What Happens to the Coffin During Cremation

During a cremation the coffin:

  • Goes into the cremation chamber along with the decedent inside
  • Disintegrates in the intense heat
  • May leave behind a few metal parts that the cremation staff remove later
  • The coffin itself must consist of wood or another combustible material such as cardboard or wicker which burn easily

I didn’t know much about cremation until a family member died who had chosen this method for after their funeral. Being curious, I got to find out a lot about it.

While you do not see the cremation taking place, you may well be curious to know what happens.

This article explains everything you need to know about what happens to the coffin during cremation. I’ve put together several answers here that all relate to the process, so this article’covers all the most common questions people ask when thinking about this topic.


The Casket Remains with the Body

The decedent must be inside a receptacle before they go into the cremation chamber. This usually means a casket or coffin. Caskets are usually made from wood, but other types are available too, such as:

  • Wicker
  • Bamboo
  • Willow
  • Cardboard (yes, really)

You will notice that in every case, those handling the cremation can put the casket in the cremation chamber along with the body. It is becoming more common for people to choose biodegradable caskets and those that are eco-friendly.

These caskets do not give off any potentially dangerous emissions during the burning process.

Each casket bears a plate containing the name, date of birth, and date of death of the individual inside. This acts as an identifier, although an ID tag will also be put with the body to ensure no mix-ups occur. That tag goes through the process along with the body and the casket, so workers can check it at each individual stage. It’s designed to be able to withstand the intense heat required for cremation.


Steel Caskets Cannot Be Cremated

I have already decided on cremation when my time comes. However, this means I could not choose a steel casket if I wanted one. The makers create these for burials, as there are limits to the materials that are accepted to go into a cremator.

Some metals are not allowed, for example. Steel and even bronze caskets are meant to be used for burials and should be used only for those occasions.

It would also be a hugely expensive casket to choose only for it to be burned. Bronze caskets – usually the most expensive of all – can run into many thousands of dollars.


The Casket Disintegrates in the Cremation Chamber

Casket makers design the caskets to burn safely when put through the cremation process. This means the casket won’t release any gases or other harmful substances.

There are only two major rules about the type of casket you can go for:

  1. It must be robust enough to serve its purpose
  2. It must be easy to burn within the chamber used for cremation

That’s why sturdy cardboard is fine to use for a casket. It is safe to burn and can take the weight of most bodies.

Little of the casket (if anything) survives the temperatures reached during a cremation. The retort is the part of the chamber where this process takes place. Temperatures inside reach between 1400-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This is more than enough to cause the casket to disintegrate and vanish, or at least to return to dust.

The heat must be enough to consume the body, leaving behind only bone fragments. Bone is far more difficult to burn than wood, so it makes sense that the only things left after the process has completed are the bone fragments, while the wood is gone.


Some Metal Parts of the Casket May Remain

While a wooden casket will disappear during a cremation, there is a chance that some pieces may be left behind. When you think about it, it is much like the bones of the body. Cremation reduces bones to mere fragments, with only a few recognizable bits of bone left.

The same applies to the casket. As the body’s skin, hair, and muscles are easy to burn away to nothing, so too is a wooden casket or one made from natural items such as willow or wicker. However, if the casket has metal handles or other details on it, these could potentially survive the high temperatures.

When the cremation is over, the remains are left to cool. They are then removed from the chamber ready for inspection by staff.

This inspection process allows them to remove anything made from metal that did manage to survive. For example, there might be screws or hinges with the remains.

Staff remove anything like this by using magnets to pick up anything they cannot see. They can use tools to remove larger items that are visible. They do this because anything left in there could break the equipment used to grind down what’s left into the ashes you receive at the end – the cremains.

This means that if you receive the ashes of someone you knew, you know they are from your loved one. There is little chance of anything else from the coffin being left in there as well.


Some States Allow Cremation in a Shroud

When I think about cremation, I think about a wooden or natural casket. However, I know that it is possible to choose other ways to go through this process.

Another method is to avoid a casket and choose a shroud instead. Some companies supply beautiful shrouds for this purpose.

However, if you are thinking about taking this route, check the rules for the state you live in. While it may be possible to conduct a funeral without a casket, you may find your state requires one for cremation. In this case, you could choose the cardboard casket.


You Can Rent a Casket

I always thought it was a shame to spend thousands of dollars on a casket that looked good for the funeral, only to be burned along with the decedent later. That said, I’m not sure I would want the cheapest casket I could get either.

Fortunately, there is an alternative that would give me the best of both worlds when my time comes. I know that many funeral homes rent out caskets. You may not get access to their entire range under these terms, but the idea is simple. You choose the casket you would like for your funeral.

Here’s how it would work if I chose this route (something I may well do).

I would select a casket for the funeral service. However, the funeral director would place my body inside a far cheaper casket that goes inside the rental casket. In this example, I could choose the steel casket if I liked it, because I would be inside the cheaper casket that would go to the crematory later.

Once the service is over, the funeral director would make sure that the interior casket, if you will, goes to the crematory. The funeral director keeps the rental casket for use in another service when needed.

This means you can have the casket you would like and yet still be able to think of the environment. A regular wooden casket (or one of the other examples I mentioned earlier) would be the one going through the cremation procedure.


You Cannot Recycle a Casket

The caveat here would be that a rental casket is technically recycled in a way, since it will be used for another funeral in the future. The rental casket is not what you will be cremated in, it is just going outside what is used for the cremation, so it is not actually the casket.

You would know you were renting one casket to encase another intended for the cremation process.

Put simply, the casket you choose is the one that goes through the cremator. Funeral directors and cremator staff do not remove bodies from caskets or coffins before putting them through the cremation.

Either you pay a rental fee for a casket that is on show, or you pay a fee for a casket that will go to the crematory with the body. If you choose that way, both are cremated.

You can see that the myth of caskets being recycled and used repeatedly is just that – a myth. However, you can now see how the process does work and learn what happens to a coffin during cremation. I didn’t think about it until I lost someone close to me, but I certainly learned a lot.

Funeral directors are typically happy to dispel any myths and to answer any questions you might have about this procedure too. I was able to ask some questions that made things clearer for me. I hope this information has helped you too.


Writer: Allison Whitehead

Read about me