What’s a mausoleum?

Here we explain what a mausoleum is – and what you need to know if you’re considering this type of resting place for yourself or your loved one.

A mausoleum is a building that holds people’s coffins above ground. Some UK cemeteries allow you to build a private mausoleum or you can buy a chamber in a community one.

Why people choose a mausoleum

A mausoleum is an alternative to traditional earth burial or cremation

The reasons for choosing an above-ground chamber rather than a burial or cremation may be a mix of practical and emotional, such as:

  • You or your loved one did not want an underground burial

  • You’d like to have a private walk-in space where family and friends can visit and spend time

  • You want to lay family members to rest together, rather than having graves in many different places

You can have a private mausoleum or a space in a community one

Private mausoleums (or mausolea) are resting places for one person or several members of a family. Typically these are in churchyards or cemeteries. Sometimes families build them on private estates - but this is not very common and involves a lot of rules and regulations.

In the UK, there are also community mausoleums where you can buy a chamber - like Brightwater Memorial Park near London, which has two mausoleum buildings containing 690 chambers.

As cemeteries run out of space for graves, it’s likely that more of them will build mausoleums. Erith Cemetery in Bexley, for example, no longer offers ground burials but has opened a memorial terrace which includes mausoleum plots.

Where does the word ‘mausoleum’ come from?

Mausoleums take their name from the tomb built for King Mausolus between 353 and 350BC in Halicarnassus, present-day Bodrum in Turkey. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but earthquakes destroyed it between the 12th and 15th centuries. The word came to be a generic term for all above-ground tombs.

If you’re considering a private mausoleum, there are a few different types

The type of mausoleum you choose depends on how many people you want to lay to rest there, now and in the future, and whether you’d like the tomb to be completely or partially above ground. These are the types at a glance:

  • Single crypt – to house one body

  • Companion crypt – built for two, like double-depth graves. You can lay one person to rest and have the mausoleum reopened and resealed after the second person’s funeral, to lay them to rest together.

  • Family mausoleum – a tomb for several people - with reopening and resealing as above

  • Sarcophagus mausoleum - half above and half below ground

Historically, a mausoleum was intended for royal families or nobility, so they would be large, ornate and expensive to build. That’s not necessarily the case nowadays – people build mausoleums in all sorts of styles to suit their budget.

The location for your mausoleum may determine the sort you have - depending on the available space and any restrictions the particular cemetery has. 

It can take some time to arrange, involving consulting cemetery authorities and liaising with architects and builders. UK Memorial Service builds mausoleums in a range of sizes and styles, working with you to design it and helping find a cemetery where you can install it.

How much a mausoleum costs

It’s possible to keep costs down by choosing granite rather than marble 

And given modern building techniques, there’s no reason why a granite mausoleum cannot be just as beautiful.

Extras like inscriptions or plaques cost more. And if you’re building a companion or family crypt to house loved ones’ bodies in the future, there will be a cost for each reopening and resealing of the mausoleum. 

Rather than paying for a plot, you buy the ‘exclusive right of burial’ 

That’s the right to lay a body to rest in the mausoleum for a number of years. Under UK law it’s a maximum of 100 years. Brightwater Memorial Park offers rights of 20, 50, 75 or 99 years, and chambers cost from £11,200.

GreenAcres, which runs cemeteries and ceremonial parks around the UK including Kemnal Park in Chislehurst, offers mausoleum niches (another word for chambers) at a cost of £20,950 each. 

If you buy a chamber for yourself in advance, your exclusive right of burial starts from when your body goes into the mausoleum, not the date you reserve it.

How bodies decompose in a mausoleum

Placing a person’s coffin in a mausoleum is known as entombment

Content warning

We’re going to be talking about how bodies decompose and what that means for above-ground burials. Skip on to the section on keeping ashes in a mausoleum if you’d prefer not to read this bit.

Some people may have concerns about the fact that bodies in a mausoleum are decomposing above ground rather than in the earth. But mausoleums are specially designed for the process and there is nothing to worry about.

You may have heard the term ‘exploding caskets’ – a slightly alarming phrase to describe a phenomenon where the gases build up inside a casket. With nowhere to escape, the gases cause the casket to pop and the vault to breach. It’s extremely rare for this to happen, as modern mausoleums are strong and secure, with good airflow and drainage. They can handle the liquid and gases that a body naturally gives off as it decomposes and dehydrates.

There are often rules on using particularly strong materials for the casket. Erith Cemetery, for example, says you have to use metal caskets and zinc-lined coffins.

If you’re thinking about a mausoleum for yourself or a loved one, and you’re not familiar with what they’re like, it can be helpful to walk around a cemetery and have a look at any private mausoleums there. 

If you’re interested in a community facility like Brightwater Memorial Park or GreenAcres you can contact them to have a chat and ask about booking a visit.

What’s the difference between a mausoleum and a cenotaph?

Mausoleums house the bodies of people who’ve died. A cenotaph looks similar to a mausoleum but does not contain bodies - the word cenotaph means ‘empty tomb’. It’s a building that stands as a memorial to a person whose body is either buried somewhere else or was not found. They’re usually for individuals but can also be for groups of people. The Cenotaph on Whitehall in London, for example, is a war memorial commemorating British servicemen and women who have died.

Can you put ashes in a mausoleum?

A mausoleum for ashes is called a columbarium

It may be a whole building, a room or a freestanding wall, and will have small individual spaces called niches where you can put an urn - the container for your loved one’s ashes. 

Some niches are big enough to hold more than one urn, and there’s usually space in or near the niche to put flowers and tributes. There will also be a plaque to say whose ashes are in the niche.

A lease on a niche in a columbarium gives you the right to keep your loved one’s ashes there for a number of years – usually 10 to 25, costing around £400 to £700. You can then pay to extend the lease if you choose to keep the niche beyond the original term.

Curious about cremation?

Many people know very little about crematoriums and cremations until they arrange or attend one. If you’re feeling curious, unsure or confused, read our guide on cremations to find out how they work.

Talk to your funeral director to find out what’s possible

They can advise you on creating a mausoleum memorial that’s meaningful to you and your family. And they’ll help you keep within guidelines that cemeteries may have and within your budget.

Some people think of mausoleums as burial architecture of the past, and not part of our modern customs around death. But they may become more common as cemeteries run out of ground space, and it’s an option if it’s something you and your family feel is right.

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