Cremation vs Burial? Which is best?

Cremation vs Burial

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Currently in the UK, the two choices for disposal of a body after death are cremation and burial. 

This guide considers the cost and eco-credentials for each option, and the impact those considerations will have on the people you leave behind. This guide also looks into other factors that may influence your decision.

Who is this guide for?

  • Anyone planning a funeral, who hasn't decided whether to have cremation or burial.
  • Anyone looking for the greenest option when it comes to cremation or burial.
  • Anyone worried about the scarcity of burial space and what you can do about it.

Reading time:

 9 mins


In a manner of your choosing 

When planning your funeral, one of the most helpful decisions you can make for the people you leave behind is whether you want your body to be cremated or buried.

You may already be leaning towards one option because of personal preference, religious beliefs or your understanding of the environmental impact and cost. However, if you are currently undecided, here are some things you may like to consider before making your choice.

Burial vs Cremation

Which costs more – cremation or burial?

There's no getting around it: the expense of a funeral is a major consideration for most people. Funeral prices have risen each year beyond inflation since records began in 2004, and the gap between cremation and burial is getting wider. We’ll come on to why later. First, let’s look at the actual cost of a funeral.

Today, the average cost of a basic burial funeral is £4,975. The average cost of a basic cremation funeral is £3,858 - almost 30% less.

You can go cheaper with a no frills 'direct cremation'. This is a cremation service without a ceremony and with no family or friends present. A celebration of life memorial service is often organised at a later date with the ashes present, followed by a ceremonial scattering.

The average price for a direct cremation is £1,626 - less than half the cost of a basic cremation funeral.

Note: Funeral director and third-party cremation and burial fees vary hugely across the UK.

Non-resident fee

If cost is a consideration, then something else you need to be aware of regarding the third-party cremation and burial fees (especially if you intend to leave behind instructions for loved ones about where you want to be cremated, buried or scattered) is the 'Non-resident' fee.

If you choose a cemetery or crematorium outside your borough of residency, the associated fees (e.g. for the grave, cremation, interment) can be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled! That could amount to a significant chunk of your estate.  It's important to do your research before you commit yourself (so to speak).

Royal Borough of Greenwich (2020)
The cost of a burial plot purchased in advance in a prime location, including the right to erect a memorial headstone and the fee for one body interment, plus 5-year grave maintenance (weeding and cutting) is £7,113 for a resident and £25,360 for a non-resident. Fees are doubled for a Saturday funeral. (Excludes the funeral director’s fees)

Donating your body to science

A less ‘popular’ option of disposal, but an option nonetheless - and indeed a strong choice for many - is donating your body to science.   Your family may have to pay for your body to be transported to the medical school. 

Body donation is separate from the organ and tissue donation system. If you want to donate your body, you do have to give written and witnessed consent before you die.   There is no guarantee that a bequest will be accepted.  Usually, a medical school will decline a body if organs or tissues have been removed for transplantation (cornea donation is acceptable). 

In the end, Medical schools will arrange and pay for donated bodies to be cremated individually or buried.  If you want to be buried in a grave with a headstone, your next of kin or estate will be responsible for these costs.  You can request your body is returned to your family for a private cremation or burial.  Some crematoria offer a significant reduction in fees (of around 90%) for the cremation of body parts.  

For more details and to find a licenced medical school near you, go to the Human Tissue Authority. For body donation in Scotland, click here.

How much does a grave cost?

While ashes can be scattered pretty much anywhere, in all sorts of ways and at no cost, the space race is on when it comes to burials - it's limited and, therefore, expensive.  See our guide on 21 amazing things to do with your ashes.   

Just as cremation and burial fees vary hugely across the UK, so does the cost of a grave for a burial or interment of ashes.

Here is a list of expenses that you could incur in advance and for those who take on the responsibility of the grave after you've gone. (Actual costs, of course, depend on the crematorium or burial ground you choose).

  • Appointment to select a grave
  • Exclusive Right of Burial (typically 50 - 99 years)
  • Surcharge for advance purchase of an Exclusive Right of Burial
  • Surcharge for a prime location
  • Interment fee (single depth)
  • Exclusive Right of Burial renewal (typically 10 – 99 years)
  • Permission to erect a memorial (headstone)
  • Memorial headstone

Further possible costs:

  • Removal of existing memorial headstone and installation fee*
  • Additional memorial inscription fee*
  • Grave maintenance: e.g. weeding and cutting
  • Deed of Grant transfer fee
  • Copy of lost Deed
  • Copy of lost cremation certificate
    *Excludes memorial mason’s costs

What is an Exclusive Right of Burial?

When purchasing a grave, some people are surprised to learn they are not actually purchasing. The grave space is in fact being leased under what's termed an Exclusive Right of Burial. This is the Right to say who can be buried in the grave and the Right to have a memorial erected on that piece of land, if permitted. Some natural woodland and meadow burial grounds don’t allow any kind of memorial marker.

The Exclusive Right of Burial applies for a set number of years. You are more likely to find an Exclusive Right of Burial lasting between 50 - 99 years and much less in areas of the UK where space is at a premium, such as London. It is possible to find a cemetery that will allow you to buy an Exclusive Right of Burial 'in perpetuity', which means no more fees for your family to pay in the future. However, that option is already rare and getting rarer by the year.

When the Exclusive Right of Burial has expired, they will need to be purchased again, which could be the same cost as when first purchased plus any price increase.

Exclusive Right of Burial & interment fees (2020)

In the examples above: Fees will be doubled for a non-resident at the cemetery. There is no additional fee for non-residents at the natural burial ground.

What is a Deed of Grant?

When you purchase your Exclusive Right of Burial, you will receive a Deed of Grant (or Certificate) issued in your name, which gives you – the registered grave owner – the Right to lease the plot from the burial ground.

This Deed needs to be produced for each burial and if you want to renew the Exclusive Right of Burial. The Deed can be transferred during the owner's lifetime or after their death.

Deed of Grant transfer fee
Example: Torbay Crematorium & Cemeteries (2020
)

Transfer ownership £55

How many people can be buried in a grave?

The number of 'lifetime residents' is limited to the depth of grave purchased or space in an above the ground chamber, vault, niche or mausoleum. This could be up to four body burials and space for up to four ashes interments. The number will differ between burial grounds and types of burial grounds.

It's standard policy for a natural meadow or woodland burial ground to only allow one person to be buried in a shallow grave. If a natural burial is the way you want to go and you want to be with your nearest and dearest, then consider purchasing adjacent plots. 

How much is a memorial?

It depends. There are many varieties of memorial, and the specific type and dimensions will depend on the burial ground. Another important consideration will be where the memorial is situated. If the grave is too near a tree, the memorial headstone or bench could become stained or damaged by the sap and leaves.

What types of memorials are there?

Here are some options for you to think about.

  • Memorial headstones (upright, flat, kerbed), available in materials such as marble, limestone, granite, bronze
  • Memorial plant or trees
  • Memorial bench (exclusive or shared)
  • Memorial plaque (acrylic, bronze, bronze finish, wood, granite, with or without a photo)
  • Memorial vase
  • Birdbox
  • Birdbath
  • Sundial

If you plan on being cremated, you could opt for your ashes to be turned into a diamond or embedded in a piece of jewellery or glass paperweight.

How would you like to be memorialised? 

Cost of the memorial
Example:  Torbay Crematorium & Cemeteries (2020)
Cost for an upright headstone  £720*

* Black granite headstone, including 50 letters, fixing and memorial permit (£405).  VAT applies if the headstone is not purchased at the same time as the funeral.

How much does grave maintenance cost?

The upkeep of the grounds is the responsibility of the place of cremation or burial. The upkeep of your actual grave could be up to someone else. This is an investment in personal time. Alternatively, they could employ the services of a grave tending company - especially if they live far away.
A contract to maintain the grave would usually include cleaning the headstone of algae, mould and moss; weeding; cutting of the grass, planting seasonal bulbs; replacing faded flower displays or placing fresh flowers on your grave at agreed intervals, plus a photo of the work done.

Cost of grave maintenance:
Example: Grave Care International

£99 per annum (1 visit)

A word of caution if you are thinking of buying a grave in advance

Some burial grounds will allow you to purchase a grave in advance so you can pick a favourite spot, providing they have plenty of grave space available.  There may be a surcharge for this. 

Other burial grounds will only allow the grave to be purchased at the time of need.  This poses a serious problem if you want to be buried with or next to loved ones, or in a particular area of a specific cemetery. There's no guarantee that such a space will be available when the time comes.

Is cremation or burial better for the environment?

This is a difficult question to answer definitively, because it depends on your definition of greener.

Both options leave carbon footprints. 

  • A gas cremation makes the same domestic energy demands as a single person would for an entire month. Looking at it another way, that's equal to the amount of fuel required to drive 4,800 miles.

    An electric cremation is more efficient when run on a green energy tariff. It releases about 90% less carbon than a conventional cremation. (There’s only one electric cremator in the UK currently, and it doesn’t run off a green tariff).
  • Some argue in favour of burial on the basis that cremation releases too much CO2.
  • Burial takes up valuable land that could be used for agriculture, housing, or leisure.

Then there are the more granular details of the funeral, such as:

  • The transportation used to get you to the place of burial or crematorium.
  • The upkeep of the burial ground
  • The sustainability of the materials used to make the coffin.
  • The garment/s your body may be dressed in.
  • Whether you're embalmed.
    Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic and toxic substance, used to preserve appearance for the benefit of mourners paying their last respects. (Formaldehyde is also present in some veneered coffins). With burial, there is a risk that formaldehyde will leak into the water table.
  • Where the funeral flowers come from.
  • The paper used for the order of service.

Is a meadow or woodland burial the answer to reducing a funeral’s carbon footprint?

Until recently, the general consensus was that a body burial at a natural burial ground (often referred to as a Woodland or Meadow burial) was the approach that produced the least carbon.

With this option, bodies are never embalmed and biodegradable coffins or shrouds are required. Graves are shallow (only one person per grave), which means your body is returned to the earth much faster. Only natural grave markers are allowed (if any at all), such as a wooden stake or natural stone so that the landscape is disturbed less. It's also common for native trees and wildflowers to be planted over graves.

However, research in 2020 reveals cremation as the winner, not least because there is likely to be a crematorium near your home. 

Conclusion:   Earth to earth or ashes to ashes?

Choosing cremation or burial is a big decision. We have covered many of the key points above, but in the end, it all comes down to personal preference.

Useful RESOURCES

List of medical schools
Human Tissue Authority  

Body donation in Scotland
Scottish Government

21 amazing things to do with your ashes
Before You Go Compare  

About the Author

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Sophie can usually be found reading a book. Writing a novel has always been on her bucket list. When not absorbed in the latest page-turner, Sophie likes to explore and gain a deeper understanding of peoples' attitudes towards end-of-life planning and how it impacts their lives. She hopes that in some small way her writing around these topics can make a positive difference to her readers.


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