When it comes to end-of-life planning, one of the most difficult choices can be whether to opt for burial or cremation. There's no right answer or best option, as what happens to us after we die is incredibly personal and no two experiences are the same.
In its simplest terms, burial is a traditional practice whereby the deceased's coffin is lowered into a grave. Cremation, on the other hand, consists of burning remains in an industrial furnace until ashes are left behind. Both options can provide a special and meaningful send-off, and it is ultimately down to personal choice which you or your loved ones choose.
While burial is more traditional, cremation has quickly become more popular — Great Britain's Cremation Society states that in 2021, 80% of deaths in the UK were followed by cremation, compared to a mere 0.4% 100 years before.
With cremation increasing in popularity and burial as the more traditional option, you may be unsure of what you want for yourself after you have passed away — or you may be organising a loved one's funeral and left wondering what to do. In this article, we will discuss some of the factors that may help you make a decision.
The physical processes of burial and cremation
The first thing to understand is how the processes of burial and cremation vary. Having a full understanding of this can be helpful in deciding what you would prefer, whether for yourself or a loved one.
Generally, burial takes place after a funeral service, when friends and family of the deceased will gather at a burial site to watch the coffin lowered into the ground. Sometimes, an officiant will say a few words at the graveside, even if the burial was preceded by a service. Following this, it is common for attendees to throw soil or flowers onto the coffin before the grave is filled.
The most common burial sites are cemeteries, which can be religious or secular — but natural burial sites are also a common way to bury someone in an environmentally friendly way. It is actually technically legal to be buried in your own garden, but of course, there are regulations that must be followed when burying someone, so it's always a good idea to check if you want to be buried somewhere less conventional.
Cremation often follows a service, but it can be done without a service for what's known as a direct cremation. If there is a service held at the crematorium, this will usually end with the coffin being lowered or curtains closing in front of it. If there is no service, then friends and family will generally not attend the crematorium other than to receive the ashes.
Crematoriums contain industrial furnaces which a coffin will be put into and burnt until ashes remain. These cremated remains will then be returned to the deceased's loved ones in an urn, where they can be kept, interred, or scattered.
After gaining an understanding of the physical processes of burial and cremation, the next thing to consider is the practicalities of both options and what implications these have for you. There are a few factors to take into account, but which of these most affects your decision will vary between people and families.
The deceased's wishes
The most important factor in what happens to someone after they die is what they wanted. If you have wishes for what happens to you after your death then it's important to let your family or friends know about this. It can be helpful for your loved ones to have this in writing — you could write them a letter to open after your death, for example. This step can make things much easier for your loved ones during what is already a difficult time.
If you are planning a funeral or memorial for a loved one who did not express any particular wishes, then you may need to take into account other considerations in order to make a decision.
Perhaps the most influential factor for many people is cost. Costs will vary by area and the funeral director you use, but generally, burial is more expensive than cremation. This is because there are multiple elements contributing to the cost of a burial: the burial plot, digging and filling the grave, purchasing a headstone, extras such as flowers, and additional fees such as headstone maintenance all factor in.
All-in-all, burial costs add up to make this the most expensive option; SunLife's 2023 Cost of Dying Report cites the average funeral with a burial as costing £4,794.
Cremation is often much less expensive than burial, cited at an average of £3,673 by SunLife — making a funeral with cremation £1,121 cheaper than one with a burial. An even more budget-friendly option is a direct cremation, which was reported as £1,511 on average. A direct cremation is where you cremate the deceased without a service: some people who choose this opt to have a memorial with the ashes present or an ashes-scattering ceremony instead of a traditional funeral.
Another important factor in cost is your chosen funeral director. When looking for a funeral director, you should look for one affiliated with a national organisation such as the National Association of Funeral Directors. You can ask different funeral directors for a written cost estimate in order to find one most suited to your budget; this is a good way to minimise cost.
If funeral or memorial costs are preventing you from organising a service, you may be eligible for help from the government — this is something to look into if you are struggling to cover costs yourself. You can read more about other ways to make a funeral more affordable here.
Both burial and cremation can have negative environmental impacts; non-biodegradable coffins and the scattering of a high volume of ashes, for example, are both harmful to the environment.
If this is something you're concerned about, there are ways to reduce these effects. With burial, there are natural burial sites across the UK where you can be buried in a biodegradable coffin made out of bamboo or cardboard, or even in just a shroud. As well as being more eco-friendly, these can also be cheaper than a cemetery or churchyard burial. Both cremation and burial can be made more eco-friendly by avoiding harmful chemicals for embalming.
When a large quantity of ashes are scattered in one area, it can be toxic to plant life, in turn impacting a whole ecosystem. There are, however, eco-friendly ways to scatter ashes, which we’ve explored in a previous article on our site. There are also biodegradable urn options for interring ashes, which helps the ashes enrich the surrounding soil, and even options which allow you to plant a memorial tree over the site of the interred ashes.
After the funeral
The next thing to consider is what happens after the funeral (if you have one). Whether your loved one is buried or cremated will most often impact you in how and where you remember them; some people may prefer to visit a physical grave, while others may find their loved one's favourite place more comforting, and some may prefer to have their loved one with them at home.
Burial and a gravesite
When someone is buried, this provides friends and family with a grave to visit when they wish to mourn and remember their loved one's life. Some people may prefer this as whether a woodland burial site, cemetery, or churchyard, burial sites have been created to be a resting place and place of remembrance for those we've lost. As such, some people may prefer to visit a grave in an official burial site when they wish to remember and celebrate their loved ones.
Ashes scattering, interment, or display
Cremation inarguably provides more freedom than burial when it comes to memorial options. Ashes can be kept, scattered, or interred — the latter allows loved ones of the deceased the same experience as burial, as ashes can be interred in a cemetery, woodland burial ground, or even at some religious burial sites.
Ashes can be scattered virtually anywhere, including your own garden, and this is a huge benefit of cremation for many people. People may want their ashes scattered at their favourite outdoor space, the garden of the home they shared with family, or where they met a friend or partner — just to name a few. Being cremated allows the freedom for any of these options and more. Like a burial site, scattering ashes in a specific place still provides family and friends somewhere to go when they wish to remember the deceased, as they can visit the ashes scattering site — some may even prefer this, feeling that it is more personal to them than being interred in a cemetery.
With cremated remains, there is also the option to keep them in your home, displayed in an urn, or to share them between family members and close friends. This flexibility is another draw for some people.
Aura Flights, specialises in scattering ashes in space, providing a unique and breathtaking memorial for lovers of sci-fi, travel, or astronomy. If you want to know more or you're interested in a memorial flight for yourself or a loved one get in touch.
An important factor for many people deciding between cremation and burial is their religion. As burial is the more traditional option, many religions prefer it — intentional burial has even been referenced by academics as potentially the earliest known religious ritual. However not all religions prefer burial, so some people may choose to be cremated for religious reasons.
Guidance varies between religions
Many religions prefer burial and advise against cremation entirely, such as Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Presbyterianism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Reasons for this include the principle that the body is sacred, so should be treated in death as it was in life, and the idea that cremation is a rejection of the belief in the resurrection of the body.
Alternatively, there are religions which prefer burial but still permit cremation. Reform Judaism, for example, has no objection to cremation. Similarly, the Bible does not explicitly prohibit cremation, and so many Christian denominations allow it. Catholicism, however, did have a ban on cremation until 1963, showing that even our religion cannot always offer us a definite answer. Catholicism now permits cremation, and you can have a cremation ceremony officiated by a Catholic priest.
On the other end of the spectrum, some religions actively encourage cremation over burial. Hinduism, for example, teaches that cremation speeds up the reincarnation process, and so is the preferred option. Similarly, Buddhists believe that the body is merely a vessel that holds the soul, and so cremation is the more popular option within Buddhism.
Religion and personal choice
While some people may wish to stringently follow the guidance of their religion, there may be personal, practical, or other reasons that lead people to choose another option, e.g. being cremated even if they subscribe to a religion which prefers burial.
The removal of the Catholic ban on cremation reflects the fact that the guidance religion offers us can change over time, and that religious affiliation is not the only factor which affects our decision.
Choosing between burial or cremation is about what's best for you
While all of these factors can help you decide, you ultimately have to choose what feels right for you. What happens to us and our loved ones after we die is incredibly personal and there is no one factor which can make our decision for us.
The most important thing to remember is that if you have a preference, or any wishes at all for what happens after you pass away, it's important to get them in writing or talk to your loved ones about them. This ensures that the arrangements you want are made, and can also take some pressure off your friends and family who would otherwise have to decide for you.
If you need any further information on organising a funeral, end-of-life planning, cremation, or the scattering of ashes, feel free to read our other support and advice articles.