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Burial or Cremation: Which is Right for Your Family?

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Urns vs. coffins: What you need to consider

Do you want to be buried or cremated? While burial has long been the traditional option in the United States, cremation has become much more popular in recent years. Ten years ago, cremations made up just one third of final dispositions in the United States. Today, that figure has risen to nearly half, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

It might initially seem like an easy decision for you as you plan your final send-off. Perhaps you've always preferred cremation, or maybe you always assumed you'd be buried. But it's a complicated issue with many factors to consider.

The comfort of tradition.

For many, especially in the United States, the tradition of burying the dead provides comfort after loss. The act of burial carries special meaning as loved ones say goodbye to the departed. The burial site also provides a permanent place to memorialize a loved one. While you may have your heart set on your ashes being scattered to the wind, family members and friends who will carry on after you're gone may wish to have a burial place as a physical focus for their remembrances of you. On the other hand, a place to visit and reflect need not necessarily be a burial plot in a cemetery. 

Burial vs. Cremation and Alternatives: Pros and Cons

Cultural concerns.

Your heritage or religion may impact your choice. For example, Buddhists and Hindus are traditionally cremated, while Orthodox Judaism and Islam ban the practice. The Roman Catholic ban on cremations was lifted several decades ago, but the remains must still be buried. Even if this is not important to you personally, it may be to members of your family and is worth considering.


Many choose cremation because it is a more inexpensive option. This is especially true for "direct cremation," wherein the body is cremated right away without embalming and before any funeral services. In this case, the costs associated with your death can be an order of magnitude less expensive than a traditional funeral and burial. However, if you prefer a traditional visitation or wake with the body present and that your cremated remains be buried, the difference in costs may become much less dramatic.

Environmental concerns.

While cremation need not involve any land use, it may involve significant carbon emissions. On the other hand, chemical methods of cremation have been developed recently that eliminate any emissions. Similarly, burial can involve disturbing the land with objects and chemicals that may not break down for a long time, or it can be done in a natural, biodegradeable way. The bottom line: if you're concerned about the environmental impact of your final disposition, those concerns can be ameliorated regardless of whether you choose burial or cremation.

Space concerns.

With the limited space on the British Isles, the motto "save the land for the living" has long made cremation a much more popular choice in the U.K. than in the U.S., where we have historically thought of land as almost unlimited. But space limitations can be a valid concern no matter the country, especially for those who live in a densely populated city.

Practical considerations for scattering ashes.

Will it require an arduous hike to get to the mountaintop you'd like your remains scattered from? Is it legal to do so there? Will these considerations matter to the loved ones you'll ask to carry out your wishes? These are all questions that can—and should—be answered in advance.

Convenience and flexibility.

Cremation can be a more flexible option, in several ways. If family members live around the country or around the world, direct cremation takes away the pressure to gather very quickly for a traditional viewing. And cremated remains can travel for services and scattering in more than one place, may be divided amongst more than one household, and if kept in an urn, need not be left behind if loved ones move far away in the future.

Whatever your thoughts on the issue, be sure to share them with those you love and respect, and ask for their input to help you come to this very personal decision.