Burial or cremation. Those are the two main options for disposition after death. Which is right for you?
The answer to this question will depend on your beliefs, priorities, finances, family situation, and possibly other factors as well. Let’s look at the two options, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. This will give you a great start on deciding whether burial or cremation is best for you.
Burial or Cremation
Burial – by which we mean full-body burial in the ground, usually inside a casket or coffin – is considered the “traditional” option in the United States and much of the Western world.
Cremation is considered more of a modern* approach, with industrial-stength incineration reducing an adult body down to a shoebox-sized amount of cremated remains in a matter of hours.
*We’ll leave aside the discussion of cremation as an ancient practice; cremation in the contemporary sense of the word is chiefly the result of more modern industrial and technological developments.
Depending on the options you choose surrounding each choice, one may be simpler, cheaper, more practical, more time sensitive, and/or more suited to the needs of your family.
A body can be buried in the ground at a cemetery or on private property.
There are some legal restrictions and downsides to private property burial; it varies by state, but the biggest factor is that you need to report a burial site on any sale of the property, which often causes difficulty in selling property. So most people choose to be buried in a cemetery or other designated burial grounds. You can also have the body placed in a mausoleum, which is a building with vaults above-ground that encase the coffins. A lawn crypt is the same idea, but for just one or two coffins.
Lastly, natural burial or “green burial” is experiencing a resurgence. This is the practice of returning the human body to earth in the most natural, eco-friendly way possible. Usually the un-embalmed body is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket made from bamboo or other “green” materials.
Traditional burials have many advantages. It is usually an acceptable option for a wide range of beliefs among family members. There are eco-friendly and sustainable options, such as the “natural burial” methods listed above. You have low-cost options, where you can make your own casket or choose an economical model from the funeral home or online. Many religious traditions approve of or even prescribe full-body burial. Plus, as a longstanding traditional practice in which the body is minimally affected or altered (see: Embalming Alternatives), ground burial is acceptable in a wide range of cultures.
There are secondary advantages to ground burial as well:
- It provides a burial place the family can visit
- There is often visitation time where people can say goodbyes
- A graveside funeral can be very comforting and emotionally satisfying for family and friends
Here are some of the downsides of ground burial.
- Generally, burial costs more than cremation
- Burial must be done in a relatively short amount of time
- Cemetery restrictions sometime limit visiting times, personalization options, monument types, flowers and other graveside remembrances, etc
- If you move you won’t be able to visit as easily
- Moving a body after burial is very difficult or even impossible due to laws, regulations, and logistics costs
- Some families find that the “traditional” burial/funeral services lack meaning and/or personalization
- Often involves expensive and environmentally harmful chemicals used in embalming
- Average North American burial costs are about $7,000-10,000 (source)
- Casket/coffin costs are much higher than cremation urns
- Ground burial includes costs for cemetery plot, digging expenses, grave liner, and headstone
- Often body transportation / hearse expenses are incurred
- Embalming costs start at $500 on up
This option allows for an incredible variety of options for memorial services before or after the cremation, dividing up the remains, travelling, scattering on land or at sea, keeping a small portion, ground burial, keeping some of the ashes in a locket near your heart, moving, being buried or kept together as a couple, being “planted” as a tree, choosing a cremation urn at a much later date or having one custom made, and more.
With cremation you can still choose just about all of the services and options offerered by the funeral home. Or you can go the most affordable, simplest option with direct cremation, in which the decedent’s body is cremated “directly” after death without intervening services at a funeral home.
Here are what might be considered the six “main” options for what to do with the cremated remains:
- Ground burial
- Storage in a niche
- Kept in your home
- Shared among family & friends
- Any combination of the above
For more details on each option (30 in total), check out this brief article: What To Do With Cremated Remains: A Five-Minute Guide.
The advantages of cremation include lower cost, more personalization choices, more disposition options, the ability to move, divide, scatter, and/or keep the remains at home. Also, many premium cremation urns are available for about the same cost as or even less than the lowest-tier caskets.
Cremation allows you the opportunity to schedule a memorial, burial, or scattering service at the most convenient time for you and your family. You can travel with the remains, which means you can have a memorial service or some small family gathering in honor of your loved one at just about any location in the world – from mountaintops to a favorite sports stadium. Additionally, you can move and keep your loved one’s remains close, and you can take a small amount of ashes to keep close at all times with memorial cremation jewelry.
Cremation also allows you the option is to combine options. You can divide ashes among family members, mix or commingle the remains of a couple, or simply take your time to decide what to do with the remains. Lastly, you can still have a complete “traditional” funeral service, with the only difference being an urn with cremated remains will be buried instead of a casket with a body.
Cremation is permanent – once it is done, it cannot be undone. Some religions or cultures do not approve of cremation. Despite its growing popularity, cremation still isn’t readily available everywhere, so it may not be a realistic or cost-effective choice in your area. Cremation also has an environmental impact – many times there is no embalming, which is definitely better for the environment, cremation still uses resources and produces emissions that can be deleterious to the environment.
- Direct cremation is likely the most affordable option available
- Cremation can range on average from $1,500-6,000, depending on services chosen (source)
- Cemetery plots for cremation urns are much cheaper than for full caskets
- Many cremation urn options cost about $100-600
- Embalming, viewing, and burial costs can be avoided
- Memorial services are much more flexible and can be done on a budget
Burial vs Cremation: Summary
In summary, both options have their advantages and disadvanages. Here are some head-to-head matchups to help you visualize the pros and cons; some of these are based on opinions that vary so you and your family may come to different conclusions. We’ve highlighted the winner in bold.
LOWEST AVERAGE COSTS: Burial vs Cremation
FLEXIBILITY: Burial vs Cremation
PERSONALIZATION: Burial vs Cremation
MOST TRADITIONAL: Burial vs Cremation
SAYING GOODBYE: Burial vs Cremation
FAMILY AGREEMENT / SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE: Burial vs Cremation
(Though in many circles this is quickly changing)
RELIGIOUS FACTORS: Burial vs Cremation
(Though in many traditions this is quickly changing)
IF TIME IS AN ISSUE: Burial vs Cremation
WHEN FAMILY IS SCATTERED: Burial vs Cremation
WHEN FAMILY IS ROOTED: Burial vs Cremation
MOST DISPOSITION OPTIONS: Burial vs Cremation
KEEPING DEPARTED LOVED ONE NEAR: Burial vs Cremation
EASIEST TO AVOID EMBALMING: Burial vs Cremation
ECO IMPACT (TRADITIONAL FUNERALS): Burial vs Cremation
ECO IMPACT (NATURAL BURIAL): Burial vs Cremation