There are certainly happier things to think about than what will happen to your body after you die, but this is an important decision you should consider now, rather than leaving your loved ones wondering later what you would’ve wanted. Your passing will be a difficult experience for those who love you, but you can make it easier by clearly expressing your wishes before you go.
Deciding whether it is best to be buried or cremated depends on your religion, environmental concerns, and budget. Cremation is better for the environment and less expensive than burial, but some religions prohibit it.
This isn’t a small decision, and it isn’t one that you can change your mind about later. Therefore, you must have all the information you want and need to make the best choice for you. Keep reading this article if you’d like a better understanding of the difference between burial and cremation.
Burial and Cremation: An Overview
To know if burial or cremation is better for you, let’s first discuss each of these processes in detail.
Burial is the most traditional means of dealing with a body, as humans have been burying their dead for over 100,000 years. Modern burial can consist of many different steps:
- Choosing a funeral home. The funeral home organizes most of the services associated with burial, including an open-casket viewing, if that’s something you’d like.
- Choosing a cemetery. Some families have pre-purchased plots for family members, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to select a cemetery, burial plot, and grave liner.
- Cleaning and embalming the body. Bacteria begin to form shortly after death, so cleaning is essential to the burial. Embalming is the process of using chemicals to preserve the body for easier transportation and to lengthen the amount of time that a family has to arrange a funeral.
- Dressing the body. This is when the funeral home dresses the body, styles the hair or applies makeup. This step may be skipped if there is no open casket at the service.
- Placement of the body in the casket. You can provide your own casket or choose one that the funeral home sells. The casket is typically one of the most expensive parts of a burial. However, there are more inexpensive options that you can select to save money.
- Funeral service and closing of the grave. The funeral service typically takes place at the funeral home, although you can choose to have it at a church or your home if you’d like. Then, the grave must be dug, the casket placed, and then closed.
- The grave marker or headstone is placed. You can typically select whatever kind of marker or headstone you’d like, although some cemeteries have guidelines to maintain the area’s overall aesthetic.
Burial can be lengthy, but it is still a common way to dispose of a body after death.
A more popular option than burial is cremation. More than half of Americans choose cremation, and by 2035, the National Funeral Directors Association predicts that 78% of Americans will be cremated. This is how cremation works:
- The body is identified. Upon identification, a metal ID tag is put on the body and stays on throughout the rest of these steps.
- The cremation is authorized. A crematory won’t move forward with a cremation without the proper paperwork, which authorizes the procedure and informs the crematory of details such as which container to use and who is picking up the remains once the procedure is complete.
- The crematory prepares the body. Jewelry and other items are removed and given to the family, and any prosthetics or mechanical medical devices are removed.
- The body is cremated. This takes place in a special furnace, which is called a cremation chamber. The body is exposed to extreme temperatures, so only ashes are left behind. This process takes two or three hours.
- The ashes are placed in a container and returned. The container is typically chosen by the family.
Now that you better understand each of these processes, let’s take a look at some of the most important differences.
Burial vs. Cremation Comparison
The following table outlines some of the most important differences between burial and cremation:
|Generally accepted by all religions
|Prohibited or discouraged in some religions
|Uses a lot of resources, toxic chemicals, and takes up space
|Requires a lot of power, releases toxins into the atmosphere
|Median cost of $9,420 with a funeral
|Median cost of $6,970 with a funeral
|Burial rate is 36.6%
|Cremation rate is 57.5%
Let’s discuss these different areas in greater detail so you can make the right decision.
One of the most important parts of choosing whether you should be buried or cremated is determining which process aligns with your religious beliefs. Some religions accept cremation, whereas others require burial. Here’s a brief overview of some major religions and their thoughts on cremation:
- Christianity. Most Christians prefer burial, and more conservative denominations assert that the Bible discourages cremation. However, many modern Christians view cremation as an individual’s choice.
- Catholicism. Historically, the Catholic Church has taken a strong stance against cremation, even excommunicating those who authorized the cremation of a member of the Catholic Church. In 1963, the Church lifted its prohibition of cremation, but burial is still preferred.
- Protestantism. Generally, Protestant churches are neutral about cremation.
- Judaism. Traditional Jewish law requires burial within twenty-four hours of death. Embalming is also not allowed, as the idea is to encourage the body to return to the dust it came from.
- Greek Orthodox. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is opposed to cremation because it destroys the purpose for which God made the body.
- Islam. Cremation is prohibited. Followers of Islam are meant to bury their dead within a day of death, without embalming.
- Buddhism. Cremation is seen as an acceptable practice.
- Hinduism. Cremation is a mandated practice, as Hindus believe the body is presented as a gift to Agni, the Hindu god of fire, during the cremation process.
Whether or not you should be buried or cremated largely depends on your religion and what it permits.
Another thing to consider when making this important decision is the impact burial and cremation can have on the environment. If you’re environmentally conscious and wish to minimize the impact your body’s disposal will have on the earth, keep reading.
First, let’s discuss burial. Conventional burial is harmful to the environment for several reasons, including:
- Burial uses a lot of resources. In one year, approximately four million acres of forest are buried underground as caskets in traditional burials. Caskets also use steel, copper, bronze, and other resources.
- Embalming uses toxic chemicals. Before a body is buried, it is embalmed to reduce the decay rate. The chemicals used in this process are extremely toxic and include formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and glycerin. These chemicals harm the environment when the body is buried in the ground.
- Burial takes up a lot of space. Graves take up a lot of land, and once the land is used to bury the dead, it is destabilized and cannot develop. Simply put, the United States is running out of room for cemeteries, especially because they don’t contribute much to the environment.
Cremation will save space in cemeteries, but that doesn’t mean it is a perfect, completely green way to dispose of bodies. The cremation process can still be damaging to the environment because of the following reasons:
- Cremation requires a lot of power. Getting a cremation chamber to the right temperature takes a lot of fuel. With the fuel required to perform one cremation, one could power a house for a month.
- Cremation releases toxins into the air. Cremation causes the emission of millions of tons of carbon dioxide pollution, which is certainly harmful to the environment. Mercury from dental fillings can also cause pollution and can harm crematorium workers.
Ultimately, traditional cremation is better for the environment than a conventional burial, but both have environmental impacts that are important to consider.
Unfortunately, it isn’t cheap to dispose of a body after death. Both burial and cremation can be extremely expensive depending on the services and products you or your loved ones choose to buy.
Generally, cremation is the less expensive option. Let’s break down some of the costs associated with cremation:
- Embalming and preparation of the body: $775-$1,800. Embalming is not necessary for cremation, but if your family wishes to have a viewing before you’re cremated, your body needs to be embalmed.
- Casket: $2,500 or more. A casket is only necessary if there’s a viewing before cremation. Families can also choose to rent a casket if they are going to cremate a body because it won’t be buried in the ground, which will greatly reduce the price.
- Urn: $300-$5,000 or more. Basic urns start at around $300, but more expensive ones are made with precious metals and have personalized engravings, precious stones, or other unique features that can cost as much as $5,000 or more.
Now let’s take a look at the costs associated with a burial:
- Embalming and preparation of the body: $775-$1,800. If a family isn’t going to have a viewing and is going to have a direct burial, embalming isn’t necessary. However, most bodies to be buried are embalmed and prepared first.
- Casket with vault and hearse: $4,000 or more. The median cost of a metal casket is $2,500, and many cemeteries require an additional vault to protect the casket from the heavy dirt on top of it. A hearse is also necessary to transport the body to the cemetery.
- Grave and headstone: $3,000 or more. The National Network of Cemeteries estimates the median cost of gravesites in most states to be approximately $1,500, but this number is higher in more populated states, such as California. Headstones can be as simple as the family wishes for them to be, but they’ll still cost $1,500-$2,000. Depending on the size and material, fancier grave markers can cost as much as $10,000.
Disposing of a body after death is costly no matter which method you choose, but cremation tends to be less expensive than burial if you are on a tighter budget.
Cremation has become the more popular option over traditional burials in the United States. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the 2021 cremation rate is 57.5%, and the burial rate is 36.6%.
Other options for body disposal include donating one’s body to science, which has a rate of 6%, and natural burial at 4%. Natural burial is the process of being buried in the ground without a casket, so the body is left to decompose naturally and rejoin nature.
Burial vs. Cremation: Pros and Cons
The following table outlines the pros and cons of traditional burial and cremation to help you make the right decision for you:
|Type of Disposal
|More widely acceptable by various religions
|More expensive than cremation
|Loved ones will have a place to visit to remember you
|Cemetery rules can be restrictive
|Body can be exhumed if necessary
|Harmful to the environment
|Graves are not portable, so if your loved ones move, your body will be left behind
|Less expensive than burial, you don’t need to buy a casket or a gravesite
|Although less harmful to the environment than burial, it still releases toxins into the air
|Takes up less land
|All of your loved ones may not be able to reach an agreement on what to do with your ashes
|Ashes are portable, so if your loved ones move after your death, they can take you with them
|Not accepted by all religions
|Body cannot be exhumed
Whether you should be buried or cremated is an extremely personal choice that largely depends on your personal preferences. Cremation is better for the environment (although it still has some negative environmental impacts) and tends to be less expensive than a traditional burial. Still, it’s prohibited in some religious practices. Therefore, if you practice Catholicism, Judaism, Greek Orthodox, or Islam, burial is likely the better choice for you.
- Cake: What’s the Process for a Traditional Burial? 10 Steps Explained
- 4Funeral: Cheapest Casket That Helps Save Money on Any US Funeral
- Lincoln Heritage Funeral Advantage: The Cremation Process from Start to Finish
- Cremation: Religion and Cremation
- The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment: The Environmental Impact of Activities After Life
- Milton Fields: Why Conventional Burial Harms the Environment
- National Geographic: The Environmental Toll of Cremating the Dead
- Lincoln Heritage Funeral Advantage: Cremation vs. Burial
- National Funeral Directors Association: Statistics