Choosing what you want to happen to your body once you’ve died isn’t always easy, and it can feel even harder if you have to make this decision on behalf of a loved one.
Whether you want to be buried or cremated is a personal choice, and a number of things are likely to influence your decision.
If you’re struggling to work out which option to choose, or aren’t sure what a loved one would have wanted, here’s some important information you need to know about burials and cremations, along with some questions to ask yourself that might help you come to a decision.
Burials and cremations compared
Understanding the ins and outs of how both burials and cremations work might help you decide which you’d prefer:
A traditional burial involves the body, held in a coffin, being lowered into the ground in a burial plot and covered with earth. It usually happens immediately after the funeral, and can either be attended by all mourners or just by close family and friends.
Some people might opt to have all the traditional features such as pallbearers and a funeral procession, while others might decide to go for something simpler.
Burials have a long history and continue to be one of the most popular types of funeral. Last year, a quarter (25%) of funerals were burials, according to SunLife’s Cost of Dying report 2023.
The logistics of burials tend to make them more expensive than cremations, as you’ll need to pay for the burial plot and a memorial such as a gravestone, if you want one. Last year the average burial cost around £4,800.
Burials may normally need a little more planning than a cremation, as there are a few decisions you’ll need to make, including:
If you’re planning a burial, you’ll need to choose where you want this to be. You can choose to be buried in a number of places, including:
- Faith burial grounds
- Burial woodlands, meadows or nature reserves
- Private property (in compliance with relevant rules)
The cost of a burial in each of these options will vary considerably depending on the location. For example, the cost of being buried in a well-known cemetery is likely to be higher than being buried in a local churchyard.
Many people who choose a burial will have a memorial put in place to mark the grave. This is often in the form of a headstone, or a full-length memorial stone that fully covers the gravesite. This can often be the single most expensive element of a burial, with the average memorial costing around £1,060 in 2022 (SunLife Cost of Dying report 2023).
A cremation is where rather than being buried, the body is burnt in a cremation chamber and normally the remaining ashes are gathered and given to family or friends. Cremations normally happen straight after a funeral.
The majority of people (50%) then choose to scatter the ashes in a place that was meaningful to the person who has died, such as a national park, at sea, or even at sports venues. Others choose to keep the ashes (27%) or bury them (21%), according to SunLife.
Cremation is less expensive than burial, typically costing around £3,670, and it’s the most common form of funeral. Last year 57% of funerals were cremations.
When planning a cremation there are often fewer choices that need to be made immediately during the planning process, as you won’t need to choose things like a burial plot.
Some people choose to skip the funeral altogether and have a direct cremation, which is where the cremation is carried out without a ceremony or mourners present. The average cost of a direct cremation last year was just over £1,510. It’s a choice that has grown in popularity recently, and accounted for 18% of funerals last year, up from just 2% in 2018.
Questions to ask yourself to help you decide between burial and cremation
How much do you want to spend on the funeral?
Funerals can be really expensive, and the difference in price between average cremation and burial is over £1,000, so your budget might have an impact on which option you’d prefer. Here were the average costs of different types of funerals in 2022:
Source: SunLife Cost of Dying Report 2023
Over recent years, growing numbers of people have chosen to either have a cremation or direct cremation, often as a way to save money. Last year 41% of people said they want their families to spend as little as possible on their send-off, which might suggest why nearly a fifth of funerals were direct cremations in 2022.
What are your personal beliefs?
If you’re religious or spiritual, this is likely to influence the type of send off you go for, or the choice you make for a loved one.
Working out how your own funeral will reflect your personal beliefs is usually relatively straightforward, but if you’re planning a funeral for a loved one, it’s not always easy to know whether they had any religious or cultural traditions they might have wanted to be incorporated.
If you aren’t sure how to uphold their beliefs in their funeral then you might find it useful to consult someone who does. If they were part of an organised religion then reaching out to their faith leader should help.
It’s important not to overlook this as certain religions do not accept certain funeral methods. For example Islam, Judaism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Mormons do not accept cremation, so if you have any questions in your mind as to what is acceptable, it’s best to seek help.
It might also be helpful to discuss this with other friends or family as they may be able to share advice and help you come to a consensus if no instructions have been left by the person who’s died.
Are there traditions that you or your family would like to uphold?
Funerals are often heavily influenced by tradition, and there are often expectations, whether from family or wider culture, that certain things will happen when someone dies. Maintaining traditions might feel really important to some people and it might also provide closure and reassurance for your family and friends, but to others, it may not feel necessary at all.
Do you want a physical memorial?
Some people will want a physical memorial that loved ones can visit, but others may be happy with no memorial at all.
A physical memorial, such as a gravestone or bench with an inscription, may be an option whether you choose burial or cremation, but is more commonly associated with burials, or if ashes have been buried.
Are you concerned about the environment?
Burials and cremations have different environmental impacts, so this could sway your decision if you’re environmentally conscious.
Cremation requires a lot of gas to carry out and releases between 160kg to 190kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is the same as driving your car for 470 miles, according to Pure Cremation.
Burial on the other hand can have a lower environmental impact, depending on the type of casket you choose. If you are particularly concerned about being green, then it’s important to choose an environmentally friendly coffin and forgo any embalming, as the formaldehyde used in the process can leach into the ground once decomposition sets in. Some of the greener caskets include ones made from cardboard or wicker, but some of the best ones are made from woven willow as they don’t need any glue to hold together.
Whichever option you choose, make sure that you write down your funeral wishes, and let your loved ones know what they are. Most people will include this information in their will, but it can be useful to include it elsewhere too. One way you might want to do this is by making a ‘What to do when I die’ organiser that details all the information your family or friends might need, including funeral wishes. You can print off and fill out your own organiser and read more in our article Getting your affairs in order: how to help your loved ones.
If you’re still struggling to make a decision, you might find it useful to talk to your loved ones about it, as they may be able to offer some advice. Ultimately it’s a personal decision, so if your gut is telling you that one option feels right then that might be the one for you.
It could also be useful to speak to a professional, such as a funeral director, as they will be able to talk through your options, the costs and the processes involved for both burial and cremation.
If you are looking for a funeral director and don’t know where to find one, the Good Funeral Guide has a ‘find a funeral director’ section on its website here. The Funeral Guide site also has a funeral directors section on its website here.
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