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Traditional or alternative funerals: a matter of choice

In the United States, as in every nation around the world, funerals are steeped in tradition. Every detail of a traditional funeral, from the choice of a casket to the selection of prayers and music for the funeral service, is influenced by religious and cultural customs. Today, however, the number of traditional funerals is slowly declining as more people choose alternative funeral services and burial options.

Since the 1960s, Americans have pursued more natural methods of giving birth, managing personal health, and caring for the dying. Personalized wedding ceremonies in non-traditional settings have also become very popular.

Similarly, a movement toward greater personal choice in funerals and burials is gaining favor, with advocates citing economy, concern for the environment, and personal expression among the reasons for the rising popularity of alternative funerals.

If you're faced with making funeral arrangements, perhaps one of the following options will seem right for you or your loved one. Or perhaps you have something else in mind. In that case, you may want to discuss your ideas with a funeral director, who can advise you regarding cost and local regulations regarding the treatment and interment of human remains.  

Traditional funeral

In the U.S., a traditional funeral typically includes a wake or visitation, which may or may not include a viewing of the body, as well as a formal funeral service. From the funeral, a hearse will transport the body to the cemetery.

Because of the many associated costs – embalming and dressing the body, use of the funeral home for a wake or service, use of the funeral home's vehicles to transport the body and the family, as well as casket and burial plot – a traditional funeral is generally the most expensive. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the cost of a traditional funeral is typically around $6,000, with some traditional funerals costing well over $10,000.


Cremation may take place shortly after death without embalming, or after a public viewing of the body. A funeral service may be held prior to the cremation, or a memorial service may take place at a later date, with or without the cremated remains present. Following the cremation, the ashes may be scattered in a favorite spot or placed in an urn, which may be kept at home by the family or buried in a cemetery or favorite setting. Cremation is often seen as an environmentally-friendly alternative to burial and usually costs less than a traditional funeral.

Direct burial

In a direct burial, burial occurs shortly after death, with no viewing of the body, so embalming is unnecessary. A memorial service may be held at a later time, at the graveside or elsewhere. Direct burial avoids many of the costs associated with a traditional funeral.

Green burial

Green burial is catching on as a relatively new alternative for people who are concerned about the environmental impacts of a traditional burial. In a green burial, the body is placed in a casket made of cardboard or other biodegradable materials, or simply wrapped in a shroud, and then laid to rest in a park or woodland known as a natural burial ground or eco-cemetery. Natural burial grounds generally feature trees or flat stones as grave markers, rather than granite or marble monuments. There are no embalming fluids, metal-and-plastic caskets, or concrete vaults in green burials; thus, they are generally less expensive than traditional burials.

Home funeral

Because the concept of a home funeral is contrary to the traditional, institutional approach to funerals and burials typically seen in the U.S., it is still an odd notion to many people. In fact, few people are aware that home funerals are legal in most states (excluding Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska and New York). Yet, although still uncommon, home funerals are slowly gaining respect and interest.

In a home funeral, family members care for the body after death, bathing and dressing it for viewing – a ritual often described as sacred by those who participate. No embalming is required; the body will be preserved well on dry ice for the typical three-day funeral period.

Economically, home funerals make sense, as their cost is just a fraction of the price of a traditional funeral. The most important benefits of a home funeral, however, may be psychological, although experts' opinions differ on this matter.

While keeping the body at home until the burial may help family members to accept the death and begin healing more quickly, families who have a hard time dealing with death may find it even harder to cope with their loved one's body in the home.

Further useful sites

For more information on alternative funeral arrangements in the U.S., visit the Natural Funeral Monitor website.

For biodegradable and more traditional cremation urns, we recommend Richard Lamb New Traditions Funerals.

A worthwhile article on green funerals can be found by clicking here.

Click here for a touching, first-person description of a green funeral.

Crossings Care Circle is devoted to home and family-directed funerals.

Sponsored links

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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