Great myths of Funeralworld

Charles 26 Comments

Crem curtains


Cheltenham crem curtains (source)


Posted by Richard Rawlinson 

No. 1: The committal is when the curtains of the crematorium’s catafalque close.

 The final committal is when the ashes from a cremated body are buried in an urn, or perhaps ceremoniously scattered to the wind. Or, of course, when the body is buried intact in a coffin, cutting out the crem altogether with its recorded music, ‘in and out’ process, and general lack of spiritual warmth.  

Crematoria, although they have ‘chapels’, are not consecrated churches but more a hybrid of secular theatre and factory. They’re useful and, sometimes, attractive venues for ceremonial respect-paying for the many with no allegiance to a church, but not a substitute for a church for those who belong to one.

But whether theist or atheist, surely any disposal of ashes by crem staff who have no link with the dead person is an unsatisfactory disposal. Crems may work as a venue for a memorial service, and as a process to prepare the body for the final committal, but that’s it.

For Christians, the two-centre ritual is often a farce with the first part in church and second part consisting of a few minutes in a crem, often after a tedious road journey. Everything that needed to be said has been said in the church and the crem service’s extra prayers and hymn can seem like extraneous padding.

But because people confuse the crem with the committal they go along with the two services, and then overlook the final committal of ashes. This is also why some Christians avoid the hassle of two-centre ritual and head, along with their priest, straight to the crem, cutting out the church which may have played a significant part in their family’s spiritual and social life.

A while back, I attended the funeral of Lady Quennell, wife of the late Sir Peter Quennell, founder of History Today magazine (she was the dear friend I had in mind when I posted this link.
Anyway, we waved her off in the hearse outside a central London church as it headed to a crem in the distant suburbs. We then walked round the corner for a boozy restaurant lunch of sad and amused reminiscences, leaving her in the care of the undertakers. It was not abandonment because the final burial of her ashes took place a biblical 40 days later, a pastorally significant end to an initial period of mourning.
 There was no need to hallow a factory process.


  1. Charles

    I totally take your point, Richard, particularly for Christian funerals. The two problems are both, sadly, financial.
    We have dealt with a number of families who have dispensed with a Church service despite the fact that they would have liked one because they simply cannot afford both. Leading on to the second, related problem, that at our local crematorium at least the fee is fixed regardless of whether there is a full service or just the undertaker arriving with the body for cremation. Unlike some others there are no discounts for early or late ‘slots’ either.

    Once again, appropriate ritual scuppered by financial considerations.


    1. Charles

      Hi Jenny and Richard

      Finding a cheaper slot could solve the problem here. I wonder what percentage of crematoria are offering this and how much further you would have to travel to save what I believe can be a significant amount. If the family can wave goodbye at the church there is no reason why the cremation has to take place immediately, allowing a bit of flexibility for the timing and extra travel, with the agreement and knowledge of the family of course, or am I wrong?

      I am aware that there are some areas of the country where there is no cheaper provision at all, are you in one of those? The south west is a problem I have been told.

      Also, what is the cost for a Minister and Church funeral at the moment? I know it went up recently can someone advise me please?


      1. Charles

        Rosie, at a slight tangent from Richard’s excellent point here, it would be a fantastic service if the NDC could publish the fees of every crematorium in the country – I think it would involve phoning most of them, as I’ve tried a few websites and money appeared to be unmentionable on all of them .

        The south west is indeed a problem area, with fees upwards of £700, and it would be worth travelling a long way to reach a much cheaper crematorium, if only one could find out how much. This obviously applies not only to church funerals, which don’t have the monopoly on the ‘ex-crem ceremony’, but also to imaginative families and undertakers who find alternative venues, as much as to direct-cremationists.

        1. Charles

          Hi Jonathan and Jenny

          I will put it on my to do list. If I could do ten a day, round all my other spinning plates, it will take me over a month! I wonder what other interesting stats would be worth gleaning;those that won’t help families with DIY might be worth identifying. Suggestions please.

          Under £300 for a slot at some London crematoria. Would that saving cover the church, your extra time and petrol Jenny?


          1. Charles

            Under £300 a slot would make it worth a trip up from Devon for a direct cremation; even the Congestion Charge could come out of the £400 saving – which crematorium, Rosie?


          2. Charles

            I found a few Crem fees lists by deep digging on their web pages – council ones are supposed to have them there somewhere . Our local will very gladly help with DIY but …only if asked… They won’t openly offer it for fear of upsetting the FDs.

          3. Charles

            The city of London crem= £285 no ceremony 8am – 9am.
            You can have a cremation plus a half hour ceremony with them between 8.30am and 9.30am for £315.
            I have heard that golders green, st marylebone and putney vale also oblige but have not investigated prices yet.


      2. Charles

        Hi, Rosie.
        Anything we could, by travelling further, reduce the cost from £639 to £500 and we have done that in the past, although we have never been asked for a ‘direct cremation’ as such.
        Richard, church fees (for a service in Church and the vicar/priest’s fee) vary but are generally in the region of £350-£420 around here. When you ask £639 or even £500 on top of that for a cremation it starts to be prohibitive for many people.

  2. Charles

    My understanding from a fascinating ICCM talk at Arnos Vale Cemetery and Crematorium, in Bristol, is that crematorium designers do intend the closing of curtains or the mysterious lowering of the coffin into the catafalc to represent the committal stage of a service.
    My experience is that we did not wish this contrivance to form part of the service for our relatives, however, there are those who feel uncomfortable leaving the room if the coffin is left there on display – they would rather it ‘disappeared’.
    With ashes, there is the opportunity to hold on to the remains of the person until one is ready to let go, postponing the event (sometimes indefinitely). This inability to face a final committal is sometimes the reason people choose cremation over burial.

  3. Charles

    Very interesting points, James, about this contrivance being to do not wanting to face the truly finite committal.

    Ditto, Jenny, I hadn’t considered the financial angle but I’m sure it must play a part in the decision-making process.

  4. Charles

    I feel you, as a Christian, have a right to some indignation here, Richard! It was lazy of the secularist celebrants to use the word ‘committal’, with its roots in words such as joining, entrusting, and the obvious religious or spiritual implications. I try hard to avoid it these days, but there seems to be no word to adequately describe the secular equivalent of a committal, mostly because there is no real equivalent, and we have to derive what meaning we can from closing the curtains, or indeed lowering the coffin. That’s another discussion, really; but we could have it one day, a useful word may emerge that differentiates between entrusting a soul to its maker on the one hand, and, er, something else on the other!

  5. Charles

    Good point, Jonathan. I think the arrival of cremation took the Church by surprise in the early 20th century and they failed to respond adequately and clarify what does and doesn’t constitute committal. The Church’s inaction has left us in a mess.

    I also gather many early cremationists didn’t intend crematoria to replace church funerals or even act as a substitute to any committal. They were seen simply as a process towards the disposal.

    Weren’t ashes initially buried in coffins (not even urns) after the crem service? Wasn’t there often a three-centre ritual (church, crem, graveyard) which turned out to be too laborious for the average grieving family, hence the short cuts?

    Crems have a lot to answer for as religious and non-religious seek better ways to honour their dead.

  6. Charles

    You think it’s all over… and then you get your LO back again in a polythene sweetjar. We say goodbye, then you say hello. No, it ain’t over til it’s over (whether or not a big lass sings), and over is when you consign the ashes someplace.

    As the real direct cremationists like Nick and Poppy understand, cremation is a means of preparing a body for a funeral. A crematorium is a processing plant.

  7. Charles

    ‘over is when you consign the ashes someplace.’
    I’m not sure it’s over then either Charles – an important line has been stepped over but there’s a whole lifetime of lines ahead of us…..

    RR I like the 40 days idea – always such a significant timespan…
    I’ve been on a wonderful web wander thanks to this post….came upon this

    And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
    That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust
    That measures all our time; which also shall
    Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
    How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
    That thou mayst fit thy self against thy fall.
    George Herbert 1663

    I digress, the online definition of COMMITTAL – Noun
    The action of sending a person to an institution, esp. prison or a psychiatric hospital.

    The burial of a corpse.

    At my local crem the FDs talk about the ‘committal’ as being when the curtains close. Strangely enough I’ve been pondering what it means myself, so appreciate the distilling of thoughts. I think the people who attend crem services in the ‘chapel’ feel like they are in a special secular sacred space – if there can be such a thing. They don’t dwell too much on the processing part, or the conveyor beltedness of the proceedings. It’s an amazing sight to behold as I see the next ‘congregation’ ( if I may use the term) slowing down to process (other meaning of the word) into what is now ‘their’ space… for the allotted 30 minutes anyway. It’s a pity the ceremony, the ritual, is attached to the ‘factory’. But the congregation want to be with the coffin, with their love…. I reckon it will be a long slow step to try to separate the ‘body body’ from this farewell ritual, and if I’m honest I hope it doesn’t happen. ( That is I hope we carry on being with the body, but not necessarily in the crem chapel) There is something jolly cathartic in having the ‘body body’ as opposed to the ‘body ashes’ with us for this bit of the ritual, don’t you think?
    The committal then is another kettle of fish – much more of an ending, a definite ‘stepping over of a clear line’ . ( Not THE END though Charles!) Interesting how cremation has caused the two – the funeral and the committal – to be separated. Loads to think about – as ever with that RR bloke, light the blue touch paper…. and retreat 🙂

    1. Charles

      “the online definition of COMMITTAL – Noun
      The action of sending a person to an institution. The burial of a corpse.”

      Just goes to show what half-truths appears online.

      Look at the word ‘committal’, and think of similar words such as mission, missive, permission, commission, missile, or the French word ‘mettre, to put or send’, or the Latin ‘committere, to send out, begin, entrust, consign’; and what do they all have in common? The notion of sending; and my best guess is that the word ‘committal’ was coined to mean sending, not some curtains round a coffin or a coffin into a hole, but a spirit into the afterlife. Otherwise, ‘encurtaining’ would be a good enough word, or even ‘engraving’, and then where would we be!

      Properly I think the cremator ought to be inside the ‘chapel’, just as the grave is in front of us for a graveside ceremony, and watching the corpse go gloriously into the flames would have a parallel, finalizing effect to lowering it into a grave, while we relinquish our attachment to the dull, grey residue – relinquishment is only a mental adjustment, outside the constraints of religious faith. Almost all of the body gets vaporized, and the roasted and ground bones are a sorry souvenir for the beautiful thing that introduced us to the soul who inhabited it all her life, and which we’ve just gone to so much trouble to dispose of with so much ceremony and meaning.

  8. Charles

    Jed, I agree the funeral should be with the body but committal with the body is only possible with burial, or perhaps with Hindu funeral pyres (this ritual is very different to watching curtains close pre-incineration).

    Committal of ashes is a post-crem service after the funeral with the body and is often omitted as we know. I agree the crem satisfies many people for various reasons, just as I agree it’s worth exploring crem alternatives for funeral services and genuine committals.

    I think Charles was right to say the committal is when you assign the ashes (or body) somewhere. A committal, by definition, is this physical act. It doesn’t deny the ‘the whole lifetime of lines ahead’. In fact, its finiteness should help with that.

    1. Charles

      RR & Charles – Aha ‘it’s all over’ as in the committal is all over – geddit! I used to think the ‘committal’ meant committing the soul to God’s judgement, but it is just the physical act of placing of the body/ashes into the ground…? Now we’re separating the body/ashes from the soul. My crem ‘committals’ (with or without curtains) have been about committing the body to be cremated and committing that otherness to hearts, memories, timelessness….and even occasionally (don’t spontaneously combust RR) to God. Rethink needed.

      1. Charles

        Ah, I see your point, Jed! I agreed that the physical act of committal is when you put the ashes (or body) to rest, but, yes, in faith terms, this ritual, of course, symbolises the separation of the immortal soul from the mortal remains.

        I deliberately didn’t get theological here as the point made was simply that the curtains closing on the coffin is a process before a committal. Some people, who don’t think beyond this to the final resting place of either soul or ashes, may find this useful.

  9. Charles

    Me and my mam was chatting about cremation the other day and in our opinion we feel its too final, like my close friend had a cremation and her ashes scattered per her wishes but I so miss her not having a grave I could go do. Still respect peoples wishes though as like my friend if thats they wishes well thats what is done.

    1. Charles

      Lee – it’s hard to not have a physical place where someone is, isn’t it? But maybe your friend wanted to feel ‘free’ and not confined under the earth… perhaps you can choose a special place that meant something to you and your friend and go there to remember?

  10. Charles

    Interesting.. almost like the abortion debate in reverse?

    Recently I had a bumbling Minister close the curtains at the end of a service when the family had specifically asked for them to remain open. As he immediately left the chapel at this point, I did not have time to re-open them, something I have done once or twice in the past under similar circumstances. Anyway, once outside the back door, mindful of the next service being at the front door – the mother of the deceased made her feelings clear to the Vicar and of course, myself. Once this was done, she joined the rest of her family viewing the flowers.

    A few moments later – she came to complain again. ‘My daughter hated being shut in’ she told me.

    Even as a very sympathetic FD my mind naturally turned to the inescapable fact that within a few moments of the curtains closing – the actual cremation would be under-way – in the cremation chamber. You couldn’t get a more ‘closed-in’ space.

    All of which proves only one thing – every funeral is unique in the mind of those attending or organising it. An inconsequential slip to me could easily be a major disaster to someone else.

    Curtains? Personally I hate them. But doors are worse – especially when you know some poor bloke is frantically winding a handle backstage to withdraw the coffin from view having got the signal from the person taking the ceremony.

  11. Charles

    I find that the curtains are bit of a sanitised method of committal, and often close too quickly. The catafalque with conveyer belt/doors are a bit too industrial (more so at busier crems). The lowering of the catafalque seems a bit tacky in trying to emulate burial. I have noticed that many European crematoria use the “do nothing” method, and a few use moving screens (in one case revolving) instead of curtains. In Japan, the committal is straight into the cremator!

    Is there really a perfect method of committal, or do families need choices?

    It would be a very interesting subject for more research or an article in this blog, as to what would be the generally preferred method of committal/coffin vanishing point at a crematorium.

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