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Burial and Cremation Alternatives

by Linnea Crowther

Our guide to the most common alternatives to standard burial or cremation.

Burial and cremation are by far the most common ways of being laid to rest, with most people in the United States choosing either to be cremated or to be embalmed and buried. But there are other types of body disposition to consider when planning for your own or a loved one’s death

Here is a guide to the most common alternatives to standard burial or cremation, with links to more detailed information. We’ve also included basic info about cremation and burial to help you decide which of the many options is right for you.


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 vault in a cemetery, usually below ground. 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.


Often seen as a more-modern and eco-friendly alternative to the standard U.S. style of burial, cremation converts 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 in an urn at home, or have them incorporated into a cremation memorial such as jewelry.

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.

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. Or 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.

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. 

It’s worth noting that some of these methods require advanced planning on your part. While funeral homes can easily help you make and carry out arrangements for a traditional burial or cremation, even in the event of an unexpected death, not every form of disposition is readily available. 

If you want to donate your body to science, for example, you may need to submit an application, and the organization you choose may have specific criteria that need to be met. 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, so you’ll need to research to find out if there’s one in your area. 

That’s why it’s best to make your plan well in advance and make sure your loved ones know about it.


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