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Learn About Funerals & Alternative Services

Funeral services are offered in various ways according to a deceased person’s faith, personal preferences and/or level of income. Burial services are typically the most common types of funerals among religious individuals. However, cremation services have been increasing in popularity in recent years. Funeral alternative services are also available to individuals who are not comfortable being cremated or buried. These alternative choices include planting a memorial tree from the ashes of the deceased or turning the deceased’s ashes into a jewelry item.

A funeral home may provide some or all services requested by a deceased person’s loved ones, including hosting a wake, making arrangements with a cemetery and planning a memorial service. Additional assistance regarding choosing a coffin or cremation urn can be provided. To learn questions to ask when choosing a funeral home, read the sections below.

What is a funeral?

Funeral services are structured ceremonies where a body is buried, cremated or dispensed according to the preferences of the diseased person and those organizing the service. From a religious standpoint, a funeral is a rite of passage from one plane of life to another. Burial services are common types of funerals in religions such as Christianity and Judaism. Cremation services are more popular in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. From a secular perspective, funerals are opportunities for loved ones to mourn and celebrate the deceased as well as offer support to close friends and relatives. Funerals are recorded through obituaries, which are typically reported by local and/or national newspapers.

A funeral home, also known as a mortuary, is an establishment responsible for the internment of the deceased and for the services required by a family. In the case of a burial, mortuaries assist in matters such as choosing a coffin as well as finding funeral plots. In the case of a cremation, these establishments may still provide assistance on how to plan a memorial service and choosing a cremation urn. Funeral homes typically also provide assistance for families to write an obituary to be published in news publications.

What do you need for a funeral?

Funeral services require some level of organization from those who plan them, even if a funeral home is hired to provide assistance. Funeral organizers must consider the following:

  • Gather information. Details need to be provided for an obituary.
  • Choosing a location. Organizers must decide on where the service will be held.
  • Make transportation arrangements. The deceased and his or her guests must typically be transported from one location to another.
  • Opt for a funeral service. Organizers must make a decision regarding burial, cremation or alternative services.
    • For burial services, funeral organizers must choose a casket, select what the deceased will wear during the service and designate pallbearers.
    • For cremation services, organizers must choose an urn and decide whether inscriptions will be made onto it.

Guests at a funeral service typically bring flower arrangements or small food items to contribute to the setup of the service. In some cases, guests may be encouraged to make donations to a particular charity or nonprofit organization in the name of the deceased. If a funeral service is particularly religious, guests are encouraged to bring items that contribute to the celebration of that specific faith. Sacred books, for instance, may be brought to a funeral service for guests to read passages to the deceased. Additionally, guests are encouraged to not dress in revealing clothing during religious-based funerals. To learn more about what procedures and items are necessary during funeral services, download our comprehensive guide today.

How much does a funeral cost?

The cost of funeral services varies according to location, type of funeral and quality level of the services being provided. The average burial services cost thousands of dollars and usually include the following:

  • The transfer of a deceased to a funeral home
  • The preparation and/or embalming of the body
  • A casket
  • A wake or funeral ceremony
  • The transportation of the casket to a cemetery

In comparison to a burial, it is significantly less expensive to arrange a cremation service since the deceased can be transported in a small urn instead of a casket. An additional financial benefit is that cremation does not require finding burial plots or making arrangements with cemeteries. Cremation services cost an average of $1,000, including cremation preparation, urn and disposition costs.

Seniors and/or their loved ones can plan and pay for funeral services in advance through various methods. This allows a family or an individual to make small payments throughout the years in order to afford the expenses related to a funeral. In the case of a burial, where costs are typically very high, it is particularly advisable for some type of planning to take place before the death of a loved one.

What is a wake?

A wake, also known as a viewing or “calling hours,” is an unstructured ceremony held before a funeral service to give loved ones the opportunity to mourn the loss of a deceased and say goodbye before the body is buried, cremated or disposed of in alternative ways. A wake is typically held in a funeral home or at the residence of the deceased and is an informal gathering of friends, relatives and coworkers to pay their respects to the deceased and to the people who are the closest to him or her. It is typically a good practice to bring flower arrangements to a wake, as these can surround the casket, coffin, urn or another funerary box of choice.

The term “wake” has originated from the idea of a prayer vigil. Thus, in certain cultures and religions, it is common for loved ones to stay with the deceased throughout the entire duration of a wake and up until the time of a funeral, praying, chanting, telling stories or simply staying in the presence of the deceased. Food and refreshments are typically provided by the residence or funeral home hosting the wake, but visitors are encouraged to contribute by bringing snacks, water or any other small food items.

What is a burial?

Burial services involve the ritual of placing a deceased person, who is typically inside a casket, into the ground. The place where a body is buried and the method surrounding a burial are defined by religious and/or personal connotations that are particular to the deceased and his or her loved ones. In certain cases, objects may be included in the casket to be buried along with the deceased, such as:

  • Awards
  • Books
  • Diplomas
  • Electronics
  • Jewelry
  • Journals or diaries
  • Letters
  • Medals of honor
  • Photographs
  • Pieces of clothing
  • Religious items
  • Sports memorabilia
  • Toys

People have been performing burial services for one hundred thousand years through methods such as natural burials, mummification and embalming. Depending on those who organize the funeral service, the deceased are typically dressed in formal or religious clothing. A funeral home can assist loved ones on how to select a casket and transport the body. Cemeteries can provide further information regarding how to find funeral plots. After the body is buried, loved ones may plan a memorial service to be held at a religious institution or residence. To explore more questions to ask when choosing a funeral home and holding a funeral service, download our guide today.

What is a cremation?

Cremation services involve the combustion, vaporization and oxidation of a deceased body to chemical compounds such as ashes, mineral fragments and gases. The cremation of a body is typically carried out at a temperature that ranges between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. A funeral home can typically arrange a cremation service in-house or through a third-party establishment. In some cases, the remains of a cremated body may be placed inside a casket and buried into the ground. However, loved ones typically choose a cremation urn to hold the remains of the deceased.

Cremation is a significantly cheaper funeral service in comparison to a burial, but various religions have historically opposed that practice. Cremation was discouraged to Christians and Mormons, strictly forbidden for Muslims and opposed by conservative members of the Jewish faith. However, in recent years, cremation services have been more widely accepted by different religions. For Episcopalians, Hindus and Buddhists, cremation is widely accepted and encouraged. This service may also be conducted through a pyre method, in which a body is placed between logs and cremated naturally in an open-air environment.

The remains of a cremated body, such as ashes or mineral fragments, may be scattered at sea or trenched in the ground. However, there are regulations that prohibit the casting of ashes in most public national parks and private properties such as sports stadiums and amusement parks.

What is a memorial service?

A memorial service is a ceremony held to memorialize a deceased person whose body is not present. Loved ones may opt to plan a religious memorial service to be held weeks or even months after the passing of an individual. The service can be held in a community hall, funeral home, place of importance to the deceased or in a religious building such as a church, synagogue or mosque. Memorial services typically encompass the personality of the deceased, thus being a gathering where photographs of them may be displayed, their favorite music may be played and stories about them may be told. Consider the following checklist to plan a religious memorial service:

  • Decide on a theme. Consider the many elements of the deceased’s personality and decide what are the traits, doings and/or happenings that he or she should be remembered for during a memorial service.
  • Pick a date and location. If the service is held at a religious building or funeral home, loved ones must pick the date and location based on the number of people who are expected to attend and the establishment’s availability.
  • Decide on a leader and speakers. A religious memorial service is typically led by a religious figure, but individuals who are close to the deceased are also welcome to speak about their personal experiences and feelings toward the person who passed.
  • Print out a program. The program in a memorial service typically includes photos, spiritual or religious readings, memories, information about the deceased and the names of the individuals who will speak during the ceremony.

What are the alternatives to funerals?

There are various funeral alternative services that offer loved ones the opportunity to skip traditional practices and longstanding traditions. Based on the personality of a deceased individual, it might make sense for the people who are closest to him or her to explore alternatives to funerals in order to accurately honor the person. An alternative funeral service may include the creation of a completely new tradition or the adoption of a popular and widely available alternative method.

One popular alternative to funerals that has been growing in recent years is planting a memorial tree from the ashes of a deceased person. However, loved ones must be mindful that ashes cannot be cast in most national parks, thus not allowing these type of memorial trees to be planted in most public spaces. Several trees can grow from ashes, such as the following:

  • Pine tree
  • Oak tree
  • Sugar maple tree
  • Ginkgo biloba tree
  • Cherry tree
  • Dogwood tree
  • Coral tree
  • Tulip tree
  • Palo verde tree

A deceased’s ashes may also be turned into a jewelry item, which is a practice that has become popular in recent years. These jewelry items can be kept at a residence or worn as a ring or necklace, which may appeal to surviving spouses more than burial services due to the mobility of the ashes.

How do I donate my body to science after death?

A popular and useful alternative to funeral services is donating a deceased’s body to science after death. Deceased bodies may be used for purposes of research and teaching and are accepted by several institutions through whole-body donation programs. The following considerations must be taken into account:

  • Federal law prohibits the purchase of bodies. Thus, no institution will pay for a deceased body or contribute to funeral services of the deceased person.
  • Not all bodies are eligible to be donated to science. Thus, if a body is severely damaged or morbidly obese, there is a chance that scientific institutions will not accept it as a donation for research purposes.
  • Donating organs or a whole body. If a resident was registered as an organ donor, he or she may not qualify to be a whole body donor as well. Most institutions that accept deceased bodies for research make a clear distinction between organ donations and whole body donations.
  • Transportation costs are covered. Most scientific institutions that accept whole body donations cover the transportation costs included in moving the deceased body to their facilities. However, bodies are typically not eligible to be transported out of state.
  • No special requests are accepted. Institutions will typically not honor or guarantee any special requests from loved ones for how a deceased body should be handled or for what research purposes it should be used.

What is a burial at sea?

A burial at sea is a burial service that is typically followed by the cremation of a deceased’s body, in which the ashes of the deceased individual are scattered at sea. However, the entire non-cremated body of a deceased person is also allowed to be buried at sea. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a general permit for these kinds of funeral services under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA). However, the MPRSA has regulations that restrict this procedure. Among the most important considerations, consider the following:

  • The location of the burial at sea. The ashes or human remains must be scattered in the ocean at least three nautical miles away from land, and the water must be at least 600 feet deep. The ashes may be dropped from a boat or airplane.
  • Biodegradable additions. The ashes may only be buried at sea inside an urn if it is a biodegradable urn. If flowers will accompany the burial at sea, the flowers must decompose easily.
  • The remains must sink. The remains or urn must be able to sink and stay at the bottom of the sea.
  • The EPA notification. The EPA must be notified of the burial service within 30 days of its occurrence.
  • No pet remains allowed. Non-human remains, such as pet remains, are not permitted by the MPRSA.

What is a mausoleum?

A mausoleum is an external building that surrounds the funeral casket, coffin or chamber that holds a deceased person. Certain mausolea are considered monuments, and some notable examples include:

  • The Taj Mahal in Agra, India
  • The Great Pyramids of Egypt
  • The Panthéon in Paris, France
  • The Grant’s Tomb in New York City
  • The Henry Flagler’s mausoleum in St. Augustine, Florida
  • Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois
  • The Higashi Otani Mausoleum in Kyoto, Japan
  • The mausoleum of Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq
  • The Anitkabir of Mustafa Kemal Ataruk in Ankara, Turkey

Certain funeral homes have built mausolea and offer burial services where deceased bodies can be buried above ground. The average mausoleum is made of steel-reinforced concrete, accommodates four to six crypt levels and may be up to three stories high. A clear advantage to a mausoleum is that it provides more comfort to visitors of the deceased since it is an indoor, refrigerated building structure instead of an outdoor field such as a cemetery. However, certain loved ones may perceive as a disadvantage to bury a deceased person over or under other bodies.

What are some inexpensive alternatives to funerals?

As previously mentioned, funeral services are typically expensive due to the various expenses related to burial services, even if the deceased’s body was cremated. Inexpensive alternatives to funerals include cremation services that do not involve most practices and ceremonies that take place in a traditional funeral. Consider the following inexpensive alternatives:

  • Plant a tree. Planting a memorial tree from the ashes of a deceased individual is a significantly less expensive practice than finding burial plots in a cemetery and planning a memorial service in a religious building.
  • Scatter the ashes at sea. Burying a deceased’s ashes at sea is another inexpensive alternative method to a burial funeral service. However, this practice must be reported to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) within 30 days after its occurrence.
  • Green burials. Burial services known as green burials involve a body being buried directly into the ground.
  • Home burials. In a home burial, a deceased person is buried at a personal residence. The residence may be where the deceased previously lived or where his loved ones currently reside.
  • Funeral pyre. Certain cremation services establishments offer a funeral pyre method in which a body is surrounded by logs and naturally cremated in an open-air environment.
  • Donating the body to science. A very inexpensive funeral method is to donate the body of a deceased to science for the purposes of research and teaching.

What is an ecologically friendly burial?

Ecologically friendly burial services known as green burials have been growing in popularity in recent years. This practice involves burying the body of a deceased directly into the ground, without exposing it to chemical preservatives or inserting it in funerary boxes. Advocates argue that a green burial reduces the waste of millions of tons of steel, cement and wood that make up the building of coffins and urns, along with many carcinogens used for the embalmment of a body, which may take between five and 10 years to fully decompose underground.

Scattering ashes at sea can also be considered an ecologically friendly burial if done correctly. If the ashes will be buried at sea inside an urn, the urn must be biodegradable. Most rivers, ponds and lakes are not subject to EPA restrictions and are thus regulated by other government agencies that may have different restrictions. More information on burials at sea can be found in the “What is a burial at sea?” section above.

Learn How To Make
End Of Life Arrangements
With Help From Our Guide

As an independent and private company, we are proud to help our users learn about the benefit application process.

  • Get Free Information with Our Guide
  • Take our optional survey to receive, based on your answers, related offers from our partners!
  • Keep Updated with Curated Content