One Depart

Advice & Information on what to do after a death

When a body is cremated what happens to the coffin?

Wicker coffin adorned with flowers

Cremating a body is the most common way for funerals to take place in the UK. Since the first official cremation in 1885, the rate of uptake for this method of holding a funeral has risen from 34.7% in 1960 to 77.05% in 2017.

Despite being a regular practice, there are lots of frequently asked questions regarding the process of cremation including what happens to the coffin and whether the ashes contain the remains of the casket or shroud.

In this guide, we provide answers to some common questions about what happens to the coffin during cremation including a look at the Code of Cremation Practice adhered to by most crematoria in the UK as well as the guidelines around the construction of a coffin for cremation.

What Laws, Legislation or Code of Practices Govern the Cremation of a Coffin?

Most crematoria are members of either the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA) or the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM).

As members of one of these organisations, the crematorium will be bound to a Code of Cremation Practice which includes adhering to the various laws which relate to cremation in the UK including the Cremation Act 1902 and its various amendments.

Do You Have to Have a Coffin for Cremation?

There is no law that states that a coffin must be used when a person is cremated.

However, it is a legal requirement that a dead body is shrouded in some way if it can be viewed at any time from a public highway. 

As a result, most people do opt for some form of coffin, whether this is a traditional veneered wooden casket or a more eco-friendly wicker or pine coffin. 

There are some crematoria that will allow someone to be cremated with a just simple cloth shroud to cover them.

Do You Need a Particular Type of Coffin for Cremation?

If a coffin is being used for a cremation then it must first confirm to The Environmental Protection Act 1990. 

This legislation places a responsibility on the Cremation Authorities to ensure that the coffin is made from materials which are suitable for cremation including all furnishings and fittings. 

This same legislation also covers any items that have been included in the coffin for presentation of viewing such as personal articles, flowers and clothing.

A coffin used for cremation must therefore confirm to the following standards:

  • Made from materials which are easily combustible and do not emit toxic gas or smoke. The materials must not leave retardant drips or smears after final combustion.
  • Coffins must not be constructed using cross pieces at the base. If strengthening is required then wooden strips may be added lengthways to the bottom of the coffin.
  • No metal should be used in the construction with the exception of fixings that are essential for the safe construction of the coffin. These fixings should be high ferrous in content.
  • If the coffin is constructed of cardboard then this should not contain chlorine (such as a polyamidoamine-epichlorhydrin based resin (PAA-E)).

Beyond the construction method and material you select for a coffin intended for cremation there are some other stipulations about size and style. See also, ‘What Do I Have to Consider When Buying a Coffin for Cremation?’, below.

Will the Ashes Contain Remains of the Coffin?

The ashes that are collected following cremation, less any metals, will also contain the remains of the coffin.

It is worth noting that remains are sorted after cremation using a magnet to collect any ferrous metal before the ashes are collected. This can include metal from medical implants or that which has been used in the construction of the coffin.

For this reason, some body piercings and prostheses which are easy to remove shall not be cremated with the deceased.

Ashes will also include the remains of any content placed inside the coffin such as clothing or personal effects which were deemed suitable for cremation by the crematorium. 

It is recommended that clothing selected for cremation be made from natural fibres and not include manufactured material such as PVC. 

You may not place items such as glass or plastic in a coffin which is due to be cremated. The exception to this is for ay viewings but items placed inside a coffin for this purpose must be removed prior to cremation.

What Do I Have to Consider When Buying a Coffin for Cremation?

Coffins that are to be used for the purposes of cremation must be constructed as per the guidance given above (see ‘Do You Need a Particular Type of Coffin for Cremation?’). 

Coffins for cremation should also:

  • have a smooth, hard and flat bottomed base.
  • not be coated or varnished with any substance that contains:
    • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
    • melamine
    • polyurethane
    • nitro-cellulose 
  • not contain lead of zinc.

Where a coffin must be lined, this should be using polythene that does not exceed 75 microns in thickness. Shredded paper, saw dust or cotton wool as a lining must be avoided.

Coffins for cremation should not exceed the following dimensions:

  • 206cm (81 inches) in length
  • 71cm (28 inches) in width
  • 56cm (22 inches) in depth

This is due to the restricted space offered by standard cremators. If you are likely to need a coffin which exceeds these dimensions then you will need to check with the crematorium management if they can accommodate this.

Lastly, it is always recommended that you contact the crematorium management to ensure that any coffin chosen for a cremation is constructed of suitable materials.

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