End-of-life planning brings about many questions and emotions that loom over the decisions that must be made. Often, conversations around the choice between burial or cremation feel gut-wrenching to bring up, leaving caregivers without concrete guidance for what their loved one would want when the time comes to plan for after death.
While these conversations and decisions are difficult, preparation can help keep families from feeling helpless in the process and even from going into unnecessary debt.
Simple tools are available for how to handle a conversation with a loved one that can alleviate the emotional pressure of decision-making down the road.
Joshua Slocum, the executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, shares strategies for how to broach the conversation and what factors to weigh when making funeral plans. He said that as a society, Americans have a difficult time talking about – and even consciously accepting – death as a part of life.
“A lot of people find the conversation difficult,” he said. “People still don’t want to talk about it, even in hospice.”
Despite the feelings of discomfort, like many unpleasantries in life, the best way to do it is to rip the bandage off. The good news is that it probably won’t be as bad as you’re thinking.
“That conversation is not actually as scary as your anticipation of the conversation,” Slocum said.
He recommends a couple of tips to help ease anxious feelings:
Start early – These conversations aren’t just for older adults. Everyone should consider what they want, share their wishes, and consider how their loss may affect those around them. If possible, it can be easier and less emotional to talk about the subject while everyone is still healthy. Finding what’s the most meaningful may be clearer when death isn’t looming over the conversation. That said, if you didn’t have these conversations already, it’s better to start late than never. Try to approach the topic honestly and not to let guilt influence your decisions.
Talk about your own plans – One thing you can do when bringing up the topic is to try using yourself as an example. “You might say, ‘I sat down and talked with my kids about this because some day they’ll have to make these arrangements for me, and I had a good conversation about what we both want. And I’d like to be able to do the same for you,’” Slocum said.
When coming to a conclusion, it’s not only the loved one’s wishes you have to weigh but also your emotional needs as a family for after they’re gone. Try to find a solution everyone can agree on and, when you do, start planning. For most, this means shopping around.
Burial vs. cremation
Deciding what to do with a body after death is a very personal decision. From cost, religious or cultural traditions, and even environmental considerations, make sure you’re helping your loved one weigh all the factors.
Price will likely be an important consideration, as the median price of a full funeral was $7,640 in 2019—a number rivaling weddings, car purchases and student loans.
When it comes to comparing the cost between burial and cremation, cremation will always be cheaper. But that doesn’t mean the cost of services are going to be cut and dry. There’s a lot of variety in pricing and options surrounding the two choices.
“Regardless of whether a body eventually gets to a cemetery or eventually goes to a crematory, that has nothing to do with what happens before that point,” said Slocum.
Meaning, the options of whether to hold a full funeral service or just a viewing, whether to embalm or whether to skip services altogether, don’t always necessarily have to do with the final resting destination.
Cremation also comes with misconceptions, and can get confused with having to skip services for loved ones to say goodbye. In fact, services can be chosen with any option, but they may raise the price.
When it comes to getting the best price for a funeral, Slocum suggests doing exactly what you do in every other area of life when it comes to purchases: shop around.
“Most people choose a funeral home simply because they remember using that funeral home the last time someone in their family died,” said Slocum. This can be detrimental to their pocketbook, as costs can vary widely from home to home—by thousands or more in the same city for the same service.
For some, the environment may be one factor looming in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, there is no net-zero option currently when it comes to what to do with our bodies after death.
Cremation takes about 60 gallons of propane or equivalent fuel and electricity cost, according to Funeral Consumer Alliance. Burials involve using wood, metals and other materials to create a casket and burying them, most often with chemicals (such as formaldehyde used in embalming), in large swaths of land with manicured lawns. And while certain eco-friendly options like the tree urn have gained popularity recently, the jury is out on whether those well-meaning plant-based solutions are actually good for the environment or plants they associate with.
When it comes to making the best environmental choice, it’s going to depend heavily on what’s important to you. However, there are some ways to curtail impacts. Embalming is widely considered to be both a pollutant and a potential carcinogen, so if a traditional preservation method isn’t important to you or your family, this can be one way to mitigate impacts (and save a lot of money!)
The earlier you start planning, the less pressure it may be to find the service, funeral home and end-of-life destinations that fit your family’s needs best. Some volunteer-led chapters of Funeral Consumer Alliance offer price comparison charts for local funeral homes and their services.
When making these difficult decisions together, remember the conversation is based in care and making the grief process easier for our loved ones.