Choosing how you’d like to be laid to rest is a highly personal decision. For many, it’s a way to come to terms with your mortality. Throughout human history, there have been countless methods for laying bodies to rest, from burials to cremation to other lesser-known options.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Cremation vs. Burial: Definition and Processes Comparison
- Cremation vs. Burial: Cost Comparison
- Pros and Cons of Cremation or Burial
- Cremation vs. Burial: Environmental Impact
- Cremation vs. Burial: Religious Views or Preferences
- Comparison Table: Cremation vs. Burial
A lot of the confusion around this decision comes from a lack of understanding. Most people may not know the intricacies involving funerals and final resting places. In addition, it can be considered taboo in some societies to discuss what these practices entail.
In the past, most decided how to lay their loved ones to rest based on societal and religious customs. Today, families have more options than ever. Most make their decision based on their wishes and budget.
How do you choose between cremation and burial? What are the pros, cons, and costs of each? In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the process as well as what to expect.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just choosing a method of interment to think about. Handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
Cremation vs. Burial: Definition and Processes Comparison
To start, let’s discuss the difference between cremation and burial from a technical standpoint. By pulling back the curtain on the process, you can understand your comfort level with these different options.
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Though we often think of burial as being the most common way to lay someone to rest, cremation is actually becoming more popular in the United States. In 2019, 54 percent of all deaths were cremated, and this number is expected to grow to 60 percent by 2024. This means cremation is now the most popular choice above burials.
Cremation is the process of using heat and flame to reduce the body to its essential elements. Using a specially designed furnace called a cremation chamber, the body becomes ashes and cremated remains (also known as cremains).
While many believe cremation is a relatively new practice, it dates back thousands of years. According to today’s scholars, cremation likely began during the Stone Age (3000 B.C.) in Europe. It continued to be used until Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, though it rose in practice in the 19th century again. Cremation continues to be a popular, affordable, and efficient option compared to burial.
What’s a burial?
On the other hand, the most traditional option is burial. Also known as internment, this is when the body is placed into the ground, usually within a casket and vault. Humans have buried the dead since the earliest days, and many see this as a way to return to nature.
However, modern burial practices vary greatly from ancient days. Most notably, bodies today are likely to be embalmed. Embalming is the art and science of preserving human remains by treating the body with chemicals that slow down the process of decomposition. While this doesn’t stop the decay, it does allow the family to view the body in a more lifelike state during a funeral or viewing.
Burial remains a popular choice for many reasons, but it’s mostly because this is a comfortable, familiar option. It also means the family always has a place to return to feel close to the deceased, typically a graveyard. Families also have a lot of opportunities to make decisions about the headstone, type of casket, and so on.
Differences in the cremation and burial processes
Now that you understand the basics, what really separates these methods of saying goodbye to a loved one? They both have many similarities, and they’ve both been used for millennia as a way to lay people to rest after death.
The key difference lies in the method. Cremation involves burning the body, leaving behind ash and bone minerals. On the other hand, burial is when the body is buried underground, allowing it to return to nature. Many families also choose to bury ashes, creating even more similarities between these two options.
Another important distinction is the type of products used for both cremation and burial. For a cremation, a family buys:
- Cremation casket: This is used to hold the body during the cremation process. It’s typically a wood or cardboard casket that is burned with the body.
- Urn: The family might also choose an urn to hold the ashes after the cremation.
- Casket rental: If the family chooses to hold a viewing before the cremation takes place, they might rent a casket to hold the body for the duration of the service.
On the other hand, families typically buy the following for a burial:
- Casket: A casket, also known as a coffin, is a type of container that holds the deceased. These are commonly made from wood, metal, or eco-friendly materials like wicker or bamboo.
- Burial vault: A burial vault is required by many cemeteries, and it’s a vault that holds the casket underground. This prevents the ground above the casket from sinking over time.
- Cemetery plot: The family must also purchase a final resting place for their loved one unless they’re being buried on family land. A cemetery plot can be costly, and it comes with long-term fees to keep the cemetery operational.
- Headstone: Lastly, it’s common to place a headstone or marker over the grave of the dead to mark the location. These typically have the name, birthdate and death date, and an epitaph to honor the deceased.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why there is a vast difference in price between cremations and burials. Your decision ultimately depends on your personal comfort level, budget, and beliefs.
Cremation vs. Burial: Cost Comparison
Now that you understand the initial differences between cremation versus burial, it’s important to also consider the overall costs. There are two main options: a traditional cremation or burial versus a direct cremation or direct burial. The type you choose has a great impact on the price, so let’s take a closer look.
Cremation vs. burial costs
A traditional cremation or burial is costly, but the overall price depends on a lot of flexible factors. You can choose to splurge or cut costs depending on your personal wishes.
Pricing elements of traditional cremation
- Funeral director fees ($2,500): Each funeral home has a basic services fee. This covers the cost of their services, taking care of permits, death certificate copies, and general paperwork.
- Cremation ($300): The actual cremation process typically costs between $250 - $400 depending on the location and whether the crematorium is owned by a third party or the funeral home.
- Cremation casket ($500): A cremation casket is designed to be used during the cremation, so it’s not typically as extravagant or expensive as a traditional casket. It’s usually made of wood, cardboard, or another natural material.
- Casket rental ($500): Many families also choose to rent a more traditional casket for the funeral, especially if there’s a viewing. The body is held in the casket in a box known as an “alternative casket” that can be removed and cremated.
- Urn ($295): Lastly, it’s common to purchase an urn for the cremains after the service.
Pricing elements of traditional burial
- Funeral director fee ($2,500): Whether you choose cremation or burial, you will still need to pay the basic services fee.
- Embalming ($700): Embalming is the process of chemically preserving the body, and this is optional. It’s common if you plan to hold a viewing since it makes the body appear more lifelike.
- Additional preparation ($400): If you plan to hold a viewing, additional preparations might be done to ready the body such as hair and makeup styling or prosthetics.
- Casket ($2,500): Caskets are oftentimes made of metal, wood, or an alternative material like wicker or bamboo. Luckily, it’s possible today to buy a casket online at a more affordable cost.
- Gravesite ($2,500): Unless the body is buried on private property, you need to pay for the gravesite. This includes the cost of the plot, digging, and a grave liner (or vault).
- Headstone ($1,500): Traditional, upright stone headstones are an average of $1,500. There are lower-cost markers available, but the cost will depend on the extent of your engravings.
Direct cremation vs. direct burial costs
A direct cremation or burial is when the body is cremated or buried immediately after death. There is no viewing, embalming, or additional steps. The body is typically cremated or buried in a simple casket if any is used at all. This is the most expensive option.
Pricing elements of direct cremation
- Cremation ($300): The biggest cost for a direct cremation is the cost of the cremation itself, which is typically around $300.
- Cremation casket ($50): For direct cremation, it’s common to use a very inexpensive cremation casket like a cardboard casket or fabric cover.
- Basic urn ($50): A bag of cremains is provided by the crematorium, and an additional urn is optional.
Pricing elements of direct burial
- Casket ($1,000): One of the most expensive costs in a direct burial is the casket. Simple, inexpensive caskets typically are priced around $1,000.
- Gravesite ($1,500): Families will also need to pay for a gravesite. A smaller gravesite without a burial vault costs around $1,500, though many cemeteries do require a burial vault.
- Marker ($500): A simple, minimal gravemarker with minimal engravings starts at $500. This is required by most cemeteries.
Costs of containers, caskets, keepsakes, and urns
As you can see from the breakdown above, there are a lot of different costs to consider when preparing for cremation vs. burial. Luckily, there is a lot of flexibility within different products/services, so you can choose something within your budget.
- Wood ($1,000): A traditional casket choice is a wooden casket. These cost anywhere from $800 to $1,500+ depending on the type of wood (hardwood vs. softwood) and any extras features.
- Metal ($2,500): Metal caskets are more expensive, but they come in a variety of colors, materials, and styles. They’re also more durable than wooden caskets.
- Rental ($500): Many families rent a more extravagant casket for the service, especially if there’s a viewing, and then bury or cremate their loved one in a more affordable casket.
- Alternative ($500): Alternative caskets are typically made of biodegradable, eco-friendly materials like bamboo, wicker, or even fabric. These are the least expensive options.
- Traditional ($295): A traditional urn is designed to hold a single, average-sized adult. These can be made of a variety of materials like metal, wood, marble, and ceramic.
- Companion ($350): Companion urns are designed to hold the ashes of more than one person, such as close family, partners, and so on.
- Biodegradable ($75): There are a variety of biodegradable urns designed to dissolve in water or degrade over time within the ground. These are very affordable.
- Scattering urns ($50): A scattering urn is designed only to be used until the ashes are scattered, so they’re the most affordable choice.
- Memorial diamond ($2,000): A memorial diamond transforms ashes into a real diamond using a pressurizing process. The price depends on the size, color, and setting of the memorial diamond.
- Memorial stone ($500): A memorial stone turns ashes into a realistic, smooth stone, similar to what you’d find in nature.
- Cremation jewelry ($50): Cremation jewelry is traditional jewelry that includes a vial for holding a small bit of ashes, allowing you to carry a loved one with you.
- Memorial plaque ($100): A memorial plaque lies flat to the ground, and they’re the most affordable choice.
- Granite headstones ($1,750): Granite is a popular choice for upright headstones, and these can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000.
- Bronze headstones ($1,500): Bronze is another common choice, and this is a strong alternative to granite.
- Kerbed headstones ($2,000): These are ledger markers that are full-length headstones lying flat at ground level. These are the largest of the headstone options, and they’re also the most expensive.
Pros and Cons of Cremation or Burial
Choosing between cremation vs. burial is a personal choice, and it helps to weigh the unique pros and cons. Both offer benefits to surviving loved ones, and they each offer a unique form of remembrance.
Pros and cons of cremation
- Less expensive: The biggest pro of cremation is the cost. Because there’s no need to purchase a casket, cemetery plot, and so on it, it’s typically more affordable.
- Portable: Unlike a gravesite, you can bring a loved one’s ashes with you anywhere. They’re not tied to a specific place.
- Flexible: Because the timeline is less important for cremation than a burial, it’s a more flexible choice that gives the family time to plan the funeral ceremony.
- Options: With so many memorial options today involving ashes, cremation offers unique ways to honor your loved one’s legacy. From memorial diamonds to scattering the ashes, this can be a customizable option.
- Location: Many families find peace knowing they can return to a cemetery plot to feel close to their loved ones.
- Religion or culture: In many religions and cultures, cremation is not encouraged.
- Mourning: Because cremation doesn’t follow the “traditional” process many people are familiar with, it can sometimes affect the mourning process.
- Permanent: This is a permanent solution, and the body cannot be exhumed later on. It’s not reversible.
Pros and cons of burial
- Gravesite: Cemeteries are peaceful and calm, and this gives the family somewhere to go to grieve.
- Natural: Many find peace knowing their loved ones return to nature.
- Closure: Holding a graveside service to lower a loved one’s body into the ground and say goodbye can be a form of closure.
- Fear: It’s common to have a fear of being trapped underground or buried alive. This turns many people away from burial.
- Cost: A burial is more expensive than a cremation.
- Restrictions: Many cemeteries have strict restrictions on what can be left on the grave, when you can visit, and photography.
- Crowding: There is the uncertainty of overcrowding in the future and the long-term maintenance of the cemetery.
Cremation vs. Burial: Environmental Impact
Next, let’s focus on the environmental impact of cremation versus a burial. Both options, when done traditionally, strain the environment. First, cremation releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and older cremation facilities cause even more harm. Though cremation is more sustainable than traditional burial, it isn’t without its faults.
Because of the chemicals used during embalming and the use of resources, burial is more harmful. The chemicals used to embalm the dead (formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin) all leak into the ground eventually. It’s understood that 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are put into the ground each year in the U.S. When paired with the use of land and resources, this is not a sustainable option.
Environmentally-friendly options for cremation and burial
That being said, it’s still possible to have an eco-friendly cremation or burial. There are innovations each day that make these options more sustainable, so you don’t need to compromise when finding the right resting place.
- Alkaline hydrolysis: Also known as water cremation or bio-cremation, this is a process that uses significantly less energy than traditional cremation.
- Bio-urn: A bio-urn is designed to be planted within the ground, turning a loved one’s ashes into a tree.
- Sea burial: It’s also possible to have ashes fused with an ocean reef, lending to the restoration of coral reefs along the coast of the USA.
- Green burial: With green burials, there’s no embalming or chemical treatment. Bodies are placed into the ground with a simple, biodegradable casket, returning to the earth.
- Green casket: A green casket made with a natural material like wood, cardboard, or bamboo is more sustainable than a hardwood or metal casket.
- Decomposition: In a select number of places, it’s legal to use a decomposition service to turn a loved one’s body into fertilizer naturally.
Cremation vs. Burial: Religious Views or Preferences
Much of our beliefs and practices around death and dying are related to religious views. While most religions have an open-minded approach to final resting places in today’s world, it’s still useful to understand this perspective.
Traditionally, Christians opted for burial since this was seen as a natural process. Bodies were traditionally buried near or within the church to be closer to god. However, the church is open to all types of burial today. It’s important to note that some branches of Christianity still are against cremation, though this is rapidly changing.
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Judaism has strict views on how bodies are handled after death. According to Jewish funeral beliefs, all Jewish people must be buried. They’re to be buried in a simple casket without any extravagant engravings or decorations. All are equal before God in Judaism, and this practice is a reflection of that. Cremation is not allowed.
In Islam, it’s important to follow divine law. Anything going against this is considered “haram” or an unclean practice. Because Islamic funeral rites are written in divine law, it’s haram to cremate the dead. Muslims choose to bury their dead.
Hindus try to arrange a swift cremation of the dead, typically within 24 hours of the death. It’s believed according to Hindu funeral customs, that burning the dead releases the soul. This means the soul can reconnect with the universe and its journey. Cremation remains the preferred choice for Hindus today.
Lastly, Buddhists favor cremation over burial, but both options are acceptable. There are no strict laws in the Buddhist faith around how the dead are handled. However, it’s customary for Buddhists to perform funeral rituals before the deceased are buried or cremated.
Comparison Table: Cremation vs. Burial
Embalming or preparing the body ($700): Embalming is not required for cremation, but it sometimes happens if the family wishes to view the body during the service.
Embalming or preparing the body ($700):
It’s common to embalm the deceased before burial, especially if the family wishes to hold a viewing of the body.
Cremation casket ($500): Because the body doesn’t need to be buried in a casket, you only need an inexpensive one made of wood or cardboard.
Casket and vault ($3,000): Depending on the type of casket and vault, you can pay several thousands of dollars. This is the final resting place within the earth.
Urn ($295): While there is a lot of variation in the cost of urns, most cost under $300.
Grave and headstone ($2,500): To bury a loved one, the family must purchase a gravesite and headstone. Each cemetery has its own rules on what’s permitted.
Making a Decision: Cremation vs. Burial
Ultimately, choosing your final arrangements is entirely up to you. It’s important to talk openly about your decisions with your loved ones. By doing so, you lessen the burden on their shoulders when the time does come. Understanding your choice gives you peace, freedom, and comfort.
To begin, make your free end-of-life plan with Cake. Your plan is stored securely, and you can easily share your wishes with your loved ones. By documenting your decisions and keeping them safe, you ensure your legacy is secure.
- “Cremation.” A Greener Funeral. agreenerfuneral.org/greener-funerals/earth-friendly-cremations/.
- George, Timothy. “Cremation Confusion.” Christianity Today. 21 May 2002, christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/may21/27.66.html
- “Industry Statistical Information.” Cremation Association of North America, cremationassociation.org/page/IndustryStatistics.
- Thompson, Jane. “Cremation Costs Breakdown Guide: How You Can Save $2450.” Cremation Institute, 2 August 2020, cremationinstitute.com/cremation-costs/.
- “Western History of Cremation.” Cremation Association of North America, cremationassociation.org/page/HistoryOfCremation.