Exploring the phenomenon of direct cremation
'Go direct to the crematorium; do not pass through the chapel, pay £1,000 and collect the ashes.'
On the morning of Thursday 26 March 1885, Woking Crematorium was used for the first time to cremate Mrs Jeanette Caroline Pickersgill. She died at home in Marylebone and her coffin was taken to Woking and placed in the cremator. Her ashes were then returned to London where a couple of years later they were placed into a coffin along with those of another family member and deposited in the catacomb underneath Kensal Green Cemetery’s Anglican chapel.
At 9.30am on Saturday 24 March 1945, the coffin containing the south west London funeral director Frederick W Paine (pictured below) was received at South London Crematorium in Streatham. No service was held in the chapel, the coffin was immediately committed for cremation and his ashes were collected later that day; it is not recorded what happened to them.
On a Wednesday in mid-August 2018 between 7.30am and 9.40am, eight coffins were received at a crematorium in London. These contained the bodies of those donated for medical research; some of the families requested the ashes be collected.
The following week, a hearse arrived at a crematorium in Surrey at 8.30am where a coffin was led into the chapel which was promptly committed for cremation without a ceremony or the presence of any mourners. The ashes were retrieved by the funeral director and despatched to the client.
Apart from the term, there’s nothing new about direct cremation as these examples spanning over 130 years indicate.
This article commences by exploring the reasons why a direct cremation may be requested before looking at the definition and problems data gathering information before concluding with some observations.
Why people choose to be cremated in this way:
- Fulfilling the express wishes of the deceased.
- These are the requirements of the client, but they may not be those of the deceased
- It may be that cremation precedes a memorial service with the casket of ashes on display
- There may not be any relations or friends to attend the funeral; they may be too ill, too old, not in the country or with no emotional or pecuniary attachment to the deceased
- A clandestine ceremony is required to prevent media attention, such as a famous person, or notorious criminal
- A contract with an organisation for the disposal of foeti, medical slides and subjects bequeathed for anatomical research
- There is a need to minimise funerary expenditure.
In respect of the four examples used at the start of this paper, all except Mrs Pickersgill coincide with these above. Her coffin was placed directly in the cremator as there was no chapel at Woking until 1889. We don’t know for sure, but Frederick Paine probably requested that no ceremony be held prior to his cremation. Deceased released after bequeathal are cremated in accordance with the contract held with the school of anatomy, while the cremation in Surrey was carried out on the instructions of a client; no attendance or ceremony was requested or permitted.
Generally understood to be a cremation without a ‘…funeral service, procession, viewing or admittance of mourners at the crematorium,’ as one provider states, for reasons of variation of definition the term is nevertheless problematic. First, it is seldom ‘direct’ as transporting the deceased from the place of death to the crematorium without any intermediate resting place is usually impractical or impossible. It may be that the opening times of the hospital or public mortuary are restrictive, such as afternoons only or between 9.30am and 10.30am three days a week. If the cremation takes place at an early hour the body will have to be removed and rest overnight in a funeral director’s mortuary. Similarly, if death occurred at home it may not be feasible to retain the body there until the cremation. Furthermore, as statutory documentation has to be deposited at a crematorium 48-hours before cremation and hospitals will only release documentation with the deceased, the body must be accommodated somewhere other than in the hospital. It’s not possible to leave a deceased at a hospital for more than a few days; some hospitals impose a fine if the removal is not within a time frame after the cremation documentation has been completed. Some organisations offering direct cremation make it the responsibility of the client to provide custody of the deceased.
Secondly, whilst a direct cremation is generally understood to be unattended, some funeral directors and crematoria will, on payment of an additional fee, permit attendance at a committal including the request of special music. This, however, changes the nature of direct cremation as it’s the issue of what happens prior to the actual cremation that can distort the definition of direct cremation and make data gathering problematic. Effectively, what appears to be direct cremation is in fact ‘indirect cremation’ as the deceased is neither taken direct to the crematorium nor is the coffin taken direct from the means of transport to the cremator with anyone other than staff present.
The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA) undertakes an annual survey of crematoria but the number of direct cremations is not requested. This is probably just as well as from the perspective of a crematorium a direct cremation may well appear to be just the same as a ‘committal only’ funeral, particularly if there is no attendance at the committal. It may be that a service has been conducted elsewhere, such as in a funeral director’s service chapel. More than one firm provides a chapel where the coffin is already in position before the family arrives for an evening service. It remains there overnight before being taken the next morning in a van or estate car for cremation without any mourners present. From a cost perspective it reduces the need for a motor hearse and for bearers. Similarly, for reasons of time and convenience it is not unknown for a coffin to be committed at the church door (both in rural areas and central London) then taken by hearse for an unattended cremation. To the crematorium these may also appear to be a direct cremation, but they are not.
One south east London cemetery offers their chapel for what is termed an ‘off-site’ cremation. Here a service is held in the cemetery chapel, which has a catafalque surrounded by curtains just like a crematorium. The following morning it is transported by estate car to a crematorium where the company has an agreement to receive unattended cremations. With an hour in the cemetery chapel this ‘off-site’ has become a popular option, especially as the local facility is the UK’s busiest with services at half hourly intervals. To the receiving crematorium this could be classified as direct cremation, but again it’s not the case.
Crematoria that are members of the FBCA adhere to a Code of Practice obliging them to receive all coffins through the ‘main entrance’ and that ‘…the coffin and its contents…shall be placed onto the catafalque and transferred into the crematory in the normal way.’ This means that a coffin must go through the chapel; what could be called a ‘back-door’ cremation is not permitted. If the latter was possible and no ceremony preceded transfer to the crematorium, this would be the closest to a ‘true’ direct cremation.
Despite there being no consensus on definition, but assuming a direct cremation to be an unattended cremation, five observations can be made.
The first requires us to consider both the purpose of a funeral and the function of a crematorium. For the former New York funeral director turned sociologist Vanderlyn Pine’s six characteristics of a funeral as providing social support, confirming the reality of death, utilising [religious] ritual, an act of procession, material expenditure and sanitary disposal remains valid (Pine 1969). A direct cremation eliminates the act of procession, but the other five elements remain, particularly if there is a gathering and ritual not at the cremation but at the time of disposal of the ashes. This is a rediscovery of what the early cremationists promoted; that cremation was a preparation for burial of the ashes which would take place in the context of a ceremony. There was no chapel at Woking in the early years, so the crematorium functioned as a disposal facility. And even when it was constructed it was not always used for ceremonies. Yet a cremation ceremony is associated with attendance at a crematorium, a place that is both utilitarian and symbolic, religious and secular.
The second point stems from this and asks the question: should future crematoria be constructed without a chapel, so solely as a place of utility? In the early 1980s the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (now ICCM) ran a competition for the design of a crematorium with one entry being just that: a disposal facility, although this term was not used. The unattributed designer suggested making use of the many local chapels and churches for a service prior to the coffin being brought to a facility comprising cremators, equipment and an office. This follows the model of crematoria in other parts of the world, such as the US where the crematory does not necessarily adjoin a service chapel.
The third point concerns direct cremation and the issue of funeral poverty. The services provided by the funeral director revolve around four elements: provision of a coffin, removal and storage of the deceased, transport of the coffin and mourners, and administration. Staff and transport are costly elements. However, if a less expensive vehicle could be used and a wheel bier in place of bearers, this will reduce expenditure. Many crematoria built in this country prior to the mid-1950s possessed a chapel of rest where the funeral director could deposit the coffin in advance of the funeral; it would then be placed on the catafalque at the time of the funeral. This arrangement certainly facilitates direct cremation.
Reducing expenditure on vehicles and also taking advantage of the concessionary fee offered by some crematoria for a cremation between 8.30am and 10am, as seen in the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake, helps lower costs. There is evidence of reduced rates at crematoria in the 1930s, but this was rather to attract a new generation to cremation, than specifically introduced under the funeral poverty banner. Today, fees at what are effectively the charges made in 2004 are not for an unattended service; they exist to encourage the use of the least popular times. If crematoria, however, charge a ‘cremation only’ fee, this would reflect the true nature of a direct cremation. However, returning to the Code of Practice, crematoria insist that a coffin is not simply delivered but booked in at a specific time irrespective of whether a service is held or not.
The fourth point is that those who are arranging a direct cremation are still bereaved; they still cry, grieve and have the same overall needs as any other bereaved person. Loss is loss irrespective of the mode of disposal. To them the direct cremation may be something the bereaved wanted and they feel obliged to fulfil. As one crying son commented: ‘This is what my mother requested, but it isn’t what I want’. Their grief may lead to acts such as wanting to know the date and time of the cremation, which crematoria will legitimately reveal, resulting in people watching the arrival of the coffin from the car park, appearing with a floral tribute or wanted to have a favourite teddy bear placed in the coffin. It may also lead to wider family members and friends feeling they have been cheated out of not attending the final rite of passage, and particularly so if there is no ceremony when the ashes are buried and/or no memorial service takes place.
The last point is that much research is needed about direct cremation including a definition, its frequency and also the impact on costs. Whilst the direct cremations of David Bowie and Anita Brookner have generated much publicity, it is questionable whether these have started a trend. The Co-operative Funeralcare commented that ‘…before Bowie’s death...very few people were aware of the option.’ They also noted that following his death ‘…those opting for direct cremation has now risen to five percent’. (‘David Bowie’ p39) No sources for this information are stated. The 2015 Royal London funeral index report stated that direct funerals were ‘increasing’ but did offer quantification in this report or their 2018 edition. (Royal London 2015 & 2018). A recent YouGov Omnibus survey by the National Association of Funeral Directors revealed that 38 percent of British adults would be likely to consider a direct cremation for themselves and 28 percent would consider it for a loved one (Funerals Matter 2018). In an article published in The Economist (12 April 2018), a spokesman for Dignity PLC estimated that two percent of funerals are direct but this will increase to ten percent by 2030. (Dignity operates Simplicity Cremations through their client service centre, although staff in their network of 800 plus funeral directing branches get paperwork signed locally and arrange cremations at one of the firm’s forty-six crematoria.) The insurance company Over50choices also claimed that ten percent of cremations in 2017 were direct (so around 46,000 cremations) with an expectation that this would rise to 20 percent by 2023. Again, no attribution for this huge figure is given. Perhaps the most reliable data comes from Dignity whose Simplicity brand carries out between 150 and 120 cremations each month, although this has become unclear following the launch of their ‘attended’ direct cremation service.
Whilst the commentators and the media are heralding direct cremation as something new that will threaten funeral directors’ revenue and change the way funerals are carried out, the evidence indicates that not only have they always taken place but it’s likely that only a limited number are carried out each month.
The copious publicity afforded to death and funerals over the last thirty years which has helped stimulate the ‘funeral reform movement’ has encouraged those both supplying and needing the service to consider the final ceremony. Direct cremation is only one option for disposal and whilst it will suit some, the time-honoured tradition of attending a funeral with the body present is likely to remain for years to come.
Pine VR (1969) ‘Comparative Funeral Practices’ Practical Anthropology No16 pp49-62
‘Funerals Matter’ (2018) Funeral Director Monthly Vol 101 No8 August pp10-17
‘David Bowie’ (2018) Funeral Service Times August pp38-39
Why Undertakers are Worried’ The Economist 12 April 2018
This article is based on a paper delivered during the Death & Culture II Conference held at the University of York from 6-7 September 2018.