Whether you are pre-planning your own final arrangements or you are responsible for organizing someone else’s, there are a staggering number of decisions that go into arranging a funeral or memorial service. However, there is one fundamental choice that will affect the cost, timing and many other details of the service: burial or cremation?

Many people have strong beliefs about how they want their body to be handled after they die, while others are undecided. Comparing cremation and burial is often difficult because final arrangements can be customized to fit different beliefs, budgets and preferences, but there are a handful of stark differences that may help consumers decide between these two options.

A Quick Discussion About Funeral Costs

For some families, funeral costs are an important deciding factor. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial in 2017 was $7,360. This price does not include cemetery, monument, or marker costs, cash-advance charges for things like flowers or an obituary, or the cost of a burial vault (approximately $1,395 in 2017), which is often mandatory for burial in a cemetery. Alternatively, the NFDA data put the median cost for a funeral with viewing and cremation at $6,260, which does not include fees for a vault, a cemetery monument/marker or other miscellaneous cash advance charges.

These median costs may seem rather similar, but it is important to note that many products and services included in both these totals are optional. For example, embalming or preparation of the deceased and use of a funeral home facility and staff for a viewing and a funeral ceremony are all optional services factored into both of the above estimates that total $1,900.


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Many people tout cremation as being the significantly less expensive option, but they are usually comparing the cost of a traditional viewing, funeral and burial with the cost of a direct cremation performed by a crematory. Direct or simple cremation is a low-cost option that does not include a viewing, funeral, memorial service or any of the products and services associated with these events like a casket, flowers or embalming. Often families choose to arrange their own memorial services for their deceased loved ones after they have been cremated.

Regardless of what kind of final arrangement a person wants, it’s important for all consumers to understand their rights as they navigate the funeral planning process. The Federal Trade Commission offers a free guide to understanding funeral costs and a pricing checklist template on their consumer information website.

Five Differences Between Burial and Cremation

Aside from costs, there are other important differences between cremation and burial that families should consider when making final arrangements.

  1. Flexibility of Options
    A traditional funeral involves a burial and usually consists of a strict series of events that the bereaved follow. Most funeral directors are not particularly flexible when it comes to altering the schedule of events or augmenting the funeral service. Although funerals can take place at different venues, such as a funeral home, a place of worship or a cemetery, they all tend to be very similar.
    Of course, there are benefits to such a structured event. For one, the funeral home handles most of the planning, meaning the family doesn’t have to spend time and energy organizing an event while they are grieving a new loss. This streamlined process may help the family cut back on costs associated with customization, while still allowing things like flowers, readings and eulogies to be chosen to personalize the event. Funerals are traditional and sacrosanct, and few people regret them.
    In contrast, cremation services are far more flexible. Some families include aspects of a traditional funeral such as a viewing before cremation, while others prefer a straightforward direct cremation and plan their own fully customized memorial services later on.
  2. Timing of Services
    Burials happen fast; even waiting two or three weeks to inter a casket is pushing the boundaries of appropriate funeral etiquette. Some cultural and religious traditions require that the deceased is interred in their final resting place within a day of passing, and most others expect not more than a week to go by before a proper burial takes place. The funeral ceremony must occur before the deceased is laid to rest, which means that loved ones have precious little time to plan and prepare for their final goodbyes.
    On the other hand, services can occur before or any time after cremation, which is much more convenient for loved ones with busy schedules. Since family and friends often live far from each other, many are forced to forgo traditional funerals due to difficulties associated with work and travel. A flexible timeline for cremation services makes it easier for loved ones to attend and pay their respects.
  3. Disposition Options
    A traditional funeral always ends in one way: interment. The deceased may be interred (buried) in the ground or they may be entombed in an above-ground crypt. Sometimes funeralgoers witness this process as part of a graveside service.
    Cremation allows family members to choose from several different disposition options. Unlike burials, cremation allows loved ones to hold onto the deceased’s remains indefinitely or just while deciding on a final resting place. What many people do not realize is that cremains (cremated remains) can be placed in a cemetery in a few different ways. Burying ashes with a marker provides loved ones with a dedicated site where they can visit to remember the deceased. A columbarium is another option that is like a mausoleum but designed with smaller spaces called niches to safely hold urns. Some cemeteries even have urn gardens where cremains can either be buried or incorporated into elements of the landscape.
    Finally, scattering is another popular option. The deceased may request that their ashes be spread in a significant place (or several) or surviving family members may decide on a location if no guidance was provided. Spreading a loved one’s ashes into the world helps many grieving individuals find closure.
  4. Methods of Memorialization
    Cemeteries are becoming stricter regarding the kinds of memorials that can be used to mark graves. The giant, elaborate gravestones and monuments often found in the oldest and most prestigious cemeteries are no longer permitted. Each cemetery has its own rules and regulations for gravestones, including type (e.g. upright headstones, flat grave markers, grave ledgers), size, color and material.
    Similar rules may exist in cemeteries for cremated remains as well, but generally there are more options for how a loved one’s cremains can be memorialized. Urns to hold cremains come in all shapes, sizes and designs and can be customized to match the deceased’s personality. A memorial bench in a favorite place is a popular request, and surviving family members can even commission jewelry that incorporates cremains so they can carry their late loved one with them wherever they go.
  5. Impact on the Grieving Process
    Graves in cemeteries offer the bereaved a place to visit their deceased loved ones during times of mourning. Many people find that having a permanent place to pay their respects is very comforting. However, cremated loved ones can be grieved and remembered wherever their cremains lie as well, even if this place does not bear a marker or memorial. Regardless of whether a person has been buried or cremated, loved ones may grieve wherever they feel the deceased’s spirit strongest.

Sources: National Funeral Directors Association Statistics (http://www.nfda.org/news/statistics)