How to choose between burial and cremation

Choosing between a burial and cremation can be a tough choice. We look through what happens in each one, weigh up things like cost and environmental impact and consider how different religions view them.

In a nutshell, choosing cremation gives families more flexibility to remember their loved one, their way – and it’s usually cheaper. But while burials are more expensive overall, they tend to have less impact on the environment.

Understanding the process can help you decide what feels right for you and your family

A burial is a ceremony where the person’s body is lowered into a plot of land and covered with earth

A burial usually takes place after the funeral service, with pallbearers lowering the coffin into the plot. Pallbearers are people who help to carry the coffin or casket at a funeral; they can be close family and friends, or people from a funeral home. A burial plot is usually in a cemetery or at a woodland site, if you’re wanting a more eco-friendly, natural burial. 

It's common for loved ones to scatter soil or throw funeral flowers onto the coffin after it’s lowered. Others put tributes near the grave after the ceremony, before the people who work at the burial site or cemetery fill the grave.  The body then follows a slow and natural process to break down, eventually becoming part of the earth.

A cremation is where the person’s body is burnt, before their ashes are returned to the family 

The process begins with pallbearers bringing the coffin or casket into the crematorium and putting it onto a raised platform called a catafalque. After the funeral service, it’s then ready for committal, which is when the coffin goes out of view. Some crematoriums close the curtains around the coffin, while others lower it out of sight.

Crematorium technicians will check the paperwork to make sure everything can legally go ahead. They’ll also make an identity card so the person’s ashes are safely returned to their family.

The cremation itself takes up to 90 minutes. The technician will leave the person’s ashes to cool before transferring them into an urn. They’re stored before they’re sent back or collected by the family.  

Having a cremation gives families lots of flexibility

Cremation gives the family of the person who’s died lots of options for memorialisation.

Memorialisation is the process of preserving memories of the person who’s died

This could be displaying a memorial plaque, scattering their ashes in a special place or having a bench created in their memory. 

You can choose what to do with your loved one’s ashes 

Some people choose to:

  • display them in an urn at home

  • scatter them in a memorable place

  • bury them in a burial plot at home, in a woodland or cemetery (which does not need a full-size plot)

  • turn them into memorable jewellery so you can carry them with you

  • have a living memorial where specific plants or trees mark the site

  • separate the ashes out for family members so they can choose what’s right for them

 

Arranging a cremation is usually quicker than arranging a burial. The speed and simplicity can be helpful for families who need to make decisions quickly. On the other hand, cremation can also give families more time to decide how they want to celebrate their loved one’s life, particularly if people need to travel a long way.

It’s worth bearing in mind cremations are not reversible, but you can exhume the person’s body if they’re buried. Exhuming is when the person’s body or remains are taken out of the ground. Although this is rare, it can be useful for families who’re moving house and want their loved one’s grave nearby, or if a court needs to do forensic exams at a later date. 

Burials are more expensive than cremations

On average a UK burial costs £4,383 and a cremation costs £3,290. 

The cost of cremation is lower for a few reasons:

  • the person who’s died is not embalmed or dressed, and families do not view the body 

  • families can choose a direction cremation, where they do not have a service at the crematorium 

  • scattering ashes does not cost anything as you do not need a permit (just the landowner’s permission)

The cost of a burial depends on: 

  • the location and lease length of the plot 

  • if you have a celebrant or funeral director help organise the service

  • how you transport the coffin or casket to the burial plot

  • which headstone you choose 

Farewill can help you arrange the funeral that's right for you

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Burials and cremations affect the environment in different ways

Choosing burial can affect the the local environment because: 

  • some cemeteries get overcrowded, meaning wildlife and wild plants cannot survive in these areas

  • some materials used for coffins and clothes do not degrade properly

  • embalming a body uses Formaldehyde, which is a toxic and carcinogenic chemical. This may leak into groundwater and the surrounding area as the body decomposes over time in the ground.

Choosing cremation can also affect the local environment because: 

  • it releases carbon dioxide and mercury emissions into the atmosphere (from dental fillings). These emissions can affect air quality, global temperature and rainwater. 

  • it uses a substantial amount of energy. The Guardian estimated that one cremation uses around 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity. That’s about the same amount of energy one person uses in their home over one month. 

  • one cremation produces an estimated average 534.6lbs of CO2.

Since 2005 crematoriums have improved their emissions rates. They’re still much lower than those coming from things like fireplaces, diesel vehicles and dental practices. 

You can make burials and cremations more environmentally friendly

In both options, you could choose a biodegradable coffin made from wicker, wood or cardboard to reduce your carbon footprint. Some people choose a shroud for the body, which is a natural cloth wrap that also decomposes naturally.

For burials, you can opt-out of embalming and choose a natural burial ground, such as a woodland burial. These sites often have their own rules to make sure that the surrounding natural areas and wildlife are not disturbed. 

For cremations, you can ask the crematorium for information on their emissions and the pollutant filters they use. You can also ask that any medical implants, pacemakers or prosthetic limbs are removed and recycled before committal. 

A newer method, Promession, uses less energy than cremation

Promession decomposes the body in a way that closely mimics the natural process. Using a process of freezing and vibration, a fine powder is created that does not need lots of energy and does not emit any emissions into the atmosphere. 

Families can then store the powder, like ashes, while they decide the type of memorial they’d like to have. 

Religious beliefs can influence peoples’ choices

Historically the Catholic Church banned cremation but today it’s widely accepted

Most Catholic churches still prefer the body to be present for Funeral Mass, meaning the cremation would need to be after the service. The Catholic church also states that the ashes must stay together and be buried, not scattered. 

Some religions prohibit cremation altogether

Cremation is not acceptable for Orthodox Jews, who believe the person should be buried. Islam is also against cremation, believing the body should be honoured as it was in life. The Eastern Orthodox church believes cremation represents a denial in the acceptance of the physical body. 

Some religions let people choose between burial and cremation

Mormons do not stop cremation, but the church prefers people to be buried. And most Christian denominations accept cremation since the Pope lifted the ban in 1963. Both cremation and burial are acceptable to the Buddhist faith, although cremation is more traditional.

Finally, some religions prefer cremation

It’s commonplace for all Hindus except babies, children and saints to be cremated. They believe that cremation helps the soul escape the body and mortal world more quickly, enabling reincarnation. 

And cremation is preferred for Sikh funerals too, but burials are acceptable if the circumstances do not allow for cremation.

Article reviewed

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