewellery you would like to keep, they should be removed from the deceased by your funeral director before the coffin is taken to the crematorium for cremation.

What happens to a body during cremation?

One of the catalysts for cremation growing in popularity was the development of more efficient, hotter cremation furnaces towards the end of the 19th Century. Today, cremation furnaces burn at around 1,000 degrees Celsius and can turn a body into basic chemical compounds - what we think of as the ashes - within 2-3 hours.

The cremation begins with the furnace chamber being preheated to around 600 degrees Celsius. Once this heat is reached, the coffin moves quickly through mechanised doors into the chamber to avoid loss of heat.

When the door closes, the heat inside rises rapidly to 1,000 degrees Celsius. This extreme heat dries the body before the remaining soft tissues are vapourised and eventually, the bones calcify. It is these fragments of bone that are then processed into what we refer to as ‘ashes’.

How many mourners can there be at a cremation service?

The amount of mourners at a cremation comes down to personal choice and whether you have opted for a full or private service at a crematorium or a direct cremation.

Some crematoriums have a large chapel and additional outside areas and can accommodate hundreds of guests on the premises. There may only be 100 seated places, for example, but mourners can stand in the aisles or congregate outside.

If it’s important that a large number of mourners attend the final send-off of the deceased, then perhaps a cremation with a service is the best option. This allows all acquaintances to pay their respects in a more formal, traditional setting. No invitation is strictly necessary, and if the deceased was known in their community or for their work, anybody is free to come and pay tribute.

A private cremation is an intimate, invitation only ceremony at the crematorium. This may include only family members or those particularly close to the deceased and is a traditional, respectful way to pay tribute to the person who has passed.

Some people who are close to the deceased may wish to view the coffin entering the cremation chamber, to see their loved one committed to the flames. Crematoria can usually arrange this in advance for a small, probably family, group.

Of course, if you have planned for a direct cremation, this is usually unattended. It is more likely, however, that the specific time may not be known and the cremation is carried out in private. In some cases, we may be able to accommodate a viewing for family members before the cremation with our DC Premium package

A direct cremation doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate their life

While you will most likely not be in attendance for the actual committal or cremation, a direct cremation leaves you free to arrange a separate thanksgiving service to honour the life of the deceased. Fenix can work with you to plan the perfect memorial event, taking care of any aspects of it you may find daunting.

Perhaps there’s a place that meant a lot to the deceased; a park, a restaurant or even their favourite pub. Wherever it is, you’re free to arrange your own celebration to honour their life. The service can take any form you like to best reflect the wishes and personality of your loved one. The scattering of ashes of course also often forms the basis for a memorial event.

After the cremation

What happens right after the service and when can you collect the ashes?

Once the cremation is over, the ashes need to be processed and cooled before they can be returned. This means that they are most often ready for collection 24-48 hours after the cremation. Very occasionally, they may be available on the same day, but it is best not to expect this.

If you have selected an urn for your loved ones ashes, then they will be put into this vessel as soon as they are ready. If not, they will be carefully stored in a functional but plain container ready for collection.

Most people opt to collect the ashes as soon as possible for the peace of mind of knowing that they are safe with them. However, funeral homes are required to hold remains for five years.

You should also be able to collect the cremation certificate from the crematorium or funeral director at this point. 

If you can’t make it to collect the ashes or opted for a direct cremation somewhere other than your hometown, we can arrange to have the ashes delivered to your home address up to 28 days after the cremation.

Who are the ashes given to after cremation?

This is a common question. Officially, the ashes can only be released to the same person who signed the contract with the funeral director or was in charge of the arrangements. This person is also able to sign the right of collection over to another person.

At this point, there are many options regarding the ashes of your loved one.

Choosing the perfect place for the ashes

Some crematoria have a garden of remembrance where the ashes may be buried for an additional fee. Alternatively, you may want to choose a cremation plot elsewhere after receiving the ashes. You have time to consider your location. This gives you a fixed place of remembrance that family and friends can continue to visit and pay their respects long into the future. 

The average cost for a cremation (burial) plot in the UK is likely to be between £1,500 and £2,500 for a 50-year term. It depends on the location, and there may be associated maintenance charges for the plot and extras like headstones will also cost you extra.

If you wish for the ashes of the deceased to be buried alongside a family member in an existing burial plot, this is a more cost effective option. It should cost somewhere between £150 and £300 for the cemetery authority to open the plot and bury the ashes.

Somewhere special for someone special

One of the best things about a cremation or a direct cremation is that the family of the deceased can choose to scatter the ashes at a special place that meant a lot to them during life and brings back happy memories.

You are free to scatter or bury ashes on your own land or over bodies of water in the UK without any permission needed, though it’s responsible to check the Environment Agency’s guidelines for the latter option.

Perhaps the deceased had a favourite sports ground, park or beach? It’s usually no problem to scatter ashes on other private and public lands in the UK, as long as you get permission from the owner. Choosing a public place to scatter ashes can be a wise decision compared to burying or scattering in your own garden if you think you will move house in the future.

The sky’s the limit

Stunning tributes that defy gravity  

  • Firework display tribute

Burying cremation ashes in the garden

If moving house is not a concern and you are considering burying the ashes of a loved one in your garden, it will be interesting to learn that in their raw form, cremation ashes can actually damage your soil and other plants. Their acidity could change the soil pH and stop plants from growing unless they are mixed with a special neutralising compost mix.

There are now many companies in the UK that specialise in biodegradable urns that contain neutralising compost and a sapling, making it easier than ever to grow a living memorial for a special person who has passed.

Unique keepsakes from cremation ashes

In recent years some more unorthodox uses for cremation ashes have been growing in popularity as people seek new ways to honour the lives of those they have lost. From creating a piece of jewellery to a tribute tattoo made with ink infused with ashes, there’s never been more ways to create a lasting object of remembrance. Some of the most popular tributes are:

  • Have the ashes made into a diamond
  • Inset into a piece of bespoke jewellery
  • Mixed into a vinyl record of the deceased’s favourite song
  • Mixed into tattoo ink

Alternatives to cremation and green cremations in the UK

Cremation was once considered to be a more environmentally friendly process than burial, as it does not require large plots of land and does not leak toxins into the ground. 

However, growing environmental concerns around cremation and its contribution to air pollution have led to a growing number of people questioning its sustainability and opting for green or ‘woodland’ burials.

Unlike traditional burials which involve the body being preserved with embalming agents that contain polluting chemicals and use a coffin with metal parts that are not biodegradable, green burials attempt to lessen the environmental impact with coffins made of natural materials and burial plots that are left unmarked and ‘as nature intended’.

What is a green cremation?

Green cremation - also known as water cremation - is not yet available in the UK, but will hopefully hit the market in coming years. The process, alkaline hydrolysis, mimics natural decomposition and is already popular in North America.

The end of the process leaves just the pure calcium phosphate of the bones, which is converted into a white dust. This ‘ash’ can be returned to the deceased’s loved ones and scattered, buried, or stored in a memorial object.

Water cremation has a smaller carbon footprint than regular cremation and unlike burials, does not release toxins into the ground or take up green space.

As society is increasingly aware of the importance of sustainability and climate issues, it seems inevitable that green cremation will gradually become an option in the UK.

Hopefully, this guide has helped you better understand cremation. However, if you still have questions and need help deciding between a cremation or a burial, or even just some friendly, impartial advice, contact us today.

We pride ourselves on being transparent, honest, and supportive, no matter what your plans or budget and are here to help.

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Frequently asked questions

Cremation services start at around £3,600 outside London, and up to £5,000 in the capital. Additional fees may include doctor’s fees, crematorium fees, and celebrant fees.
Direct cremation is a low-cost, no-service option where the cremation is conducted privately by certified professionals.
It can take 2 weeks on average for a cremation with a service, depending on availability and specific circumstances. Direct cremation may take up to 3 weeks.
Items such as jewelry will melt and be unrecoverable. It’s advised to remove valuable or sentimental items before cremation.

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