How to buy a burial plot

If you’re thinking about buying a burial plot – we’ll go through all the details from what a burial plot is, to how much it costs, so you feel prepared.

A burial plot, sometimes called a funeral plot or a grave plot, is the small area of land where a body is buried. 

Many people do not realise that burial plots are bought on a lease. A lease is when someone gives land, property or services to someone else for an agreed amount of time. 

In the case of burial plots this means you do not own the land itself, just the ‘exclusive right to burial’; only you are allowed to decide who is buried in that plot for the amount of time you own the lease.

There are lots of way to lease a burial plot, you could:

Lease a burial plot through a funeral director

After listening to your preferences they’ll lease a plot on your behalf, whether it’s in a church cemetery, woodland, or private burial ground. 

Contact the council or church who own the plot directly

If you’re not having a traditional funeral or hiring a funeral director, you can also speak directly to owners of cemeteries and burial plots. Many are owned by the council or the church, but some are owned privately. It’s best to call and ask if you’re unsure. 

Get in touch with a private owner

In England and Wales, there's no law which stops burial on private land. But because you need to meet specific requirements, there are only a handful of private burial grounds in England at the moment.

The leases on a burial plot range between 25 to 100 years

This depends on the local council or private site’s guidelines, and how much you’re willing to pay. In most places the more you pay the longer you own the lease. 

It’s important to consider the fact that you will not own the grave forever. When it expires, you’ll lose the ‘exclusive right to burial’. After this, you (or your family) will be given the right to renew. If the lease is not renewed, the plot can be resold. 

You can only renew the lease on a burial plot for up to 100 years. After that, the right to use the plot goes back to the council or site you originally bought it from.

The cost of a burial plot changes based on location and type

It depends on:

  • Where you are in the UK

  • Whether you’re in a city

  • The type of plot you choose

  • How long the lease on the plot is 

In the UK, the average cost for burial is £4,383 as a whole. Cremation tends to be slightly cheaper, with an average cost of £3,290. 

These figures include things like collection and care of the person who’s died, a coffin and hearse, a simple ceremony, and the burial itself. They do not include things like the headstone, venue hire, or flowers. 

The burial plots at woodland burial grounds can be cheaper than those at a traditional cemetery as the sites have more space and you do not pay for a headstone. 

Our guide on how to arrange a funeral explains the costs of a funeral

It will also go through the different types of funeral, how and when to plan one and if you need one.

How to arrange a funeral

You can buy a burial plot before you die

This can give you a better chance of getting your preferred location or being buried near loved ones. Widows and widowers sometimes purchase the plot next to their partner’s in advance for themselves. This is called a purchased grave.

An advantage of a purchased grave is that your family will not have to worry about covering the expense themselves when you die, as you’re likely to have already set up a payment plan. 

But it’s worth mentioning that not all sites offer purchased graves, and as you have to pay for the grave for the rest of your life (and  up to 100 years after you die), it can be very expensive. 

An unpurchased grave is when the people buried in the plot are unrelated and there are no rights to a memorial

This is sometimes called a public or common grave as the owner is usually a local council or hospital. Members of the public cannot buy the 'right to burial' and the graves are usually not marked with a headstone, but sometimes with a temporary wooden cross.

This means the cost is a lot cheaper than a standard burial plot, but you have no say of who else is buried with the person who’s died. 

You can transfer the ownership of a burial plot

If someone who owns the lease of a burial plot dies, or decides they do not want it anymore, it can be given to another person – just like any other asset. There are a few reasons the rights of the burial plot might need to be transferred to another person. These include if the original owner of the plot:

  • Has died

  • Is moving and wants someone else to own the lease 

  • Does not want the lease anymore 

  • Is worried about their own death and wants to keep the plot in the family

If they’re alive, the person who owns the lease on a burial plot can:

  • Add another owner to the lease

  • Transfer their ownership to someone else

  • Give up the right to the exclusive right of burial and get some money back from the council or church who sold them the lease

If the person dies whilst still owning the lease, then who inherits it would be decided by

  • Who inherits the estate in the will of the person who’s died

  • If there is no will then, then the person who gets the grant of letters of administration. This is an official document that proves you are allowed to be in charge of someone else's estate

  • If neither of these happen then the rules of intestacy will apply. These are rules that lay out who inherits what when someone dies without a will.

As it’s a transfer of legal rights, your solicitor or local council will handle this process. Applying to the council is usually the easiest way; you’ll need to complete a form, and pay a small administrative fee usually between £50 to £150. 

You’ll need to contact private plots and burial grounds directly if they're not run by the council. You might need to hire a solicitor to manage the transfer or witness the signing of forms. 

You’ll need to sign a Statutory Declaration - a legal document that says something is true to the best knowledge of the person signing the document. The process usually takes a few weeks. 

You’ll be notified when the lease is close to ending

As the end of the lease approaches, the council in charge of the burial site will send a letter asking whether or not you’d like to renew (so long as you haven’t reached the 100 year threshold). 

You will not be expected to know exactly how long is left on your lease or apply for an extension without a prompt, and you’ll have plenty of time to extend the lease if you want to. 

If you decide not to renew, or you’ve reached the threshold, the headstone will either be:

  1. Collected by the person leasing the plot 

  2. Removed by the owners of the site

  3. Kept to be reused in the future by adding another inscription

A burial plot can be reused after a minimum of 75 years

How likely this is to happen depends on:

  • Where you are in the UK

  • Whether you’re in the countryside or a city

  • What happens with the popularity of burial and the size of the general population 

In no case will a body ever be removed to make space for a fresh burial, but a plot may be dug deeper to make space for burials higher up. 

Different councils have different rules over their burial grounds. As the population grows, some places are considering reusing plots to make burial sustainable and stop it becoming incredibly expensive. 

If you want to know what will happen to a specific plot, contact the burial site and ask them what their plans are.

London was the first city in the UK to start reusing graves

The council would post a ‘notice of intent’ to reuse the burial plot on the headstone six months in advance. If someone raised an objection then the council would not touch the plot. The City of London cemetery was one of the first sites to practise reusing graves, with 15,000 additional burials taking place by 2016.

These changes started to happen after the government consulted the general population in 2004 and discovered lots of people felt reusing graves was okay so long as it was done in a way that respected the people who’ve died.

The 75 year time limit exists to give a body time to break down

To understand the reasons behind the minimum 75 year wait period before a grave could be reused (even if someone only bought the lease for 25) it can be helpful to understand what happens to a body after death.

The timelines and details for a body decomposing change based on:

  1. Whether it’s been embalmed

  2. How wet or dry the area is

  3. How hot or cold the area is

  4. What kind of coffin the body is buried in

By 75 years, all soft tissue will’ve disintegrated, leaving only bones behind. At 100 years, those bones will have turned to dust.

Trigger warning!

We’re about to go into more detail about how a body decomposes when it’s buried. If you’d rather not know you can skip ahead to deciding if and how to bury someone is an emotional decision.

The following is only a rough guide for the stages of decomposition after a body is buried, and will change and vary based on the environment. 

  • Just after death the body will start to cool and stiffen.

  • At 36 hours the body will soften as the chemical bonds that caused the stiffening break down.

  • At 2 to 3 weeks bacteria will start to break down the soft tissue. As blood vessels decay they release the iron stored in them and as the iron oxidises over time it will darken the body's skin tone.

  • After 3 to 4 months if there’s a lot of moisture in the ground, a chemical reaction will make the fat in the human body turn into a waxy substance called adipocere. This is sometimes called ‘grave-wax’ 

  • After 10 years if the area is dry then a natural kind of mummification can sometimes happen, with the thin skin on the nose, eyelids and eyes turning completely black

  • After 50 years soft tissue will be turned to liquid leaving behind hard tissue like tendons, mummified skin and bones

  • After 80 years any mummified skin will also disintegrate, as well as the collagen inside the bones, so that only the hard outer shell of the bone remains

  • After 100 years the remaining bones will turn to dust. The teeth are usually all that is left after such a long period of time, as they are the most durable part of the body

Deciding if and how to bury someone is an emotional decision

If you’re unsure about the preferences of the person who’s died (perhaps they didn’t specify a resting place in their will), it’s a good idea to speak to friends and relatives. They might have an idea about whether the person would prefer burial or cremation.

We can help you decide where to scatter ashes

If you choose to go with cremation instead of burial, we’ve got lots of ideas on where you might scatter ashes and how to make sure the day goes as smoothly as possible.

It’s sometimes helpful to think about the character of the person who’s died to decide if and how to bury them. Did they have a favourite place? Did they like to be near the sea, or in the countryside?

You might also think about the people who have been buried in the past, and who will be buried in the future. Is there someone else you’d like them to be buried near? Would anyone else like to have space near the person who’s died for when they die?

Burial is a natural and environmentally friendly way of giving someone their final resting place

If you’re comfortable with the idea that in 100 years someone else might also be laid to rest in the same plot, then leasing a burial plot might be the right thing for you.

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