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The One-Size-Fits-All Funeral Is No More

Affordable and more earth-friendly options are available

spinner image The One-Size-Fits-All Funeral Is No More
More people are choosing cremation over traditional burials.
Sam Kaplan for AARP

You’re going to die. It’s inevitable. But having a stodgy, hideously expensive funeral like your grandparents did is not inevitable. You can do your send-off your way, and that’s just what boomers, Gen X-ers and even millennials are doing. They’re skipping traditional funerals and going for alternatives that are more affordable, earth-friendly and in keeping with their values. More people are cremated now than buried, and putting bodies into the ground minus the toxic embalming chemicals and steel casket is the up-and-coming trend. The days when people bought one-size-fits-all packages from a funeral home are ending, too. They’re buying funerals a la carte, combining goods and services to get what they want. Here are the basic options for a funeral.

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The body

Embalming: You know the drill on this one. A corpse is drained of body fluids and pumped full of formaldehyde to slow decay so it can be displayed in a casket prior to burial.

Cremation: An embalmed corpse is incinerated after an open-casket service. The ashes are returned to the family for scattering or keeping, buried in a graveyard, or put into a columbarium (a room in a cemetery or church with compartments for urns of ashes).

Direct cremation: The corpse goes from place of death to a cremator. There is no embalming. Ashes are returned to the family.

Au naturel: The corpse is neither embalmed nor cremated. It is cleaned, washed, dressed and refrigerated. This is usually paired with an immediate or green burial. (See below.)

The ceremony

Viewing/Visitation/Wake: The traditional gathering of mourners with the dead person present in some form: as an embalmed corpse in a casket; an urn of ashes next to a photo of the deceased; or — if the family has opted for a green burial — an unembalmed body in a casket packed in dry ice. It’s unstructured, with people dropping in to pay respects to the family of the dead person. It’s usually held within a couple of days of a death.  A wake is rooted in Catholic tradition and may include a rosary service.

Funeral service: The traditional, formal service at which the body is present, in a casket. An official of some sort presides over the funeral, and it’s structured and scripted. It’s usually held at a church or funeral chapel within a week of death.

Memorial service: The body is not present at this service, which tends to be more personalized and informal. It’s a celebration of the dead person’s life and can be held at any place any time after death. If a body has been cremated, the ashes usually are interred or scattered at the memorial service.

Graveside service: This is a short, scripted service at the graveyard just before remains are interred. A graveside service is smaller and more intimate than a funeral, often attended only by family and closest friends. Some people have a graveside service after a funeral service, with mourners following the body in a funeral procession to the cemetery. Some have a graveside service instead of a funeral service.

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The burial and other options  

Traditional burial: The remains go in the ground, either as an embalmed body in a casket that’s placed in a subterranean burial vault, or as an urn of ashes in an urn vault. A burial vault is a container made of concrete, steel or wood that encases the casket. It keeps the grave from collapsing and prevents toxic embalming fluids from seeping into the ground. You can also opt for a grave liner that covers the top and sides of a casket but leaves it in contact with ground.

Immediate burial: Also called a green burial, an unembalmed body is put directly into the ground, usually with a graveside service. It may be in a casket, or — if you’re opting for a green burial — wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable container of some sort. Unlike traditional burials that fight decomposition, immediate burials accept the forces of nature and allow the body to decompose more quickly.

Scattering of ashes: The cremains are scattered in a place that was special to the deceased: a beach they loved, a trail they liked to hike, a forest where they played as a child.

Creative options: There are a slew of companies offering novel ways to dispose of ashes. You can have your cremains turned into food for a tree seedling, added to a manmade reef, or incorporated into fireworks and shot into the sky. Because urns are so, so boring.

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