One of the final pieces of your Life File, a set of guidelines stipulating your end-of-life and after-death wishes, is deciding what you want to happen with your body after you die.
If you’ve heard the adage, “funerals are for the living, not the dead,” you may be tempted to consider relinquishing control over what happens after your death to your descendants. After all, it is your loved ones who carry on after your death; it is them, as well as your friends and community, who may need an opportunity to grieve and remember you. They may even learn new things about you from others that will help them see you through the eyes of others.
Planning for the disposition of your body, however, affords you the opportunity not only to confront your mortality but also to help your loved ones avoid making painful decisions about what to do while they are grieving your death.
You may also wish to make these decisions jointly, with your loved ones, not necessarily for them. This way, you can prepare them for your eventual death and perhaps gain some peace of mind during a difficult time.
While we offer here general guidance and some state-specific examples, not every body disposition option will be available to you in your state. Each state has its own policies or laws regarding body disposition, so be mindful when making your decisions. We recommend familiarizing yourself with your state’s laws about body disposition. Your state’s funeral consumers alliance chapter or similar organization should offer the information you need.
Options for Body Disposition
There are two basic options for the disposition of your body after you die. In the United States, you can choose between some form of
- cremation, or
A third, much less frequently used option, is donation for medical education or scientific research.
Your choice between these options will depend on a number of factors, two of the most important being
- your personal values and beliefs – your religion may not allow cremation; your environmental conscience may steer you toward greener options
- your budget – cremation can be considerably less expensive than burial; there are many cost points within each option to consider as well
Cremation entails incinerating your body in a cremator (a type of furnace) and turning it into ashes. If you opt for cremation, there are a number of decisions you may need to take.
You can have your body delivered to the crematory in two ways:
- In direct cremation it is the crematory itself that picks up your dead body and cremates it.
- Alternatively, you can have a funeral home or a specialty (intermediary) service deliver your body to the crematory for you; some funeral homes operate their own crematories, on premises or elsewhere. Confusingly, a funeral home may also offer “direct cremation” but which simply means the business will act as intermediary, with associated costs, for your cremation and have your body cremated without a service.
Another set of decisions you can make has to do with witnessing your cremation. Some crematories allow your descendants to observe the incineration of your body (some even allow your loved ones to handle the equipment). Additionally, your family can opt to have a ceremony before your body gets cremated.
You have to select a container to be cremated in: a cardboard box or a wooden coffin. Some funeral home businesses will rent out a casket for the service and then transfer your body to a cremation container. You may also provide your own body container for incineration, so you may wish to inquire about that (this may not always offset the cost of cremation)
Next you may want to choose a container for your ashes. You can pick or have your descendants pick a container, or you can purchase an urn.
Disposition of Ashes
Your final decision concerns the disposition of your ashes. You can have your body stored in a columbarium, a section of a cemetery for storing cinerary urns. This way your loved ones can visit with you after you die. Depending on the cemetery, the cost of a columbarium rental can be considerable. Some may choose to store your cinerary urn at home.
An increasingly popular alternative is the scattering of ashes. You can request your ashes be scattered at a location (or multiple locations) of your choice. This can be a location you have a personal connection to, a sentimental or nostalgic place, or your favorite destination – it’s really up to you. It is a good idea to check your state’s applicable regulations for the disposition of ashes, as there may be places where this is prohibited, e.g. some waterways, or ways in which it is not permitted, e.g. from a kite on a beach.
Cremation on the Rise
Cremation is an increasingly popular option for body disposition, growing from 5 percent of all burials in 1950 to over 50 percent in 2016; cremation has surpassed burial as the most common body disposition option.
The chief factor in the growing popularity of cremation is cost, which can be considerably lower than burial. Americans also increasingly opt for cremation because we are growing increasingly secular and perhaps because of growing individualism. Cremation affords loved ones an opportunity to keep or dispose of your remains outside a cemetery, e.g you can have your ashes scattered at a location of your choice.
A non-incinerating variation of cremation is hydro-cremation. Also known as resomation, aquamation, or water cremation, the process entails the chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis, which uses chemicals and heat to dissolve your body into liquid. The resulting sterile liquid can then be stored in a container. Aquamation is not yet legal in every state. The process has a much lower carbon footprint than cremation or burial.
Until recently, burial was the predominant option for body disposition. All religions allow burial.
If you decide to be buried, you’ll have an even greater number of decisions to make. The first involved deciding between a direct or traditional burial.
Direct burial, also known as natural or green burial, uses no chemicals—your body does not get embalmed. Burial, therefore, takes place shortly after your death. There is typically no viewing or visitation, though a memorial service or ceremony may be held at the grave site or at a later date.
In direct burial your body is buried in a simple wooden casket or shroud. Another environmentally friendly alternative is the mushroom suit, a special shroud embedded with mushroom spores that during their growth accelerate the decomposition of your body and toxins in it.
While direct burial is an environmentally friendlier—and hence called “green burial”—and more economical option compared to traditional burial, some cemeteries do not permit direct burial and you may need to be buried at a dedicated conservation burial grounds or “green cemetery.”
The state of Washington also recently allowed human composting, which turns your body into soil your descendants can retrieve or which you can donate to a conservation organization.
Traditional burial involves embalming and dressing, a viewing or visitation, a funeral service, transport to the cemetery, and a casket entombed into an outer, typically concrete, vault at a rented or purchased cemetery plot or crypt. Each step entails an additional set of choices you have to make, depending on your preferences or budget (traditional burial is easily the most expensive type of body disposition).
Cemetery is not the only place where you can be buried. Alternatives include:
- burial at sea – some organizations in coastal states provide this option, following stringent EPA regulations
- private property burials – some states allow you to be buried on private property, albeit with limitations in some municipalities and locations
- family plots in ancient or disused cemeteries
As a final option for body disposition, you can donate your body to medical schools for the training of future doctors or for scientific research. Check with the institution where you wish to donate your body, and have an alternative plan in case your donation is rejected or if the institution does not have a need for it when you die.
Other Considerations for Body Disposition
Consider the Cost
As we highlight throughout this guide, cost is a major factor when considering the disposition of your body.
As you research crematories, funeral homes, and cemeteries, always ask for a copy of their General Price List (GPL), a full, itemized list of all items and services on offer required by the Federal Trade Commission of all funeral providers. If you are given a list showing package prices, ask again for the individually itemized GPL.
Best if your descendants do this with you; rarely, providers may take advantage of a grieving family not equipped or paying attention to the costs associated with their decisions. Funeral consumer organizations around the country still receive calls from people presented with a bill for their loved one’s funeral that they cannot afford to pay.
Your state’s funeral consumer advocacy organization may assist you with this, for example by providing a General Price List survey in your state (here is Maine’s as an example). Many of these organizations are also lobbying the federal government to require providers to publish their prices online. Until then, “buyer beware” applies. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planning a large affair with all the bells and whistles if you want to go out fashionably. Not everyone can afford that.
Financial considerations may inspire you to establish a special savings account for your body disposition that your descendants can access after you die. This is a safer alternative to pre-paying for your burial or cremation, which comes with the potential of the provider going out of business before you die, or your death taking place in a location far from the provider with whom you pre-paid.
Have a Plan B
No matter how much you plan for your death and body disposition, chances are you might die at an unexpected time or location, e.g. while traveling. As you prepare your Life File, consider stipulating your preferences in writing even before you make all the arrangements or accumulate the savings so that your loved ones have some idea of your preferences.
Your thinking about the disposition of your body may also be guided by your faith. Every religion follows its own practices, rituals, and rules when it comes to final disposition. These may require additional layers of planning, in terms of funerary options, rituals, and people who need to be involved in the process.
- Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
- The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller
- Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Lisa Carlson and Joshua Slocum
- Creating Your Life File: A Checklist for End-of-Life Planning