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What is Direct Cremation?

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Also known as simple cremation or direct disposal, direct cremations dispense with the traditional need for a funeral service and offer an alternative to, what can sometimes be, a costly end-of-life necessity.

In this feature, we take a look at exactly what a direct cremation entails including the process and how to organise one plus look at some of the reasons why people choose this method of funeral including celebrities like David Bowie and John Lennon.

Cremation: The Options

The disposition of a body after death is wholly necessary and most people consider just two simple options; burial or cremation. 

Whilst there are some alternatives to this including donating your body to medical science, resomation (or water cremation) and other high-tech solutions, the methods of cremation or burial are still the most common types of funeral in the UK.

Within both of these options, there is still a great deal of choice with interment being offered via natural burials or at a range of traditional cemeteries. Cremation itself is usually only offered at registered crematoria but open-air funeral pyres are deemed to be legal as long as strict criteria is met.

What Is Direct Cremation?

Direct cremation is a simple alternative to a standard funeral involving the cremation of a person’s body. Quite simply, this involves there being no funeral, just a cremation. 

There is no formal service, no pre-planned cortege, no public viewing or visitation, no wake and often no funeral home or funeral director being involved at all.

Sometimes called a pure cremation, this method of disposition can be a lot cheaper than a traditional cremation (see ‘What Are The Costs of a Direct Cremation?’, below).

Other ways by which direct cremation is known include:

  • Direct Disposal
  • Basic Cremation
  • Immediate Cremation
  • Simple Cremation

The Process of Direct Cremation

Direct cremation is very similar to a standard cremation in terms of the process of transporting the deceased from place of death (or funeral home where applicable) to a crematorium. What is different is that no formal service takes place before, during or after the event. 

Quite simply, the deceased’s coffin is received by the crematorium and then placed in the cremator for disposal. 

Assuming you have chosen to use a funeral director who has access to a suitable vehicle (not always a traditional hearse) and can supply a coffin or shroud of your choosing then the process of direct cremation is quite straightforward.

Once the deceased has been collected from the place of death (or funeral home where applicable), they will be transported to the crematorium where pallbearers will pass the coffin/shroud down the main aisle of the crematorium. Whilst there will be no official music, readings, eulogy or speeches to accompany this, mourners may still attend to witness this process. 

The deceased will be placed on the catafalque or similar stand from which committal to the cremators takes place. 

Committal happens almost immediately following this sort of ‘procession’, whereupon the cremation staff will receive the body to the private rooms at the rear of the crematorium in order to begin the process of cremation.

The procedure is still dignified and is undertaken individually with the deceased’s ashes being returned to the family to be scattered or kept as they wish.

Often seen as a ‘no-fuss’ alternative to a formal funeral service, a direct cremation dispenses with the need for limos, flowers, officiants and service cards as well as other aspects of this traditional disposition.

How Popular Is Direct Cremation?

According to the Sun Life Cost of Dying Report 2018, just 2% of funerals in the UK last year were direct cremations.

The most popular way for funerals to be organised is via cremation with some form of ceremony and service and accounted for 71% of funerals in 2018; burials accounted for 27%.

Interestingly, 4% of people opted for a cheaper and more basic cremation service indicating that cost was an influencing factor in the choice of the disposition of their loved ones.

However, the Sun Life report found that 47% of people surveyed in their research were not aware of direct cremation being an option.

When asked what kinds of funeral service they would like for themselves, 13% of respondents in this report said they would like family and friends to give them a direct cremation.

Why Do People Choose Direct Cremation?

As well as the cost being substantially lower with a direct, rather than traditional, cremation, some people request this method of disposition in advance of their deaths (or families choose it) for other reasons entirely.

Perhaps the most common grounds for doing so are to forego the formal ‘pomp and ceremony’ that comes along with a normal funeral service. Elements of this long-standing tradition are based on religious rituals (such as offering prayers or the use of song) as well as outmoded and dated rituals that have become standard practice but are seen by some as serving no purpose. 

In a direct cremation, there is no ceremony of any sorts including a eulogy or procession and even some aspects of the preparation of a body before cremation are dispensed with.

For some, this method of disposition is considered ‘pure’ and simply deals with a more perfunctory way to dispose of a person’s body allowing friends and family to grieve alone or to hold a more celebratory event some time after death has occurred. Memorial services held after a death are not uncommon but in forgoing an official funeral, these can often take on a more prominent function to help mourners unite in their grief without the focus being on the formal ceremony of death.

In this way, direct cremation is sometimes chosen as a dignified and simple send-off.

Often, the choice of a direct cremation by the deceased (prior to their death) can be to do with not wishing to place their families under the pressure of having to organise a funeral service. Whilst there is no ‘average’ ceremony, most funerals involve dealing with a number of matters, including:

  • Appointing a funeral director
  • Informing friends and family of the funeral timings
  • Taking part in a funeral procession
  • Arranging a eulogy, music, clothes for the deceased, photos for the order of service and speaking to a celebrant or other officiant.
  • Organising a wake

All of these things take time and a lot of emotional energy which some people would rather spare their immediate families the need to deal with after their death.

Of course, there are other reasons why some people might have a direct cremation that are not by choice. 

Deaths that occur where a person has no family or friends (or where relatives are unable or unwilling to pay) are organised under the Poor Laws here in the UK. These funerals are usually performed via direct cremation although some authorities and even some NHS trusts may arrange a basic service to accompany disposition.

Other situations where direct cremation is used in place of a traditional service are when someone has died abroad and repatriation is not possible or considered financially viable. In such cases where family and friends cannot travel to attend a funeral service then direct cremation is deemed a suitable alternative and the ashes can be returned to the family afterwards.

It is worth remembering that repatriation of a body can cost up to £17,000 depending on the country in which death occurred. Without suitable insurance, direct cremation for some is the only option.

Some Famous Examples of Direct Cremation

The choice not to have a funeral is made relatively frequently but there have been several high-profile direct cremations; the latest being just a few years ago when David Bowie died.

The singer, who had been suffering from liver cancer for 18 months prior to his death, made the choice before he died to have a cremation with no service and no attendant family or friends.

The decision was seen by many people to be a controversial one but he was not the first music icon to opt for a simple cremation.

After John Lennon was assassinated in 1980 his wife, Yoko Ono, made the decision for his body to be cremated without any formal ceremony. At the time, Ono’s choice for the funeral of her husband was widely criticised with fans decrying the act believing that Lennon deserved a huge funeral service. It was perhaps the level of  the former Beatle’s fame that prompted Ono to make the decision with the task of organising such a public event being too much to bear at such a difficult time of personal loss and tragedy.

More recently, and just a few months after Bowie died in 2016, the novelist and art historian, Anita Brookner died leaving specific instructions that no funeral should be held for her. Instead, her body was taken straight to the crematorium.

The Down Side to Direct Cremation

Funeral services have been a conventional part of death for centuries and every culture and every religion has a set of very specific rituals and rules that are observed. As part of our heritage, they are seen by many as serving an important part of both honouring the dead and helping those left behind as part of a process of grieving.

For some, the lack of a funeral service can feel as though something important hasn’t been done and skipping this part can actually be a barrier to coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

In this way, people who choose a direct cremation often request  that their families and friends organise, instead, a suitable memorial event. This can help mitigate the lack of formality by not having a traditional funeral service.

It is important to point out that direct cremations are not usually a closed event and family members and friends who feel the need to witness the committal of a body can do so by attending the crematorium. Just because there is no official celebrant or religious leader to hold a service does not mean the process has to be unobserved. 

How Do You Organise a Direct Cremation?

When someone dies, there are three simple things that need to be done:

The process of a direct cremation does not dispense with the need for the first two criteria but, where the third requirement often involves appointing a funeral director to transport the deceased to a funeral home and prepare the body, direct cremation can be organised straight from the place of death to the crematoria.

Once a death certificate has been obtained and you have provided this to your chosen crematorium, you can arrange for the deceased’s body to be collected and transported.

Most people choose to do this using a funeral director but this is not a legal requirement. 

What is a legal requirement is that the deceased’s body is suitably covered from public view and transported safely between venues. Whilst this often means the use of a coffin, you could also opt for a shroud or other alternative.

If you use a funeral director then they will provide a hearse and pallbearers to perform the transportation and handling. 

Other than this, the crematorium will receive the body of the deceased in the usual way and there is no requirement for any additional elements of the service.

Do You Need a Funeral Director for Direct Cremation?

If there is to be no formal service or viewings and you can arrange our own transport then there is no need for a funeral director to be appointed for a direct cremation, nor is there any legal requirement for you to do so.

However, if the deceased died at home and there is to be a delay between death and cremation then you will need to consider how the body is being accommodated. The natural decomposition process of all humans begins quite soon after death and funeral homes can prevent this becoming an issue by using climate-controlled rooms, refrigeration or embalming

It is worth remembering that many funeral homes can offer a basic services fee which covers direct cremation and can be significantly less expensive than traditional funeral costs. Certainly, engaging a funeral director to undertake a basic cremation will mean you do not have to consider matters like transportation, dealing directly with the crematorium and obtaining a suitable coffin.

What Are The Costs of a Direct Cremation?

With the exception of donating your body to medical science, direct cremation is the least expensive option for disposition. 

Not only do you not have to pay for a funeral director should you not wish to but many other costly items and services can also be dispensed with, including expensive coffins, preparing the body, paying for a celebrant/priest etc as well as the cost of formal transportation.

According the Sun Life Cost of Dying Report 2018, the average cost of a basic cremation service in the UK is currently £3,744 (vs £4,798 for a burial).

By contrast, the average cost of a direct cremation is just £1,712 which is more than £2,000 (54%) lower. This varies by region with the following average costs for this kind of disposition being as follows:

Average Cost of Direct Cremation
Average Cost of Cremation
Average Cost of Burial
Northern Ireland
North East England
North West England
Yorkshire & The Humber
South West England
South East & South England
East & West Midlands

With the exception of Scotland (where this not applicable). these figures include the cost of doctors fees for issuing a medical certificate.

It is worth remembering that there can be additional costs that are not factored in to the above figures depending on whether you are planning to inter the ashes in a cemetery or columbarium. These kinds of arrangements can attract additional fees such as headstones, markers and other costs.

The cost of a memorial service is often not considered when opting for a direct cremation and this should also be included. Again, according to the Sun Life, the average cost of a send-off in the UK is currently £2,061. 

This figure is made up of costs which include:

  • Flowers
  • Catering
  • Venue hire for wake
  • Limo hire
  • Service cards
  • Death notices in newspapers

Whilst some of these costs can be avoided with a direct cremation, there are some that may still form part of any memorial event.