It’s a tradition that dates back many thousands of years. It’s been practiced by many cultures for reasons that are rooted in both spiritual and practical beliefs. But are traditional burials becoming a thing of the past?
Since ancient times, burial of the dead has been a ritual observed around the world. From earthen mounds to tombs and crypts, from simple pine boxes to satin-lined caskets, shoes or no shoes, coins on the eyes, placed into the earth right away or embalmed and laid out for the funeral – the customs around burial have changed over centuries. Cultural beliefs and attitudes about death, an afterlife, religion, sanitation and more – and the ways they have changed over time – have played a role in how the dead are buried.
According to recent statistics, we in the United States may be witnessing one such shift in burial practices: cremation is on the rise. Just three decades ago, only about 20%, or one-fifth, of Americans opted for cremation. Today, however, cremation is the preference of the majority of Americans, with 55% choosing it over a traditional burial.
This is significant for a few reasons. Now that less than 40% of Americans are traditionally buried, cremation may continue to become a more popular choice in coming years. Family customs and personal choices may go against what has been done in the past. Cremation and a traditional burial are two very different things, though, and the costs and the amount of planning needed for the two options can differ greatly. Let’s take a quick look at cremations vs. traditional burials and what they can mean for your Estate Plan.
Cremations vs Traditional Burials: A Quick Comparison
As you can probably imagine, cremation and a traditional burial are not exactly the same. Choosing between the two options for yourself or a loved one can be a highly personal and emotional decision. It can be a choice that is given a lot of thought and is planned for well in advance, or it can fall on the shoulders of a surviving family member or an Executor of the Estate. It can come down to religious practices and financial considerations. But the fact of the matter is, cremation and a traditional burial are the two most common ways to lay the dead to rest. Knowing more about what happens to the body after someone dies can help make a difficult decision a little easier.
The Cremation Process
A body is cremated by being placed into a specially designed oven, which uses heat and flame to turn the body to ashes. The body of the deceased person then becomes their remains (or cremains, if cremated.) The remains can then – to name a few common choices – be buried in the ground, put into a wall made for interment of ashes, kept in an urn, or scattered. Check out our guide on how to scatter ashes.
Scholars believe that the history of cremation goes back to the Stone Age. Funeral pyres have been used in some cultures throughout history. The spread of Christianity made cremation a lesser-used way of burying the dead for many hundreds of years, but it started to become more popular again in the 19th century. In recent years, cremation has become the choice for more and more Americans. Because of this trend, there are many creative and special things you can do with loved ones' ashes, such as turning them into a tattoo, jewelry, painting, and so much more! Check out our guide on unconventional things to do with ashes, here.
The Burial Process
A traditional burial was the more common form of interment for most people, for many years. Burial involves placing the body into the ground, usually in a coffin or a casket. Nowadays, most bodies that are buried have also been embalmed, or preserved with chemicals that slow the decomposition process. There are newer options, though, for more organic, earth-friendly burials that some are selecting.
Practiced since the beginning of humanity, burying the dead is a tradition that has endured through every generation. Seen as a way to be laid in a final resting place or to return to the earth, burial is still the choice for many families.
2021 U.S. Statistics – Which is More Popular?
According to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association, projected data for 2021 indicates that 36.6% of Americans who die this year plan to be buried, while 57.5% of Americans who die this year will be cremated. Cremation is now significantly more popular than a traditional burial.
While certain trends can be observed in different politically-leaning areas of the U.S. – red state vs. blue state principles – laying the dead to rest follows no such trends. Cremation rates are highest in states and regions that hold a diverse set of political beliefs: Florida, the northern part of New England, and the Western U.S.
The cost of a funeral vs. the cost of cremation may be one main factor driving the surge in cremations. While the costs of both have gone up in recent years, cremation is still – on the whole – less expensive than a traditional burial. Sometimes the cost of cremation is a small fraction of the cost of a burial, making it the more affordable option for many families.
Cremation may also offer more flexibility with where the remains or cremains can be kept. A burial requires that a plot is purchased in a graveyard or other interment site, along with the purchase of a coffin or casket – often two of the largest burial expenses. Cremation requires neither. Cremated ashes can be buried soon after a death, of course, or they can be kept in an urn and buried at a later time, which may be a consideration if there wasn’t much time to make burial preparations before a death.
Deciding What You Want
Choosing what will happen to your body after you die is a very personal choice. Being the one who has to make that choice for a family member or other loved one can be difficult. Being prepared certainly doesn’t eliminate the grief that comes with a death, but it can lessen the uncertainty and second-guessing that can make the grieving process that much harder.
Planning for death – specifically, planning for a funeral, a burial, or a cremation – is one thing that can be addressed in an Estate Plan. It comes down to this: do you have strong wishes about what is done with your body after you die? Do you want to be cremated? Would you prefer to be buried? Do you want to make sure your family makes the right choice?
No one likes to think about it, but planning for it now can help your family deal with it in the future and ease potential anxieties now by knowing you have a backup plan. Creating a Will and other estate planning documents can let your final wishes be known and can help set up how your funds will be used when the time comes. Having a valid, state-specific Estate Plan is just one thing you can do to ensure the best medical, financial, and end-of-life decisions are made on your behalf. Get started today!