Humans have been burying the dead for more than 100,000 years. And our concept of a “traditional burial” has changed a lot over time.
In early American history, families cared for the dead at home. When a person died, their family would place the body in a plain, wooden casket, or simply wrap it in a cloth shroud. Then they’d bury the body in an earthen grave on their own property or in a nearby cemetery.
In the western world today, families usually hire a funeral home. The funeral home treats the body, often with embalming, and places it in a protective casket. Then they help the family arrange a burial in a vault at a public cemetery.
Modern traditional burial consists of multiple steps, each of which can add complexity for the grieving family. And because traditional burial today means “outsourcing” the body’s treatment and burial, most of us aren’t very familiar with that process.
Below, we’ll go through the steps that are considered part of the “traditional burial” process today.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, you have more than just the burial 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.
1. Finding a Funeral Home
For the family of the deceased, the first step in a traditional burial is choosing a funeral home. A funeral home provides most of the services associated with a traditional burial.
It’s a good idea to decide which funeral services you want before you start shopping for a funeral home. That way, you can compare funeral homes in your area based on those specific services. For example, if you want to hold an open-casket viewing, you’ll want to consider the decor inside the funeral home.
You should also understand your rights when it comes to funeral planning. Although you might feel pressured to make certain purchases, such as a more expensive casket or a more elaborate funeral package, you never have to buy from the funeral home you choose. The FTC’s Funeral Rule outlines what a funeral home can and cannot do.
2. Communication and Decision-Making
Next, the funeral home staff will obtain your signature on the permissions and paperwork needed to get started. This typically includes the death certificate, as well as specific permissions, like embalming permission.
They’ll also walk you through what’s going to happen to your loved one’s body next and make sure you’re on the same page.
This step includes specifying whether you want the funeral home to embalm the body, and discussing what kind of funeral you want to have. As discussed above, it’s important to know, at least generally, what you want going in. As much as possible, make your decisions ahead of time.
If you find yourself confused at any point in the communication and decision-making process, it’s always okay to ask questions. Spend some time thinking it over with your family, and come back to the situation a little later with a clear game plan.
3. Making Cemetery Arrangements
Another decision that has to be made early on is the cemetery location. The funeral home will provide you with a list of cemeteries nearby, but you might already have one in mind
Then, the funeral home will reach out to the cemetery on your behalf to arrange the burial plot and burial date and time.
When making cemetery arrangements, you’ll need to choose the plot’s location, the type of plot (single, double, or family), as well as the type of grave liner. Grave liners can be simple fabric or a more protective concrete, steel, or fiberglass vault.
If you own property, some states will allow you to bury your loved one there. But you’ll have to check with your state’s specific laws.
3. Cleansing and Disinfecting
If no autopsy is required (and it usually isn’t, except in the case of traumatic death), the next step is cleaning and disinfecting the body.
Changes start happening to the human body immediately after death, and those changes involve bacteria. So a cleaning and disinfection process is always necessary as part of the funeral and burial process. In early American history, families would complete this step themselves. And many religious communities encourage families to cleanse their own dead to this day.
As part of traditional burial, cleaning and disinfecting allows the funeral home to safely treat the body throughout the embalming, dressing, and burial process.
This step also includes massaging the body to alleviate the stiffness that occurs shortly after death.
The next step in the traditional burial process is embalming. Embalming uses chemicals like formaldehyde to preserve the body for a few days to a week.
It’s become a part of “traditional burial” in the United States because it makes the process easier in several ways.
- Makes it easier to transport the body, if necessary, over longer distances.
- Makes it possible to hold an open-casket viewing at a funeral home.
- Gives the family more time to arrange the funeral service and burial.
However, embalming isn’t required by law, and you can choose to forgo it if you prefer. In fact, more and more people choose to skip the embalming step to prevent pollution and simplify the burial process.
5. Dressing and Aesthetics
Next, the funeral home will request clothing and any other items you’d like to bury with your loved one. This might include jewelry or small personal belongings that can fit in the person’s pockets.
During the embalming step, the funeral home will have also started the process of reconstruction. This means fixing any structural issues to restore your loved one to a “life-like” appearance.
During this step, the mortician or a separate funerary esthetician will apply makeup and style your loved one’s hair to restore their appearance even further. They’ll likely ask for a photo of your loved one as a reference for how they should style the hair and makeup.
The aesthetic process is only part of a traditional burial because an open-casket viewing is typically part of a traditional burial in the US. If you choose not to hold a viewing, you can skip this step. But you’ll still have the chance to choose your loved one’s burial clothing and items.
6. Placement in the Casket
During your first meetings with the funeral home, you might have chosen a casket from their shelves or provided your own.
It’s important to keep in mind that the funeral home can’t require you to buy the casket from them. And you can likely purchase a less expensive casket of the same quality elsewhere. Still, many families choose to buy directly from the funeral home anyway, as a matter of convenience and expediency.
Additionally, it’s always a good idea to ask the funeral home if you can view their full range of caskets. They’re likely to show you their premium offerings first, since those are the ones they want to sell. But there might be something in the back that suits your loved one even better and comes at a lower cost.
Once you’ve chosen or provided a casket, the funeral home will place your loved one’s body in it. On the day of the viewing, they’ll place the casket at the front of the viewing room with either the full lid open or just the upper half.
8. Holding the Funeral Service and Viewing
Next, you’ll have the opportunity to hold a funeral service and viewing. For traditional burial, this step often takes place at the funeral home. But you can also hold a funeral service at a church or temple, or even at home.
The funeral home can use their hearses to transport the body in its casket to the location you choose.
9. Opening and Closing the Grave
The part of traditional burial that includes actual burial is the opening and closing of the grave. It’s called “opening and closing” because there are several factors aside from just digging and filling in the plot.
For example, the cemetery will need to install the grave liner or vault you chose and carefully lower the casket into the earth.
Many families hold a ceremony at the cemetery after the funeral and viewing, usually for close relatives only. You can watch the casket as it’s lowered into the ground, and even toss a handful of soil on top to begin the grave closing process.
10. Placing a Grave Marker
You’ll finalize the gravesite by placing a grave marker or headstone. It could be a simple gravestone that lays flat on the ground or a standup headstone.
Just as with the casket, you can choose any headstone or grave marker you want, as long as the cemetery accepts it. Some cemeteries have regulations to manage the grounds’ appearance, but they still must allow you to purchase a headstone elsewhere.
Choosing a Traditional Funeral and Burial
Understanding the steps above can help you know what to expect when you’re arranging a funeral, as well as understand how each part of the process impacts the cost of a funeral.
But keep in mind that very few of these steps are required by law, and you have options when it comes to burying your loved one. There are also alternatives to burial to consider, such as cremation.
Ultimately, the type of funeral and disposition (cremation or burial) you choose for yourself or a loved one is up to you. And you have nearly countless options to suit your unique preferences, beliefs, and needs.
- “Traditional burial.” Funeral Consumers Alliance. funerals.org/?consumers=earth-burial-tradition-simplicity/