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Cremation vs Burial – Which Is Right for You?

The decision to be cremated or buried is a very personal one, often involving faith, family tradition, and personal beliefs. Cost can also be a consideration because there is a substantial difference between cremation costs and burial costs.

When you choose cremation, you’re paying not only for the cremation itself but also your choice of urn and (in some cases) a vault or crypt. When you choose burial, you’re paying for the embalming, your choice of casket, and the actual opening and closing of the grave. In both cases, you’re likely paying for the transportation of the deceased as well.

In addition to these costs, you could be responsible for decisions about viewings, whether to have a memorial or funeral service, arranging family transportation, and gathering all of the official paperwork. Each of these comes with additional costs – some small, some very large.

The National Funeral Directors Association’s (NFDA) most recent survey of costs for funerals and cremations estimates the median cost of a funeral with burial to be around $8,500 and the median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation to be about $6,000. In both cases, however, certain choices will increase the expenses.

Understanding the basics of each service ahead of time can help you make an informed decision now, preventing your loved ones from experiencing unnecessary stress and confusion when you pass. Here’s a breakdown of each process and cost, as well as a general idea of how high the prices of certain choices can be.


Table of Contents

What is the average cost of cremation?

Understanding the cremation process

What is the average cost of a funeral?

Understanding the burial process

Choosing your final arrangements

Next steps

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What is the average cost of cremation?

The average cost of cremation is typically a fraction of the costs associated with a traditional funeral or burial because fewer services are involved in cremations. As mentioned, cremation costs vary from state to state, but the type of cremation performed (direct cremation, cremation with a viewing, cremation with a memorial, etc.) can also affect the cost.

As a result, services can range from $1,000 – $3,000 on the low end of the spectrum but can cost as much as $6,000 – $8,000 depending on what options you select.


Non-declinable basic services fees

In both cremation and burial, the NFDA estimates a $2,000 “non-declinable basic services fee,” which goes to pay the funeral home’s overhead, including the salaries of its employees and the maintenance and upkeep of the facilities.

  • Typically included in service fee:
    • Consultations with the family
    • Coordination of plans between facilities (such as the crematory, church, funeral home and cemetery)
    • Taking care of the body of the person who has died
    • Ensuring that all official documents and legal papers are handled properly
  • Typically not included in service fee:
    • Fee to transport the person who died to the funeral home (estimated around $300)
    • The “basic memorial printed package,” which includes such things as a register book, thank-you notes and prayer cards (estimated around $150)


Embalming and other preparation of the body

The median cost for embalming is about $700. Other preparation of the body includes any cosmetic work and dressing done to prepare the body for viewing and can cost about $250. There is an additional fee of about $420 if the funeral home is used for the viewing, plus $500 if it is used for the funeral service itself.

Embalming is not mandatory, especially if the family wishes to have direct cremation, which is cremation shortly after death. But most funeral homes require it if the family wishes to have a viewing.


Cremation urns and caskets

If a family plans to scatter the ashes of their loved one, they may need only a basic urn; the median price is estimated at $280. That cost is generally for an urn made of ceramic, wood, or metals such as pewter or stainless steel.

If a family provides its own cremation urn, the price can run anywhere from $50 to $5,000 or more. The most expensive urns are made of precious metals or marble, may have one-of-a-kind engravings, and can include precious stones. “Keepsake urns,” which are small urns meant to keep only a portion of the ashes, can cost between $10-$250 depending on materials used.

A casket is needed for cremation if a viewing or funeral service is performed. The NFDA estimates the median cost at about $2,400, though some funeral homes have “rental” caskets that can be used during a funeral service before the body is transferred for cremation.


Understanding the cremation process

Cremation has become an increasingly popular choice for many Americans. Last year, the rate of cremation surpassed that of burial according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

Cremation laws vary from state to state; however, there are some regulations concerning preparation and transportation that are consistent across the country.


Before cremation takes place

Depending on the state where the service is performed, there may be a waiting period of up to 48 hours between the time of death and the time when the cremation is performed, during which any authorization forms and permits are completed and collected.

Before the actual cremation begins, family members are given the opportunity to say goodbye, perform rites of passage, or conduct a funeral service. If a funeral or visitation service is performed, the family can collect any personal possessions or valuable materials – such as jewelry – after the service.


During cremation

All cremations are performed individually. The process begins by placing the casket/container in the cremation chamber. This chamber can reach temperatures between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring all remains are completely processed. This usually takes 1-3 hours depending on the size and weight of the body.

Following the service, a cooling period is required before the remains can be handled. The remains will weigh between 3-9 lbs. and are usually white in color.


After the cremation

Unless specified otherwise, the urn or container chosen to house the remains will be returned to the family or the designated cemetery/funeral home. There are several options when deciding the final resting place of the remains. These include:

  • Placing the urn in an indoor or outdoor mausoleum
  • Burying the urn in a family burial plot or cemetery urn garden
  • Scattering the remains in accordance with the deceased’s wishes
  • Keeping the urn in the home of a loved one


Benefits of cremation

People choose cremation for different reasons. For many, it’s a simple, but practical process – in part because of the lower costs associated with the procedure.

This type of service also gives surviving loved ones more flexibility in memorializing their loved one. Remains can be laid to rest in a traditional cemetery or they can be scattered at a location that holds special meaning.

In addition, cremation services can be timed to accommodate the schedules of your loved ones, especially if they’re traveling from out of town.


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What is the average cost of a funeral

Like cremation, funeral expenses vary from state to state and can be affected by the services selected. In most cases, a funeral costs about $9,000, but expenses can quickly escalate from there.


Non-declinable basic services fees

As with cremation, this estimated $2,000 fee is “non-declinable.” Not included is the fee to transport the person who died to the funeral home, which is about $300, or the memorial register book, thank-you notes and prayer cards, which are estimated at around $150.


Embalming and other preparation of the body

Embalming is not mandatory if the family wishes to have a direct burial, which means burial shortly after death, independent of a funeral or graveside service. But embalming – at a median cost of about $700 – is needed if a viewing is desired.

The cosmetic work and dressing done to prepare the body for viewing is the “other preparation of the body,” and costs about $250. There is an additional fee of about $420 if the funeral home is used for the viewing, plus $500 if it is used for the funeral service itself.


Casket, vault, and hearse

The NFDA gives the median cost of a metal casket at about $2,400 and the cost of a vault – which many cemeteries require to protect the casket from the weight of the dirt above it – at about $1,300.

As with cremation urns, however, costs can vary wildly. Caskets can be made of steel, solid hardwood, bronze or copper, and can even be customized. The National Caregivers Library says the most expensive caskets go as high as $65,000 and the most expensive vaults add as much as $10,000 to that price.


Graves and headstones

The median $8,500 estimate for a funeral with burial does not include the price of a grave or grave marker. The National Network of Cemeteries estimates the average cost of gravesites by state with most in the $1,100-$2,000 range, except for California which is closer to $4,000.

There may be different price levels within individual cemeteries themselves as well, depending on the location and the type of the plot that you buy. Grave markers can be as simple as a granite plaque placed flush to the ground or as elaborate as a customized stone marker that sits upright. The average cost is about $1,500 to $2,000, according to the International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association, but can run upwards of $10,000 depending on size, shape, and material chosen.


Understanding the burial process

Like cremations, consumers have many options to choose from should they prefer a funeral service and many factors can influence their decision.

Most expenses associated with traditional burials are higher than the costs of cremations and it’s not uncommon for families to overspend on a loved one’s final arrangements.

The best way to keep costs in check is to research your options ahead of time. Knowing what’s available in your area can help you avoid overspending on funeral costs.


The funeral process

Regardless of the service selected, the first step of the funeral process is bathing and disinfecting the body. This helps protect the funeral staff, visiting friends and family, and provides a measure of dignity and respect for the deceased.

The next steps are determined by the family or friends in charge of the funeral arrangements. The body can be embalmed for a traditional funeral service or placed in refrigeration to be transported to another state.

Transportation is not uncommon. Deaths can occur while the decedent is out-of-town for any number of reasons. As a result, arrangements must be made to transport the body to its final resting place. Typically, a funeral provider will make transportation arrangements because of their expertise in understanding the specific requirements for transporting bodies.

If embalming is required or chosen by the family, a licensed embalmer is used to perform the service. In most cases, the funeral director is the licensed embalmer, which makes organizing these arrangements easier. Embalming is done by replacing the body’s blood with chemical preservatives through the circulatory system.

There is no state law requiring embalming, although some states may require embalming or refrigeration if the body is not buried within a certain period of time. Refrigeration is often an acceptable alternative to embalming. Some services – such as immediate burial – don’t require embalming.

If a viewing will be part of the service, the family will need to select clothing and mementos (such as jewelry and glasses) for the decedent. Anything worn by the decedent during the viewing can be returned to the family before the burial takes place (or left with the deceased). Cosmetics are applied and the hair is styled according to the family’s wishes.


After the funeral

What happens next depends on the type of funeral performed. Traditional funerals typically include transporting the body to a cemetery or other grave site where the body will be buried. In some cases, a graveside service is performed.


Benefits of a funeral

Though funeral services are typically more expensive than cremation services, some families find them more personal because they’re able to choose a headstone, casket, and the location of the service. Most families hold a funeral service to give friends and family an opportunity to say goodbye and pay their respects.


Choosing your final arrangements

No matter which final arrangement you choose, it’s important to discuss the various options with those who will be in charge of your final wishes. Ninety percent of people believe discussing these matters with their loved ones is important, yet only twenty-seven percent of people actually do it according to The Conversation Project.

By discussing your wishes in advance, you can spare your loved ones from having to make difficult decisions during a highly emotional time. And by planning in advance, you can help save them hundreds – even thousands – of dollars on final arrangements.

To help prevent overspending, it’s important to compare several service providers ahead of time. Request multiple quotes and talk through the options with your family members. When dealing with multiple providers, it’s important to know your rights when it comes to cremation and burial costs. Document your decisions and keep them in a safe place where family members can easily access them.

How final expense insurance can help

It’s easy to see how quickly funeral costs can add up. Even considering national median prices, they cost thousands of dollars – which can be an unexpected burden for a family that has just lost a loved one.

An increasing number of people are using final expense insurance – also called “burial insurance” or “funeral insurance” – so this doesn’t happen. It’s specifically designed to help families cover any expenses – such as medical bills or funeral costs – left behind after a loved one dies.

For more information about final expense insurance and how it can help protect families from rising funeral costs, read Why Final Expense Insurance?


Next steps

Choosing the right final arrangements can be difficult. Whether you choose a cremation or burial, your family will be the ones left to carry out your final wishes. The rising cost of funerals and cremations means your family could be left with a financial burden when you pass.

To help protect your loved ones, get a free final expense insurance quote today.

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