Funeral Planning: Burial or Cremation?Mar 08, 2022 | 5 MIN READ
If, like the majority of Americans, you feel it’s important to communicate your wishes about your own funeral, one of the first questions you’ll want to answer for yourself is whether you prefer burial, cremation, or an alternative. To help you choose, here are some of the differences you may want to consider.
Why choose burial?
While burial is generally considered the traditional choice in the U.S., only about 39% of people who died in 2019 were buried, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), which expects this number to decline further, reaching just 15% by 2040. Even so, many people continue to choose burial for a variety of reasons. It may be more in line with their or their family members’ religious convictions, and some may already have a burial space reserved in a family plot. Burial can accommodate those who wish certain items to accompany them on their journey to the next life, such as a wedding ring, photographs, or other personal treasures. It also provides a permanent place for loved ones to visit anytime they wish.
What does burial involve?
A traditional burial involves embalming and interment in a coffin and burial vault. The purpose of embalming is to preserve the body for viewing and to prevent rapid decomposition between the time of death and burial. Embalming is not typically required for burial, but skipping it means that burial needs to occur within a few days and without a public viewing of the body. The burial vault protects the coffin by preventing the ground from collapsing it. While most states don’t legally require vaults to be used in burials, cemeteries typically require them to help preserve their landscape.
What does a funeral with burial cost?
The cost of a funeral with burial can vary widely, depending on the services you select. A traditional burial, including embalming, viewing, casket, vault, and memorial service, had a median cost of $9,420 in 2021. This does not include the cost of flowers, a grave marker, or cemetery costs. Cemetery costs differ depending on whether you choose a public or private cemetery and on the plot’s location. Some plots will be priced higher than others based on their position in a cemetery, and cemetery plots in large metro areas tend to be much more expensive than those in less densely populated locations.
Why choose cremation?
Cremation has become increasingly popular in recent decades. One reason is that cremation allows families much more flexibility in planning the memorial service than a burial with viewing does. Particularly when loved ones live far from each other, it can be challenging to gather them together before the deceased’s body must be interred. While embalming and refrigeration can slow decomposition, they are short-term solutions. Typically, burial is performed within two weeks of death.
Another reason to choose cremation is to allow loved ones to keep, share, and/or scatter the deceased’s ashes. While some families prefer to lay members to rest together in a family plot or value having a single spot to gather and remember those who have passed, others are better served by avoiding this geographical limitation. For example, siblings who live far from one another can divide a parent’s ashes so they can feel close to them no matter where they are. Alternatively, some people prefer the idea of uniting with a beloved natural setting by having their ashes scattered.
What does cremation cost?
Cost is another consideration that makes cremation an attractive alternative to burial. The National Funeral Directors Association reports the median cost of a funeral with cremation and viewing, comparable to the services listed above for burial, was $6,970 in 2021. The difference in these median costs increases when cremation without viewing is chosen. In this case, embalming, with a 2021 median cost of $775, becomes unnecessary. This is because a funeral is typically held before a burial (particularly if a gravesite service is planned), while funerals are often held after a body is cremated. This also allows the family more time to make travel plans and any other arrangements necessary prior to the memorial.
Another way cremation saves costs is by eliminating the need for cemetery services. While you may still choose to have ashes interred, cemetery costs can be much lower than that of a traditional burial, since much less space is needed.
Alternatives to Traditional Burial and Cremation
In recent years, more funeral homes have begun to offer services other than traditional burial and cremation. A 2019 NFDA study found that more than half of consumers surveyed were interested in “green” funeral options to help protect the environment. Green burial typically eliminates embalming, vaults, and durable burial containers, and bodies are often wrapped in biodegradable shrouds so they can decompose into the soil after burial.
Another option that gained attention with the funeral of Desmond Tutu is a process known as “aquamation” or alkaline hydrolysis. This alternative to cremation doesn’t require burning, so it eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions that accompany traditional cremation and requires much less energy to perform. The body is placed in a solution of water and alkaline chemicals. This causes the body to liquefy, leaving only bones, which are then dried and pulverized.
These alternatives are not yet available everywhere in the U.S., but the NFDA is encouraging their expansion by offering members certification in green funeral practices. To begin searching for green funeral providers, you can view a map of certified green cemeteries and funeral homes on the Green Burial Council’s website.
Many people go beyond simply communicating their wishes to their family members by pre-arranging their own final celebrations of life. Doing so takes the financial burden of the funeral off their loved ones’ shoulders while ensuring that they receive the send-off they desire. Preneed insurance policies are designed to allow policyholders to plan for the cost of their funerals. You simply make arrangements with the funeral home and fund your chosen services with a small life insurance policy. Depending on your age and answers to health screening questions, you may be able to fund a preneed policy with either a single payment or a series of payments spread over a specific number of years.
No matter what choices you make about your end-of-life arrangements, ELCO Mutual can help you plan for them. ELCO Mutual provides preneed policies for applicants up to age 95. Applicants up to age 90 may qualify for multi-pay plans, depending on their answers to two basic health questions. To learn more about ELCO’s preneed policies, download our product brochure.
If you desire greater flexibility, consider a final expense policy. This policy’s death benefit goes directly to your heirs, which can be immensely helpful if you wish to cover costs outside the funeral itself such as airfare for mourners who live far away or a trip to scatter your ashes. Because this policy is not purchased through a funeral home, however, your specific arrangements will need to be made separately.