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Burial vs. Cremation and Alternatives: Pros & Cons

Getty Images / Jack Scott

There are several options for the disposition of a body after death

As far as many people know, there are two options you can choose between when you die: a standard burial with embalming, or cremation. While these are by far the best known and most frequently used forms of body disposition, there are actually several options for you to consider when you're planning for your own or a loved one's death. We spell out your options here, with links to more detailed information.

Traditional burial. The most common method of body disposition in the modern U.S. is burial in a coffin or casket that's placed in a burial vault in the ground in a cemetery. The body is often embalmed — while some religious traditions don't allow embalming, notably Judaism and Islam, it's very common in the U.S. outside those religions, though not required by law. 

Cremation. Often seen as a more modern and eco-friendly alternative to the standard U.S. style of burial, cremation reduces human remains to ash, which can then be handled in a variety of ways. You may choose to scatter the ashes in a favorite place, bury them in a cemetery, keep them at home in an urn, or have them incorporated into a cremation memorial such as jewelry. 

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Donation to science. There are several ways you can donate your body to help further scientific research. A hospital or medical school may be able to use your body to teach future doctors. A medical research facility may be able to use your body parts to investigate cures for diseases and other medical advancements. A forensic research center may be able to use your body to further their knowledge of how bodies decay in various conditions. 

Water cremation. People who support eco-friendly alternatives are excited about the growing availability of alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation, which breaks the body down into its chemical components. Much less energy is used in the process than in traditional cremation, and the family can still receive ash-like remains if they wish to scatter, bury, or save them. 

Natural burial. An increasing number of "green" cemeteries across the U.S. offer another eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial and cremation. They typically allow only unembalmed bodies to be buried in coffins or shrouds made of natural, biodegradable materials, so the natural decomposition process enriches the earth rather than polluting it. 

The options of the future. Today's dreamers are working on tomorrow's body disposition technology, coming up with new ways to return us to the earth. Some may sound a little odd — like the mushroom suit or the process that freeze-dries a body and then vibrates it to dust — but their common goal is an environmentally sound standard for body disposition. 

One thing worth noting is that some of these methods will require some advance planning on your part. If you opt for traditional burial or cremation, the funeral home you work with will be able to easily help you make and carry out arrangements, even in the event of an unexpected death. But if you want to donate your body to science, for example, the organization you choose may have criteria that need to be met, and you may need to submit an application. If natural burial interests you, you'll need to research what green cemeteries are available in your area — and the same goes for water cremation; facilities aren't available everywhere just yet. That's why it's best to make your plan well in advance and make sure your loved ones know about it.