Over 70% of Australians now choose to be cremated. Most of us are familiar with the sight of friends and family gathering to witness a coffin being lowered into a grave. However, many people are unaware that a similar option is available for cremations.

Many crematoria offer the ability for families to witness the committal of their person in their coffin into the furnace. This is known as a witnessed insertion or witnessed cremation.

What happens in a normal cremation?

If you have a service at the crematorium, there will be something visual to mark the end of the service. For example, the coffin might sink into the stage or have curtains pulled across it. If you don’t have a service at the crematorium, your person is delivered in their coffin to the crematorium. 

The crematorium staff will move the coffin onto a bier, which is a special trolley that slides the coffin into the chamber of the cremator. The bier is positioned at the entrance to the cremator. The crematorium team presses a button which opens the door to the cremator’s chamber and the bier slides the coffin inside.

What happens in a witnessed insertion?

A witnessed insertion is the same as a normal cremation, except it allows families to participate in the cremation process and be part of the final steps for their person who has died. For crematoriums that offer the option of a witnessed insertion, there will be a room or space that family and friends can use for this purpose. If it’s a room, like at the Gungahlin Crematorium, there will be a window that gives the family a clear view of the bier and door to the cremator. Other crematoriums may be set up so that families are in the same space as the door to the cremator.

When the family is ready for the cremation to commence, they push a button that activates the insertion process. They are able to see the coffin slide into the cremator. The temperature inside a cremator will be 800°C or more. The coffin will almost instantly catch alight and the door of the cremator will close.

Why have a witnessed insertion?

For many families, cremation is a very important part of their cultural or religious practice and there are rituals associated with it, including the final committal. But this is something any family can do if they feel it is important for their grieving process. By being responsible for starting the cremation itself, the family may feel more in control of the process, much as they would if they were lighting the match for a traditional timber pyre. It’s an opportunity to take a physical action as part of the farewell. This is similar in purpose to the way some people will throw a small amount of soil into a grave as they leave a burial service.

Does it replace a normal service?

Many people will have a main service with a larger number of friends and family, and then hold a witnessed insertion with just a few people, like immediate family. Some families will do only the witnessed insertion. As with all things relating to funerals, it’s important to do what’s right for your family.

Does it cost more?

There is usually a fee for a witnessed insertion. This is because crematorium staff will need to ensure the room and cremator is available at a fixed time.

How can I learn more?

The Gungahlin Crematorium has regular open days, and has also produced a wonderful 30 minute virtual tour. It’s presented by Michelle Dariol, the manager of the crematorium. It takes viewers through the process from a person arriving at the crematorium in their coffin through to their ashes being returned to the family. It’s clear, informative, respectful and very interesting. Michelle talks through witnessed insertions and shows viewers the space available for that purpose.

Watch the virtual tour

Key takeaways for witnessed insertion

  • They are another option for families to participate meaningfully in the funeral process
  • They have cultural and religious significance for many people