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69 percent of Americans would like to arrange their own funerals. Only 17 percent have done so. What would you like to happen to your body after you die? To make it happen, you need to plan — but first, consider the pros and cons of burial and cremation.

Everyone dies. Unless you are, like, an Egyptian Pharaoh or Lenin, or you're strongly considering donating your whole body to science after death, you realistically have two options: burial and cremation. Reflecting on your own funeral arrangements and then going on to make them is a good idea that increases the chances that your preferences will be honored as well as making things easier for those who are left behind — so consider actively working on them, regardless of your age and health. 

Should you find yourself making funeral arrangements after the death of a loved one who didn't make their own preferences clear, you'll be dealing with the same questions as well. 

What should you consider when deciding on a burial vs cremation? 

Burial vs Cremation Consideration 1: Cost

Cremation is now the preferred choice in numerous countries, including the US, UK, Sweden, Belgium, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Korea, and the Netherlands — not just countries where cremation is traditionally culturally common. [1] While there are plenty of reasons to opt for cremation, including flexibility in choosing where to scatter the ashes [2], cost is a significant factor as well. The median cost of a US funeral with a viewing and burial was, according to the National Funeral Directors' Association (NFDA), $7,360 in 2017. A cremation with a viewing can, meanwhile, be expected to set you back $6,260. [3] The services that add up to these figures included such items as embalming, a casket, and a memorial provided by the funeral home that aren't strictly necessary, but the real kicker? The burial costs didn't include the actual cemetery plot or gravestone — which you better believe add up, to the tune of several thousands of dollars. Each. The cremation costs also didn't include the actual cremation, but that's a lot cheaper. 

When it comes to dying, cremation is nearly always going to be the cheaper option, as the more traditional versions of both described by the NFDA shows. There are, however, ways to make both burial and cremation a lot cheaper than they are going to be if you include things like funeral services provided by funeral homes, embalming, and expensive caskets.
  • You could, for instance, choose a natural burial (more about that in a bit) where the body is either placed in a biodegradable casket or a shroud, no vault is used, and the body is not embalmed.
  • You could choose a so-called direct cremation — a "no bells and whistles" option that doesn't include viewing, a memorial service, embalming, and in many cases even a casket. While you can arrange this directly with a crematorium in some cases, the funeral home will take care of all the paperwork if you use one. This option should set you back between $700 and $1200 in the US. [4]
  • You could arrange — or have loved ones arrange, if you're the one who passed away — a memorial service on your own, for instance, even somewhere outdoors where you don't have to pay anything for it.

Burial vs Cremation Consideration 2: Environmental Impact

Are you green-minded? There's no getting around the fact that human beings continue to leave a carbon footprint even after they're dead, but you can seek to minimize it.

Traditional cremations don't just rely on fossil fuels and use a ton of energy, they also release harmful chemicals — those used when the body was embalmed, those used in the process of making the casket, and even those found in amalgam fillings a person might have. [5] Traditional burials, on the other hand, place all those harmful chemicals into the ground, often in a vault. The process is designed to preserve the physical body for a very long time, taking up a lot of space in the process. 

As people are becoming more environmentally aware, the eco-funeral business is taking off, and there are ways to make both burials and cremations greener. 

A natural burial, also called a green burial, is one in which the body is non embalmed or embalmed more ecologically, without formaldehyde. Biodegradable caskets and clothes are used, there's no vault, and traditional headstones are eschewed as well. Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a green cemetery as well, where no pesticides are used in the maintenance and the whole environment is focused on supporting, rather than burdening, our planet. [6, 7]

A greener cremation can be one in which the presence of harmful chemicals is minimized and in which the ashes are scattered rather than buried in an urn or otherwise displayed at a cemetery, where they take up space. Alkaline hydrolysis, in which a body is dissolved in water with potassium hydroxide, is another option that is legal in some jurisdictions and which has proven to have a smaller environmental impact as carbon emissions are greatly reduced. [8, 5]

Cremation vs Burial Consideration 3: Personal preferences

Many people have personal preferences regarding burial vs cremation. Though often rooted in spiritual beliefs, these preferences or beliefs will also inevitably be influenced by cultural expectations and visceral reactions. People may choose cremation because they have a strong preference for being scattered in a certain place — out at sea, under their favorite tree, or even at Disney Land, for instance. Do be aware that laws regarding the scattering of ashes vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and research whether your wishes can become reality. People may prefer burial because they like the idea of the body staying intact and remaining in one place. In this case, consider the fact that the practice of grave recycling, where "your plot" is used to bury a new person a few decades on, is not at all uncommon in many places. Do your research here, too, and choose a cemetery where this will not happen if you feel strongly about it. 

Because sudden deaths happen, it is always wise to carefully consider your own preferences, to tell loved ones about them, and to write them down in a place where you can reasonably expect that your wishes will be honored (a will). Think it's too early? Not planning on dying just yet? Just consider this: 69 percent of Americans would like to pre-arrange their own funeral service, but only 17 percent have actually done so. [9]

You could also consider asking your immediate relatives and partner about their funeral preferences, so you know what their wishes are. Should a loved one die without having left you with funeral instructions, you can only do your best to honor them by taking assumed preferences into account. 

The vast majority of Americans believe that a funeral service is immensely important to their grieving process [9], but also at least consider a home wake and self-organized memorial service, rather than a service arranged by a funeral home. These can be more intimate and personal, as well as cost effective.