What's a Burial Vault? Definition & FAQs

Ordained Clergywoman, Hospice Chaplain, and Former Hospital Chaplain

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If you have ever wandered about a historical 19th-century, or older, cemetery like I do on a regular basis, you have come across dips in the ground where people have been buried below. It may look like the ground has sunk a little, sometimes a lot.

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One of the concerns for those early cemetery managers was protecting graves from grave robbers. Wealthy people started buying something made from bricks or wood, to place coffins into.

Groundskeepers took notice, because over time those graves with the internal support did not collapse. Thus, the industry of burial vaults began, and flourishes today.

What’s a Burial Vault?

A burial vault is a two-part rectangular-shaped container that a coffin is placed inside of, and then closed with a lid, made of the same materials, but which can vary widely. After the grave has been dug and prior to a graveside service, the box piece of the vault is lowered into the grave.

In 1880, the L.G. Haase Manufacturing Company was created by German immigrant Leo Haase to make concrete products – including the very first concrete burial vaults in the United States. Haase thought they should have covers and began building two-piece concrete vaults, precursors of the vault that his company has grown into, Wilbert Funeral Services.

Demand for concrete vaults grew with the great influenza pandemic sweeping the world in 1918-1919, with Chicago itself having more than 8,500 flu-related deaths in the eight weeks.

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How Do Burial Vaults Work?

After everyone departs from the graveside service (or sometimes families choose to watch the coffin lowered into the vault and participate in filling the grave with dirt), the cemetery workers transport the lid to the grave and lower it into the grave and place it on top of the box piece.

The dirt that had been removed to make room for the vault and coffin, is then returned to the grave.

How Much Does a Burial Vault Usually Cost?

The cost for a burial vault ranges considerably depending on the material used.  Original vaults were made from wood or stacked bricks that a coffin would be lowered into, but not anymore. Today the cost of a burial vault ranges widely.

According to Eric Rose, sales manager for the family-owned Woodlawn and Forest Funeral Homes, in Lacey, WA and Olympia, WA, the most affordable burial vault at their cemetery is the Monticello, made from reinforced concrete with a polystyrene liner costs $1,695.  In the 16 years that Rose has been at the mortuary, he sold only one bronze burial vault and they go for upwards of $20,000.

A family will work with a funeral director at the cemetery to determine which burial vault is right for them.

From his experience in working with hundreds of families, Rose said that purchasing a burial vault is the last opportunity to spend money on a loved one, if money is not an issue.

What Are Burial Vaults Made Of?

Materials vary greatly in the construction of burial vaults, and so do the costs. The bronze vault that Ross refers to weighs 3,000 lbs. The copper and stainless-steel vaults have added protection of keeping the elements of ground water from seeping into the casket.

The concrete-made vault that Ross refers to is made of concrete with plastic-reinforcement and provides protection against subsoil elements and the weight of heavy cemetery maintenance equipment.

Are Burial Vaults Required By Law or By Cemeteries?

Burial vaults are required for the most part by cemeteries, but there are exceptions.  Green burials do not require vaults in burial.  People who choose a green burial in a green cemetery want to have the deceased body decompose naturally without the constraints of a coffin or a vault, said Jody Jessen, at A Sacred Moment Funeral Home in Everett, WA.

The Green Burial Council in Placerville, CA, defines green burial as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or perseveration of habitat.

While individual Jewish cemeteries have different requirements, vaults are not part of the burial rituals for Jewish families. “Jewish tradition really says that the body goes into the Earth as soon as possible,” said Jaimie Sarche, director of Pre-arranged Funeral Planning and Aftercare at Feldman Mortuary, in Denver, CO.

She added that if a vault is required, a bell-shaped vault is traditionally used. It goes over the casket that is made from wood and has been placed on the Earth.

Choosing the Right Burial Vault

Today, there are many ways to be buried, and selecting a cemetery that requires a vault, or not, and what kind of vault, or not, is an important decision.

To be sure, you may want to contact your local funeral home and talk with someone if you are curious to know more, or if you are making the decision for a loved one who has died.

If you're looking for more burial planning advice, read our guides on headstones and buying the best urn.

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