Traditional vs. Direct Cremation: What’s the Difference?


Cremation is a popular alternative to traditional burial as a method of final disposition. It’s expected to become the predominant disposition choice, with around 80% of families choosing cremation over traditional burial by 2040.

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As more people take an interest in this process that saves time and money, it’s important to understand that there are several different types of cremation to choose from. Two options you’ll encounter include traditional cremation and direct cremation.  

Overview: Traditional Cremation vs. Direct Cremation

Traditional and direct cremation each provide cremation as the method of final disposition. Unless you opt for aqua cremation, flame-based cremation works the same way regardless of whether you choose a traditional cremation or direct cremation.

In flame-based cremation, a person’s body is placed into the cremation chamber after metal and medical devices are removed. The chamber is then heated to anywhere from 1400°F to 2100°F. The crematory operator monitors the process until all organic matter is consumed and only bones remain. The bones are processed into “ashes” and are given to a designated family member.

During the entire process, the crematory operator treats the deceased’s body with immense care and respect. 

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Cremation vs. Direct Cremation: Process and Timeline

Traditional and direct cremation differ when it comes to the timeline for the cremation process. In traditional cremation, the body of the deceased is taken from the location where the person has died to a funeral home or cremation center. Then, the body might go through preparations such as dressing and embalming to fulfill family requirements for a viewing or funeral service prior to cremation. Only after the services is the body cremated.

In direct cremation, a person’s body is taken from the location where they died to the crematory and directly cremated without any preparation or services beforehand. While the body might be kept at the crematorium until a designated time slot for cremation, there are no specific preparations for the display of the deceased person. Once the cremation ash is delivered to the family, a memorial service can be arranged by the family.

Here’s a breakdown of the process and timeline for direct and traditional cremation.

Direct Cremation 

Immediately upon death: Identification of the deceased

When the deceased’s body is brought to the crematorium, their identity is confirmed by the crematory workers. An ID number is assigned and attached to the body. This tag remains with the body throughout the cremation process.

Prior to approval: Completion of paperwork

To begin the cremation process, the crematory will require an authorization form signed by the deceased prior to their death, by the next of kin, or by another immediate family member. Once received, the paperwork is processed and permission is granted to the crematory to begin cremation.

Prior to cremation: Preparation of the body 

Before the body is placed into the cremation chamber, jewelry is often removed and set aside or handed back to the family. Families can request that specific pieces of jewelry remain with the body if desired. Medical devices and prosthetic limbs that are mechanical or battery-operated are then removed. Finally, the body is placed in a “cremation casket” or other vessel made of combustible material.


Once the prerequisites are completed, the body is placed inside the cremation chamber. The temperature and duration of the cremation process are determined by the crematory operator based on the person’s weight. Once finished, the bones are allowed to cool. 

After cremation: Returning ashes to family members

After the cremation, bones are gathered and ground into a fine powder that becomes “ashes.” The ashes are then placed into a temporary container and given to the family unless otherwise specified. Some crematories provide services to split up ashes into multiple keepsake urns for families who plan on sharing their loved one’s ashes.

Once the ashes are returned, many families choose to hold memorial or celebration of life services in honor of their loved one.

Traditional Cremation Process

The process and timeline for a traditional cremation share similarities with a direct cremation. Steps one through three above are the same. Where the timeline differs is when body preparation occurs. 

Depending on family wishes, the crematory might be asked to prepare the body for a viewing or funeral service prior to the cremation process. If this is the case, the crematory or funeral home will dress the body and provide cosmetology services, in addition to embalming if required.

A viewing or funeral service can then be held. Where this occurs depends on family preferences and facility availability. Viewings may occur at the cremation center or a funeral home, whereas an open casket funeral service typically takes place at a funeral home or house of worship.

After the funeral or viewing services have been held, the body will be transferred back to the crematory, where the cremation will take place. Once the cremation is complete, the ashes are handed over to the family in a temporary urn. If desired, some crematories can split up ashes among multiple urns or place them into a permanent urn provided by the family.

Traditional cremation gives the family more time with the deceased thanks to the additional funeral and viewing services that can be provided.

Cremation vs. Direct Cremation: Cost

One of the biggest differences between traditional and direct cremation is the cost of cremation. Due to the longer process and additional services offered, traditional cremation is the more expensive of the two options. Direct cremation saves on costs associated with the preparation of the body and by eliminating the extra services required for a viewing or funeral service. 

Note: If you choose direct cremation and a memorial service afterward, you might find that you incur the same costs as a traditional cremation with a viewing. Much of the expense ultimately comes down to preferences regarding venue, duration of services, and add-ons such as a luncheon or full meal.

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Cremation vs. Direct Cremation: What Happens After 

Once the cremation process is completed, what occurs next comes down to family preferences. For either cremation option, the crematory provides the person’s ashes to a designated family member. The following can occur after a traditional or direct cremation:

  • Memorial service
  • Ash scattering service
  • Celebration-of-life service
  • Inurnment service in burial plot or niche
  • Sharing ashes among family members 

What you decide to do after the cremation is complete depends entirely on your loved one’s wishes and your family’s preferences.

Tips for Choosing Between Cremation and Direct Cremation

Traditional and direct cremation will both save you money when compared to traditional burial. However, the cost isn’t the only factor to consider. Here are some helpful tips to guide you or a loved one in the decision-making process. 

Note: If neither cremation nor traditional burial appeal to you, you might want to consider popular cremation alternatives.

For lowest cost, choose direct cremation

If you’re looking for the most cost-effective solution, direct cremation is going to be the clear answer. This option saves you the cost of preparing the body for a funeral or viewing service, the coffin rental, and the extra services provided by the crematory or funeral home. 

To simplify things, choose direct cremation

If you’re looking for a method that saves time and is as simple and straightforward as possible, direct cremation is again the clear choice. Apart from authorization paperwork, there is little for the family to do other than collect the ashes after cremation is completed.

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If you have transportation issues, choose direct cremation

If the person dies away from home, direct cremation might be the best option. By choosing direct cremation, the family is saved from costs associated with transporting the body back home in addition to the funeral or viewing service and cremation. In this case, the body of the deceased can be directly cremated at a local crematory; then the ashes can be shipped to a designated family member.

To fulfill family preferences, choose traditional cremation

Traditional cremation makes it possible for you to provide a viewing or full funeral service for family members and friends prior to cremation. Though a memorial service can certainly be held regardless, traditional cremation might be a good compromise if you have family members who want to hold a traditional funeral if the deceased wanted cremation. 

To spend more time with your loved one, choose traditional cremation

If you or your family members want more time to mourn your loved one before they are cremated, then you’ll want to choose traditional cremation. More funeral homes are partnering with crematories to provide options such as viewings or wakes prior to the cremation process. This means you have more options and can offer your loved ones and friends more time to say goodbye before your loved one is cremated. 

If you have specific requirements, choose traditional cremation

If you have specific religious requirements to fulfill prior to cremation, then you’ll want to choose traditional cremation. In some cultures, family members sit with the family overnight or for several days prior to cremation. This can only occur if you choose a traditional cremation and work closely with the crematory and funeral home to ensure a smooth process for pre-cremation requirements.

Choosing Cremation 

Direct and traditional cremation options will both save you money when compared to a traditional burial. However, it’s important to think through what each type of cremation offers to determine which would be best for your loved one and for your family. If you’re unsure which to choose, sit down with a trusted family member and discuss the religious, cultural, and emotional needs you have. Then, choose whichever option fits your needs and your budget the best.


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