It turns out that most of us are not destined for the grave after all. More Americans now are cremated than buried, a massive shift in funerary trends—as recently as the mid-1990s, only around 20% of bodies were cremated and now 55% are. 

Price is one reason—with a little shopping around, it’s usually possible to arrange basic cremation for just $700 to $1,200, versus the $7,000 or more that is common for a traditional full-service funeral and burial. Geography is another factor—many families are spread across the country, making future graveside visits less common. In addition, some people are concerned that cemeteries are not an ideal use of land, and societal stigmas surrounding cremation have largely fallen away. 

Exceptions: Many Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox communities oppose cremation, as do some fundamentalist Protestant churches. Most Christian faiths don’t forbid cremation, including the Catholic Church, which lifted its prohibition on cremation in 1963, although it says ashes should be buried or interred in a cemetery structure called a columbarium, not scattered or kept in an urn at home. 

There still are misconceptions surrounding cremation, plus sneaky tricks that can inflate the cost. What you need to know to plan a loved one’s cremation or plan ahead for your own

Understand the Steps

You can arrange a cremation through a funeral home or a cremation-only business. Whichever you choose, it will pick up the body and cremate it in its own facilities or arrange cremation with an outside crematorium. Cremations usually occur within three to five business days of receipt of the body but occasionally take as long as two weeks when there’s a backlog.

 If you opt for a “direct cremation,” the most affordable option, there is no embalming or viewing—the deceased’s family might never set foot in a funeral home. If you want a viewing before cremation, the cremation can be delayed until the family can gather, but this might require that the body be refrigerated or embalmed, which could add to costs. (Rules regarding refrigeration and embalming vary from state to state.) 

After the cremation, the family is given the ashes in a thick plastic bag inside a plastic or thick-cardboard box. These ashes are sterile and safe—they consist largely of calcium from bones. Occasionally there are news articles about crematoria mismanagement that causes families to receive the wrong ashes, but that’s very rare. Reputable funeral homes and cremation-only businesses place a numbered steel disk comparable to military dog tags with the body. This disk survives the cremation process and is provided to the family with the ashes, confirming that they are the correct ashes.

There are very few legal restrictions about what you can do with the ashes. You can keep them in your home…divide them among several heirs…bury them on your property…or scatter them on your property or someone else’s private property if you have permission. You could have them buried in a cemetery or placed in a columbarium—typically located in mausoleums on cemetery grounds. You could scatter ashes at sea. Public lands and seashores do occasionally have rules prohibiting the scattering of ashes, but in practice, as long as you do this discreetly, it is very unlikely you will encounter problems. 

Warning: If you intend to transport ashes on an airline, keep them in the plastic or cardboard container provided by the crematorium for the trip. A metal urn might be difficult or impossible to get through security checks—airport X-ray machines can’t see through metal.

Shop Smart for Cremation

Call or e-mail five or six funeral homes and/or cremation-only businesses to check prices for direct cremation. That typically includes transportation of the body…required paperwork such as death certificates…and return of the ashes—but it does not include embalming or a memorial service/viewing. All are required by law to provide prices over the phone upon request, though they are not required to publish prices on their websites. 

Prices vary widely—it’s not unusual for one funeral home to charge $1,000, while another charges $4,000 or more for the same basic cremation. Price differences are not closely correlated to quality—some funeral homes charge lofty prices in hopes that grieving families won’t realize they’re being overcharged. Some are more attractive than others, but if you’re arranging a direct cremation, this doesn’t matter—the family isn’t going to spend any time there. If you are having a viewing, appearances might matter, so consider visiting funeral homes in person. 

Contact funeral homes and cremation-only businesses within 20 to 30 miles of the body first—any distance greater than this increases the odds that you will be charged an additional transportation fee. If a loved one dies far from home, have the cremation performed there—it likely would cost several thousand dollars to have the corpse transported on a flight. 

If you want a viewing, memorial service or anything beyond what direct cremation provides, ask for prices over the phone or ask the funeral home to e-mail you its “general price list.” These services will add to costs—$450 to $900 for embalming…$400 to $500 for a viewing…and $700 or up to rent or buy a casket. Be wary of funeral homes that won’t e-mail price lists. 

Ask whether the cremation is handled in-house, and if not, does the price include any outside crematory fee. Many funeral homes and ­cremation-only businesses do not have their own crematories, but instead send bodies to outside facilities. That’s fine—unfortunately, some less-than-ethical funeral homes quote cremation prices that don’t include the cost of this cremation. Not only will this added fee increase your bill by at least a few hundred dollars, it signals that the funeral home can’t be trusted.

You might encounter a cremation alternative called “alkaline hydrolysis” in which the body is chemically dissolved rather than burned, leaving a sterile liquid that is disposed of…and bone powder that is given to the family. (This process might be called “biocremation,” “green cremation” or “aquamation.”) It’s not legal in every state and is offered by only a few dozen funeral homes nationwide—typically with prices a few hundred dollars higher than traditional cremation but still far below the cost of burial. Families that choose the process often say it seems gentler than fire…and/or it has less environmental impact than combustion. Others like it because it’s more “green”—less energy is used, and with no combustion, there’s no particulate matter released into the air.