Things to consider when choosing a cemetery for a funeral

If you're planning a loved one's funeral, or pre-planning your own funeral, you're probably having to quickly learn a lot about all aspects of funerals and burial or cremation. If you've never spent much time around cemeteries, you might not know much about the ins and outs of how they work.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about cemetery grounds: types of cemeteries, where a cemetery plot will be located, plantings and maintenance, and so on. 

What's the difference between a cemetery and a memorial park? The big difference is in appearance. A memorial park is a newer type of burial ground that began growing in popularity in the mid-20th century. As the name suggests, it's intended to look like a tranquil park, with plenty of trees and gardens, as well as fountains and other water features in some cases. Grave markers are typically flat and flush to the ground, and you won't see them from the road or be able to identify them until you get up close. This offers a uniform appearance and takes some emphasis off the somber purpose of the land.

A cemetery is the more traditional burial ground that's been around for centuries. A wide variety of grave markers may be used, in all shapes and sizes. Some will be the small, flat markers used in memorial parks. Others will be in the classic gravestone shape, while some will be larger monuments or statues. You'll know you're driving by a cemetery as the many headstones stand out. Many cemeteries have graves dating back to previous centuries and offer insight into local history.

Am I able to choose exactly where in the cemetery the plot I buy will be located? Not always. Of course, you'll be able to see what areas in the cemetery are already occupied by graves, and you'll know they're not available. But even areas that appear unoccupied might be unavailable because they may have already been reserved by others who have done their own pre-planning.

If it's important to you that you be buried in a specific place, ask to see what is available and confirm that if you choose a particular plot, the burial will take place in that exact spot. This isn't always a given some cemeteries may put a grave in whatever space is available when the time comes.

Will geographical features make a difference in the stability and accessibility of a gravesite? This can absolutely be something you need to think about when choosing a gravesite. A hilly cemetery can be very beautiful, but older or disabled family members may find it hard to visit a loved one's grave on a hillside or in a valley. A grave near a stream or river could be affected by flooding. A grave near a busy road might be more likely to get dirty. You can ask cemetery staff about any geographical concerns regarding the particular gravesite you're looking at.

Can I purchase a large family area where multiple family members will be buried? Some cemeteries will offer this as an option, depending on how much space is available in the cemetery. In fact, it may be a way for you to save money, as a discount is sometimes given when multiple plots are purchased together.

That can make a family area a very attractive option, but it's not always the right choice even if it's cost effective. One disadvantage to pre-purchasing funeral plots for multiple family members is the fact that people may move away or otherwise change their minds about where they want to be buried. Some family members may get married or remarried and prefer to be buried next to their partner, who may not have a place in the family area. Children may wish to have a parent buried closer to where they live rather than in a faraway family area. But if your family has strong ties to your hometown or to a particular cemetery, and everyone feels confident they'll want to be buried there, then this might be a good option for you.

Can I plant a tree, bush, or flowers at my loved one's gravesite? The cemetery you choose might have guidelines or restrictions about what can be planted at a gravesite, so be sure to check with them before planting anything. Some cemeteries forbid any plantings by families, so if this is important to you, you should confirm you'll be able to do it before choosing a cemetery. Then, working within the cemetery's guidelines, you'll want to carefully consider what you decide to plant.

It's likely that you'll be responsible for maintaining anything you plant, rather than cemetery staff. That could mean watering as well as keeping it tidy by pruning, removing dead flowers, and so on. If you can't be at the cemetery frequently to take care of flowers, you might want to choose a hardy variety that won't require much care once it's established. You should also choose something that won't quickly spread or become invasive, as others may not like the flowers as much as you do and may not want them growing at their own loved ones' graves.

If the cemetery's guidelines allow you to plant a tree, think carefully about placement and consider how large the tree will eventually grow. Many older cemeteries have large trees that have grown to topple a headstone or even grown around it so it's embedded in the wood. And just as tree roots can crack and buckle a sidewalk, they can disturb a headstone or grave.

Some cemeteries that forbid gravesite plantings by families will allow you to purchase a shrub or tree in a separate area of the cemetery in remembrance of your loved one. This may be easier than maintaining a planting yourself, so it's worth looking into.

What is perpetual care? Do I have to choose this or can I skip it? One of the fees you are likely to encounter when purchasing a burial plot is perpetual care. At many cemeteries, this is a requirement, and it can be either an annual fee or a one-time charge. What it pays for is the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery. It can feel like a frustrating added expense, but a lot of work goes into keeping a cemetery a beautiful and welcoming place, and there's plenty of overhead involved. The perpetual care fee you pay helps offset the costs of upkeep like mowing, litter removal, and road maintenance.

Some cemeteries offer additional services like automatic delivery of fresh flowers on special days. This is typically not covered under perpetual care and requires an extra fee. Perpetual care also doesn't necessarily mean an individual grave will be maintained. It may fund general cemetery maintenance but leave individual gravesite tending up to the family. When you're purchasing a burial plot, be sure you ask and understand exactly what any perpetual care fees will pay for.

Does my religion restrict what cemetery or what kind of cemetery I can choose? This absolutely varies depending on your religion and on how devout you are in following its laws. In some belief systems, it's very important that you be buried in a dedicated cemetery among other people of your faith. Others don't have any expectations of where you should be buried. If you're not sure, check with your religious leaders to determine if there's a specific cemetery or type of cemetery required or recommended by your faith.

Is a green cemetery the right choice for me? If you try to live an eco-friendly life, you may want to be buried at a green cemetery. This is a cemetery where, typically, only natural and biodegradable materials can be buried with a body. This generally means the body can't be embalmed using the standard embalming fluid (though some natural embalming fluids are available if that's important to you), and any casket used must be made from entirely natural and biodegradable materials. This sort of casket might not be among the standard choices at some funeral homes, but if not, you should be able to purchase an all-wood casket or a shroud made from natural materials from a third party.

Green cemeteries aren't incredibly common yet, and there might not be one very near you, but some traditional cemeteries offer a green burial section. Given this, and the extra shopping it may take to get a biodegradable casket or shroud, it's a good idea to do some advance planning if you're interested in burial in a green cemetery.

Can I be buried on land I own? If you are thinking you might want to skip the cemetery route altogether and be buried in your own backyard, the answer is… maybe. There are a few states in which this is outright prohibited, and other states have rules and regulations around home burial. If it's allowed in your state, there may be local zoning laws that specify whether you can bury human remains on your land. And if it is allowed, you will probably need to obtain a permit.

If this is something you're interested in, you should start doing your research early. That's because even if it is possible, it may take a lot more planning and red tape than opting for burial in a cemetery. Do some online legwork to determine whether your state allows home burial, and if it does, contact your county or town government to determine what you need to do next.


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