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Choosing a cemetery

Many people view the selection of a final resting place as an important personal decision, and choose a cemetery and reserve a burial plot for themselves well in advance of any need. Others leave the decision to family members. Whether you're considering purchasing your own burial plot or you're doing so for someone who is dying or has already passed on, you'll find it easier if you arm yourself with a little knowledge.

Burial terminology

When you begin the process of selecting a cemetery and reserving a grave site, you may encounter new or confusing terminology. Here are a few of the terms you should know.

  • Burial or Interment – placement of a dead body in a grave.
  • Columbarium – a structure of recesses or niches to hold urns containing cremated remains.
  • Crypt – an enclosed underground vault or chamber where cremated remains are kept.
  • Disinter or Exhume – to remove buried remains from the grave.
  • Grave – a hole dug in the earth to bury the dead.
  • Grave Liner – a receptacle for the casket that prevents the ground above from sinking. A grave liner is similar to a vault, but generally lighter in weight.
  • Gravestone or Headstone – a type of memorial, usually made of metal or stone, that identifies the person buried in a grave.
  • Inurnment – the burial or final placement of an urn containing cremated remains.
  • Lot – a number of plots purchased together, typically to accommodate members of the same family.
  • Mausoleum – an above-ground building that serves as a resting place for the dead. Mausoleums may also serve as a temporary holding place for bodies in climates where the ground freezes and burial must be delayed until spring.
  • Plot – an individual burial space within a cemetery.
  • Remains – the body or cremated ashes of the deceased.
  • Vault – a receptacle that protects the casket from the elements.  A vault may be made of concrete, a variety of metals, or fiberglass.
Types of cemeteries

A cemetery may be owned by a local government, religious group or organization, and it may be operated as a for-profit or nonprofit venture. Cemeteries may have in-ground burials only, or they may also offer a mausoleum or columbarium. Traditional cemeteries typically allow upright monuments, at least in some areas, while memorial parks or gardens allow only stones placed flush with the ground.

Even if the choice of a cemetery is predetermined (by family tradition or church affiliation, for example), there are still several decisions to make regarding a burial place. 

Points to consider when choosing a cemetery or burial plot
  • Consider whether you want to reserve a cemetery lot for your family. Purchasing several plots at once is often less expensive than purchasing them individually. Also, if you fail to reserve all the plots you want now, someone else may purchase them.
  • Go to the cemetery, where staff will provide you with a map of available grave sites or personally guide you around the grounds. Let them know if you have a specific location in mind, such as on a hilltop or under a shade tree.
  • If you are concerned about cost, ask to see plots in less idyllic settings. Also, be sure to ask about hidden costs, such as grave opening or closing fees or cost of setup for graveside services. The price of the burial plot may include year-round maintenance and grounds keeping, as well as perpetual care on the cemetery plot, or you may be charged additional fees for these services.
  • Before you choose a burial plot, make sure you understand the cemetery's policy on memorials and grave markers. Some will allow only gravestones that lie flush with the ground or slightly above it, while others allow towering monuments and statues. Likewise, some cemeteries have rules regarding cut flower arrangements, potted plants, or in-ground plantings.
  • In most areas, cemeteries may not require the purchase of a vault, but they may require the purchase of either a vault or a grave liner. A grave liner is a less expensive alternative to a vault that is perfectly acceptable to most people.
  • If you select your own cemetery and burial plot, let your loved ones know. Don't put the information in your will or safe deposit box, as these may not be opened until after the funeral.
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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

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