Cremation vs. Burial: Pros, Cons & Cost of Each

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Some people have strong opinions about cremations or burials — ever wondered why? Maybe you have some idea of your wishes when the time comes, or maybe you’re reading this to help an older friend or relative be more proactive in their decision-making process. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

How can you decide? Or, help someone else decide? When it comes to the pros, cons, and cost of cremations versus burials, there’s quite a bit to consider. Some religions are even against the idea of certain types of rituals for the deceased. 

Cremations and funerals are one part of the end-of-life planning and healing process. Treat them as such, and give a healthy amount of consideration to each one — assuming all options are available to you.

What’s Cremation? 

Cremation turns remains into ashes by burning them. This process occurs without any sort of viewing or embalming. However, you can also opt to cremate remains before burying them in a more traditional funeral, described later. 

Pros of cremation

There are several pros of cremation to consider. 

Provides closeness. Cremation is a good option if you want to hold onto a physical token of your loved one. Cremation provides the opportunity to hold onto a bit of him or her and keep them in your home.

Decomposition is not a factor. Does the idea of decomposition bother you? Cremated remains are already “broken down.” If you scatter them, they will disperse in a more fluid, ambiguous way, rather than sit in one spot. 

No need for a casket or plot. For ashes, all you need is an urn or some sort of vessel. There’s no need to buy a casket (though you may need to rent one), a plot of land, headstone, or anything like that. However, you can also choose to bury an urn.  

Cons of cremation

There are also several cons of cremation to consider. 

Assumption of responsibility. Rather than a cemetery, the cremated remains are in your care. It may feel like a burden to keep your loved one in your presence, rather than in a separate location. The Hindu faith considers bringing cremated remains into your home unwise. 

Hindus believe doing so will cause you distress and difficulty with healing. They also believe this causes a lack of peace for both yourself and the deceased person’s soul. 

Unacceptable to some religions. Islamic, Orthodox Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and some fundamentalist Christian faiths do not accept cremation.

No viewing. Depending on your personal preferences, it may upset you to deny family and friends one last visit. Some people see viewings as the perfect way to express love to the physical person one last time. 

What’s a Burial? 

To bury a loved one, you place the remains in a casket or container and put it in a grave or above ground in a crypt. A “direct” burial does not involve embalming, as the body is not viewed. Instead, you put the body in a casket or simple container and bring it to the burial site. The memorial will likely occur graveside as well. 

 A traditional full-service funeral involves several more steps. The body is embalmed and dressed to prepare for the viewing at the service. After the service, the body is brought in a hearse to the burial or gravesite. It is then buried, and can be cremated prior. 

Pros of burials

There are some important pros of burials to consider. 

A sense of permanence. If you bury your loved one, you give yourself a designated spot to visit them, as you would visit them in their home. Instead of scattering them for the elements to disperse, what’s left of them has designated real estate.

Ecology. You may find it peaceful that the earth can reuse your body. A natural or green burial is an energy-efficient, eco-friendly option that is gaining popularity. 

Establish a family site. If you choose to be buried or bury a loved one, you can stay near your family members and establish a crypt or plot of land that you own. 

Cons of burials

There are some cons of burials to consider as well. 

Space. Depending on where you live or where other family members are buried, it may be difficult to find a location. As landscapes change and people move around, it may not provide you as much peace to put your loved one in an area that will likely change over time.

Decomposition. Body decomposition may sound gruesome to some people. Although a natural process, it does not happen all at once. Depending on environmental conditions, it takes about eight to 12 years in a biodegradable coffin (or green burial) and 50 years or more in a coffin. This may be unsettling to consider. 

Cost. Traditional burials are the most expensive option when it comes to dealing with bodily remains. 

Main Differences Between Cremation and Burials

Both cremations and burials address death and the passage of time in different ways. In principle, they are both very similar, but you can distinguish the two.

Think of cremations as a period. It is the end of someone’s physical existence. After you scatter their ashes, especially if you scatter all of them, what physically remains of the person is no more. This doesn’t mean this moment is the end of their story, but the rest will exist to your and your loved ones in an abstract way. You are giving yourself and your loved ones a more intimate memory of the person lost. 

Think of burials as an ellipsis. Physical remains of this person can exist to others outside of your circle of loved ones. There is physical evidence for others to see. People who pass by the burial site of your loved one may theorize about their life. Other people can visit your loved one, and, under certain circumstances, some visitors may be unwanted. 

Maybe one of these options provides you more peace than the other. Maybe you’d like to keep the memory of your loved one as intimate as possible, and will choose cremation. Maybe you like the idea of burying your loved one with others and the sense of community this can create. 

Still undecided? There are a few more factors to discuss. 

Cost

Here’s a pricing worksheet from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that may come in handy when comparing funeral homes or services. This worksheet can give you a better idea of certain expenses you may not consider — like transporting remains or opening and closing a grave or crypt.

Traditional full-service funerals are the most expensive, since they involve embalming, viewing, a ceremony, and finally, the burial. Caskets alone can cost anywhere from $2,000–$10,000. This depends on how luxurious the casket is, with options including wooden caskets, steel caskets, and more. 

There is also the cost of a gravesite, plot, or crypt, which may involve ongoing maintenance fees and other bills, and cost an average of $2,000 to $4,000. You must also factor in the cost of a headstone, which can cost as little or as much as $1,000 to $10,000. 

For cremations, you must first buy a less elaborate container to put the remains in. Once cremated, the remains are placed in an urn or other vessel, which can cost anywhere from about $50 to hundreds of dollars. Other expenses can coincide with cremations, such as taking a trip to scatter remains, if those were the wishes of the deceased. 

Religious restrictions

In certain religions, burials are not customary. Hindu funeral rituals have a long history of indicating cremation for both practical and spiritual reasons. 

However, in other religions, such as Islam, Orthodox Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and some fundamentalist Christian faiths, burials are more common if not expected. 

Environmental impact 

When it comes to burials, there are eco-friendly options. Natural or green burials do not involve harmful chemicals or materials that direct or traditional burials do.

In the U.S. each year, traditional burials use 5.3 million gallons of toxic formaldehyde, 30 million board feet of hardwood for caskets, 90,000 tons of steel for caskets, 17,000 tons of steel and copper for vaults, and 1.6 million tons of concrete for vaults. 

Find Closure Your Way

Both cremations and burials may seem like the end of the road. However, you should view both as just another part of the story. 

Cremations and burials each offer a sense of closure. Revisiting a site where you scattered ashes can be just as sacred as spending time at a headstone or mausoleum. You can revisit whenever and however you want, as others can do for you. 


Sources

  1. “Consumer Resources: Cremation.” National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). https://www.nfda.org/consumer-resources/planning-a-funeral/cremation
  2. “Types of Funerals.” Federal Trade Commission (FTC). July 2012. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0302-types-funerals
  3. Polan, Shira and Gina Echevarria. “What happens to the human body after 100 years inside a coffin.” Business Insider. 16 Aug. 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-long-it-takes-human-body-decompose-grave-coffin-2019-8
  4. “Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist.” Federal Trade Commission (FTC). July 2012. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0301-funeral-costs-and-pricing-checklist#Calculating
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