Burial or cremation – what are the options?

Burial or cremation

Burial or cremation? It’s the first thing next of kin are asked after a death so make sure you record your preference in your Wishes.

It’s one of two MUSTs around death – you must have a death certificate and you must dispose of the body.


The majority of us opt for cremation these days. It saves using up precious ground, which is a plus and it can be nice for a memorial somewhere down the line to take the ashes somewhere special. It can be a bit of a conveyor belt experience so worth taking time to make a ceremony that has meaning for you. A good celebrant or funeral planner can help advise – someone who can work with you to create a send off that matters. Book a double slot at the crematorium if you want more time.

The Scottish Government commissioned a report on the Cremation of Infants which was published in 2014. The recommendations include steps to improve communication with parents, the process of cremation, the transparency of the whole system and steps towards better supervision of the funeral industry. The Government’s response is here.


Burial (also called ‘interment’ – which literally means ‘to put in the ground’) affords somewhere to visit… a locality that has connections; maybe other family buried there. Burial space is sold in lairs or in a natural burial ground you can buy a single plot. The new inspiring model is natural burial. As a member of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, funnily enough, we advocate this as the green alternative.

The thing is, the UK is running out of burial ground – we’ve only enough to last around 20 years. (No bad thing because it’s not great for the environment to fill a field with headstones and then maintain mowing grass for decades when few graves are tended beyond 10 years and mowing kills of wildlife.)

Natural burial

Natural burial – a green funeral – is the way forward. It creates woodland, meadow or orchard as a parcel of green space for burial without headstones. A nature reserve, it protects our natural heritage for generations to come and creates a beautiful place to walk, sit, reflect – rest.

Cremation has become the norm in the last century but it’s responsible for 16% of our mercury emissions. It’s wasteful, harmful – and expensive – burning wooden coffins that are only seen for a nano second. The industry is looking at standards for coffins to ensure they are safe for the environment but we’re not quite there yet.

We asked people in the street if they knew what they’d want …

There’s an interesting info and films from the Centre of Death and Society including interviews about burial and cremation, the processes and our relationship to the acts.

Find a cemetery or crematorium

For a directory of 1,000 burial authorities and private company operators, 250 crematoria and nearly 260 natural burial grounds, see the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management’s  website. The ICCM is the professional body for this sector so the website is a bit of a hybrid of public-facing and industry-specific information. They represent more than 3,500 individual sites for burial and cremation in England, Scotland and Wales and have clickable maps, contact details and for some, fees.

Burial at home

Despite what most people think, you can legally bury your pets and your family in your garden without planning permission. (See this in The Independent in 2013). You need to own the land and tell the Registrar the date and place of burial. Remember of course, a grave in the garden may affect the value of your home and you’d have to consider what you’d do if you moved.

Burial at sea

Sea burials are only permitted at 3 sites in the UK. This affects their green credentials: fuel cost of transporting a body to the boat’s docking site. Bodies must be sunk where trawling is not permitted and coffins need to be weighed down with lead weights – not very green.

Other options


When we survey Final Flingers, we were surprised that the majority seemed to want to donate their body to science. Great news for the medics. You do have to organise this before you die and have an agreement with a teaching hospital that’s happy to accept your body. You can’t just leave it in your Wishes.


A new option is available in some parts of the world – resomation aka liquefaction or alkaline hydrolysis. Developed by Scottish scientist Alexander Sullivan, this process liquifies most of the remains. (It is available in some states in the US and being considered by the UK and other European countries.) In 2007, Co-op Funeralcare became the majority shareholder in Resomation Ltd and its development is a core part of their long term ethical strategy to deal with the land and environmental pressures of burial and cremation.

Resomation takes about the same time as cremation. A heated alkaline solution breaks down body tissue, leaving only a bone powder. It can be returned to relatives as a sterile liquid. Independent research shows this reduces greenhouse gases by a third and takes an eighth of the power needed for cremation.


Another potential in development is a method of freeze-drying the body called promession. This has been patented by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. The link we had is no longer live. We’ll keep an eye on the news.


Plastination was shown on TV a few years ago. The process was developed by Gunther von Hagens. Basically water and fat are replaced by plastic so that the body can be used as a working model for students. Like whole body donation, arrangements had to be made with the organisation for them to receive a body. After thousands of donations from people keen to help advance our knowledge of the human body, they are no longer taking submissions.

Burial in space

No surprise really that there’s already research going on into this potential.


See the larger than life Caitlin Doughty’s film on the potential of composting remains.


Cremulation is further processing of ashes, rather than a whole other process for remains. Basically, it takes ashes and grinds them down so that 90 seconds later, you have an even finer powder. See a short film about cremulation. It’s been around since the early 90s.



This is helpful and clear info from a local council about cremation.

We’re not into the macabre and thought twice about including this short film, but it’s an efficient and non-dramatic account of the stages of cremation and you might find it helpful.  It’s a quick and clean process as this film shows. (Please tell us whether you think this is Too Much Information (TMI) in the poll below.