Warning issued after alcohol, mobile phones, and sports equipment left inside coffins

A funeral

A funeral - Credit: CHRIS BISHOP

It is a tradition that dates back to ancient times, but now loved ones of the deceased are being asked to resist the temptation to leave personal items in coffins.

The announcement comes from The Crematorium and Memorial Group (CMG) asking families not to leave personal items in the coffin without asking permission as they may unintentionally pose a safety or environmental risk. 

The group, who operate St Faith’s and Earlham Crematoria in Norwich, are instead providing advice on alternative ways that a family can personalise a funeral. 

Earlham Crematorium, Norwich.Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Earlham Crematorium, Norwich.Picture by SIMON FINLAY. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

CMG’s technical services manager, Tony Davidson, explained why it was important to adhere to the guidelines. 

He said: “The worst-case scenario is that these items damage the cremator or injure a colleague, causing a delay to other family’s funerals. Clearly nobody would want this to happen. 

"We understand that mourners may wish to leave items in the coffin, but we respectfully ask that they talk to us or their funeral director about alternative ways of personalising the funeral." 

Placing personal items with people that have died is a custom that dates back thousands of years and exists throughout many cultures. Historians have proved that ancient Egyptians, Romans, Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons all did this and the bereaved continue to have an understandable compulsion to follow the practice today. 

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Now the CMG is asking families not to leave such personal items in the coffin without asking first, as they may unintentionally pose a safety or environmental risk. 

Combustible items such as alcohol, mobile phones or battery-powered devices can all cause an explosion if cremated. Hard objects such as golf or bowling balls can be propelled during the cremation process causing substantial damage to the equipment. Plastics used to manufacture items such as fishing rods and sporting goods can emit poisonous fumes once set alight. 

Other items which have been placed in coffins prior to cremation also include chocolate, cigarettes and cigars, a favourite book, soft toys, a takeaway meal, and a computer game.  

However, personal mementoes such as wooden rosary beads, unframed photographs, religious texts or handwritten tributes on paper or card can all be left in the coffin. Jewellery and medals can also be cremated but cannot be recovered afterwards. 

This advice is echoed by Brendan Day, secretary at The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authority. 

He said: “For many years we have provided guidance to funeral directors on items which should not be placed in coffins with the deceased.

"We recognise the importance of personalising a funeral, however, to protect the environment and crematorium staff it is necessary to exclude items which have the potential to produce harmful emissions and even explosions." 

Staff at the crematorium are not legally permitted to open a coffin once it is placed in the chapel prior to the service.

There are a number of alternative ways a family is able to personalise a funeral though, explained Karen Walford, manager of both crematoria. 

“Our state-of-the-art audio equipment has access to thousands of pieces of recorded music from traditional hymns to classical masterpieces to the latest pop or rock artists," she said.

Flowers have always been a traditional tribute, but Ms Walford said they do not have to be an "elaborate or expensive display."

“Flowers from the family’s garden can be just as meaningful.

"Mourners can also add a personal touch by writing a special memory or tribute on paper and including this in the coffin. If a family wished to include a small personal item with the ashes when they purchase a memorial, we would encourage them to talk to us about this option.” 

Finally, Mr Davidson added: “We work with local funeral directors to help families have a respectful funeral for their loved one."