Whether you’re planning a funeral now, or thinking about options for the future, a key question to consider centers around cremation or burial. You’ve probably heard of cremation, but you may wonder about the specifics. How does cremation work? What does choosing it for your loved one, or yourself, mean? Would cremation be the right choice for you? What other decisions will you need to make once you’ve opted for cremation? There are many questions that may come up, so read on to learn more.


What Is Cremation? 

Simply put, cremation is one method of final disposition of a body. It’s also becoming more popular worldwide, since cremation is often less expensive than a traditional burial. Whereas with burial the body is placed in a casket or shroud and buried in the ground or housed in a mausoleum, with cremation, the person’s remains are transformed into ashes through a fire- or liquid-based technique. This article mainly focuses on the fire cremation process, but read on below for more on water cremation or “aquamation” as well.


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How Does It Work?

Cremation is a fairly straightforward process. The body is placed in a chamber, where it will be exposed to intense heat (fire) which breaks it down to its most basic elements. The heat causes most of the body to evaporate, but ashes will remain. These ashes are then collected from the cremation chamber and returned to the family in a temporary container.


How Long Does Cremation Take?

The actual cremation process takes on average about 3 hours. This is an estimate and cremation processes can vary based on the provider and other factors.


What Should I Consider When Choosing Burial vs. Cremation?

Choosing between burial and cremation is a personal choice. Here are a few factors that you  might take into consideration when deciding whether cremation is the right option.


  • Respecting the individual: If you’re making this choice for someone who has died and they haven’t left instructions, take some time to think about what they would have wanted. If their views are not clear, then consider the options and use your best judgment to make a decision.
  • Respecting the living: If you’re planning for yourself, you may choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including that you want your ashes to be scattered or to be kept with family rather than them having to visit a cemetery. If you’re planning for another person, and they haven’t left instructions, then it isn’t selfish at all to think of your own needs, and to consider what you prefer for your loved one. Would you be able to visit them in a cemetery? If not, or if you just want them close to you, maybe you’d consider cremation. Also, if there are multiple family members who live in different places, the ashes from cremation can be split among them, or even made into beautiful keepsakes.
  • Respecting the environment: You might think that burial is a more environmentally conscious choice than cremation, but that’s not necessarily the case. While cremation requires a large amount of energy and does emit toxins into the environment, many experts believe it’s a greener option than, say, embalming and traditional burial. Also, there is an alternative to traditional cremation which is believed to be even more eco-friendly.
  • Respecting religious beliefs: If religion is an important factor, it is something to consider before choosing cremation as certain faith practices have strong views on cremation. It’s forbidden in Islam, for example, while Hindu beliefs encourage cremation. Take religion into account if applicable when making your decision, and reach out to your faith leader if you need more advice or context.


Costs of Cremation vs. Burial

There can be a big difference in the cost of cremation versus burial. The average cost of a cremation in America is $4,000-$7,000, while the average burial cost falls within the $7,000-$10,000 range. 

If you’re asking how much does cremation cost, the numbers can be a bit misleading. If you’re looking for the most economical choice, it is much easier to cut the costs of cremation than it is to economize a burial. With a cremation, there are fewer items that must be purchased, thus fewer costs to consider. 


What Is Direct Cremation?

If you are choosing cremation, you can save by using a “direct cremation” company. Generally, direct cremation companies will not have the overhead of a fancy funeral home, so those cost savings can be passed on to you. With direct cremation, you’ll only be paying for the removal of your loved one, the short stay at a facility, a cremation vessel, the actual cremation process, and perhaps an urn. If you were to choose burial, you would have at minimum the added costs of a casket, transferring the body to the cemetery, the plot in the cemetery, the opening and closing fees, and a headstone. 


Some people choose cremation not for budget reasons, but out of preference, and they have a traditional funeral service before the cremation takes place. Some even opt for a viewing before the cremation, and your funeral provider can help you with these details. In this case, cremation can cost about the same amount as a funeral with a burial. Even if you choose cremation, you can absolutely still go ahead and have the events (funeral, memorial, reception etc.), a fancy casket, flowers, etc. 


Benefits of Cremation

  • Cremation is generally less expensive than burial
  • Compared to burial, there are fewer decisions to make
  • You can still have a traditional funeral service (including a viewing) before cremation and/or a memorial service afterward
  • Ashes are portable, and can be divided among loved ones
  • There are lots of options for memorializing ashes/creating keepsakes
  • You can bury ashes or purchase a final resting place in a columbarium


Drawbacks of Cremation

  • Some religions frown upon cremation as an option
  • Unless you bury the ashes or choose a niche resting spot in a columbarium, loved ones won’t have an official site to visit
  • Cremation, unlike burial, is irreversible


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A Note: There Are Two Types of Cremation

  • Traditional Cremation. The most common or traditional type of cremation involves fire. This article is focused on that process, the costs and some of its benefits and drawbacks, so you can decide if it’s right for you or your loved one.
  • Water Cremation. This is an alternative to fire-based cremation, also known as “aquamation.” The water cremation process uses heat and lye (alkaline) to break down the body.  It can be a more costly choice, but it is recommended by some experts as an eco-friendly option.


How Do I Transfer My Loved One’s Ashes to an Urn?

Whether you choose traditional cremation or water cremation, you’ll receive your loved one’s ashes at the end of the process, and you may want to put them into a memorial urn. Making this transfer of ashes is not as easy as it sounds. Ashes can be very powdery and difficult to manage. Our recommendation is to ask your funeral provider to help you transfer the ashes into their permanent container(s). They will be happy to do this for you, and it will save you the difficulty--and sometimes distress--of trying to do it yourself.


Choosing between burial and cremation can certainly be tough. Take time to think about what’s right for you or your loved one. If you’re not sure what the person who has died would’ve wanted, just make your best decision and don’t be hard on yourself.  If you’re planning in advance, once you’ve decided, make sure to write down your wishes and share them with your loved ones so they’ll know what you want. That’s a gift they will surely appreciate.