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July 31, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Burial vs. Cremation: How to Choose the Right Funeral Service For You

Weighing the options for you, and your family

Burial vs. Cremation: How to Choose the Right Funeral Service For You
When planning a funeral, one of the first questions you'll have to answer is: burial, or cremation? (Getty Images)

Many people intuitively know how they want their remains to be handled when they pass. Beliefs, culture and personal preference are all factors in this final decision. It's a personal choice that may affect other aspects of planning a memorial.

Though there are alternatives, burial and cremation are the two most popular and accessible methods of laying a body to rest. In two recent surveys 47% of Northeasterners and 52% of Southerners preferred cremation over all other methods, making it the most popular method of remains handling in both regions. Burial was the second most popular choice, with 33% of Northeasterners and 32% of Southerners choosing burial as their preferred final disposition.

For those who are unsure of what to choose, knowing the benefits, considerations and limitations of both burial and cremation can help you and your family make informed funeral decisions.


Burial is the oldest method of remains handling. Humans have buried their dead since at least Neanderthal times. Keeping decomposing bodies below ground meant better sanitation and odor control. But this process quickly became ritualized, with even the earliest humans attaching importance to the manner of burial and respect for the corpse.

A full traditional burial often includes encasing the body in a metal or wooden casket, and burying it. Sometimes the body is embalmed for display at a visitation ceremony.

Common concerns about burial

  • Cost

A burial funeral package generally costs between $7,000 and $10,000 in the United States. This pricing can be unaffordable for some families. Because of this, cremation can be a more accessible option, particularly in the event of an unexpected death.  

Simple cremation packages can be found for as low as $500, but generally cost close to $1,000. A full cremation package (including the memorial service) can cost between $2,000 and $4,000. Cremation is almost always more affordable than a burial package, which makes cremation a good option for families on a budget.

  • Organ donation

Many people worry that they will not be able to be buried if they become an organ donor. The organ procurement process does not affect the body's ability to be cremated, buried, embalmed or viewed, so it need not be a factor as you weigh your options for final disposition.

  • Environmental impact

Our deaths take an environmental toll on the earth. Burial space is already limited, especially in larger cities. Most traditional caskets introduce non-biodegradable materials into the earth as well. Burial disrupts ecosystems and the earth's crust. 

However, those wishing to be buried still have greener options. Natural burials use plan pine caskets, shrouds or woven encasements instead of metal or varnished hardwood, making the decomposition process more healthy for the soil and surrounding ecosystems. 

  • Cremation

Cremation is the process of reducing a human body to ashes (known as cremains) through the process of incineration. When a cremation is complete, the result is approximately four to six pounds of ashes

Cremains are stored in an urn or container, and sometimes later spread in a location that is meaningful to the family. 

Common concerns about cremation

  • Religion

Certain religions forbid or strongly discourage cremation, considering it desecration of a human body or otherwise inappropriate. While your final wishes should be honored, your choice might affect the funeral arrangements if you envision your service in a religious setting. 

If you are planning the funeral of someone who was religious, any instructions they left should be honored. If no such instructions were shared with loved ones, it's usually best to default to the religion of the deceased, or their surviving family.

  • Embalming

If the deceased person is to be viewed in a visitation ceremony or wake, their body will be embalmed first. While embalming is usually associated with the image of an open casket and burial, this procedure does not interfere with a body's final disposition, so after a viewing ceremony, both burial and cremation are still options.

  • Environmental impact

Environmental considerations affect both burial and cremation. Although cremation is considered the more environmentally friendly option for remains handling, smoke emissions contribute to air pollution. 

There are alternatives if you are concerned about pollution caused by cremation. Although water cremation is not yet available in most states, the process of alkaline hydrolysis is gaining legislative acceptance in the United States. It's a smokeless form of cremation that has been used for years in pet remains handling. The end result is similar to flame cremation; when the process is complete, the family receives four to five pounds of cremains for spreading or display in an urn.

  • Permanent memorialization

Burial offers mourners a clear, centralized location for the permanent memorial of one who has passed. With cremation, there is no clear designated place to visit a loved one's remains. Generally, cremains are returned to the deceased's next of kin shortly after the funeral service. From there, the ashes may be spread, displayed in an urn, placed in a memorial vault, turned into cremation jewelry, sent into space, scattered in the ocean or in most natural locations.

Because cremated remains are portable, the sky is (literally) the limit. Cremains may be placed in a permanent memorial, similar to buried remains, but the location of that memorial is more open to creativity.

Weighing your options 

Choosing your final disposition is a heavy, important decision that will affect your body when you are no longer here on earth. If you have a firm idea of your final wishes, those wishes should be honored. The best way to ensure your plans are carried out is to create legal documentation outlining your exact wishes. You can pre-plan your funeral arrangements with most funeral directors. These packages often involved prepayment for these services, which can save your family money when the time comes. 

Final disposition isn't a big deal for everyone. But it is a choice that will primarily affect your surviving loved ones. If you are waffling in this decision, or don't have any preference for your funeral services, consider letting the needs of your closest loved ones determine your course. If budget is a factor, cremation might be the best option for your family. If there are religious considerations that are meaningful to your family, choosing their preferred option might make your funeral more comfortable for them.

Ultimately, your choice is yours alone to make. If you don't make your wishes known, your survivors will make a choice on your behalf. Understanding the benefits and limitations of both burial and cremation can help you make a confident decision for your memorial. 

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