To bury or to cremate? How to say goodbye to a loved one.

To bury or to cremate? How to say goodbye to a loved one.

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The title of the article is difficult to contemplate.  With all the other emotions you are feeling, dealing with the practicalities of death is unfamiliar and stressful. At Sonja Smith Funeral Group we are often asked about the choice between cremation and burial. We have written this article to explain and highlight some of the common questions and factors to be considered.

All families will at some point be faced with this decision when a loved one passes on. Unfortunately, we seldom discuss this when we are alive, and our wishes or those of our loved one are often not known or documented.

What information do you need to make the decision?

There are several factors to be considered when planning a suitable tribute to celebrate a loved one’s life.

Did your loved one record their wishes?

Did they express their wishes and more importantly, did they write them down, either in their Will (not ideal as the will is often only read after the funeral takes place) or in a letter of wishes? (See  Whilst these wishes are not legally binding, they do provide you and your family with clear guidance, allowing you to focus on your emotions rather than on making difficult decisions; decisions that can cause unnecessary conflict.  It is always preferable to write down what you want and to tell your immediate family members your preferences.

What are your cultural or religious norms?

In some cultures and religions, there are express rituals and norms regarding funerals. Going against your family’s traditions may cause conflict and your family could be ostracized by the community or congregation.  Discussing options and their consequences prior to death is always easier; therefore, make your wishes known while you are alive.  You will be saving your family so much heartache, after you have passed on.

How practical is burial?

It is a worldwide fact that land is scarce, and many people complain that cemetery space should be used for the living and not the dead.  There is now also a limited choice when selecting a cemetery, as the cemetery location is often far from your home and in some cases, due to their location, they are unsafe to visit and poorly maintained.

For many families however, tradition dictates that the family must be buried together, and prior arrangements are made to reserve or purchase a gravesite for all family members. Recently, a small number of private cemeteries have emerged, to cater to more affluent families. These cemeteries are run as private businesses and they are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, mostly in perpetuity. As such they are significantly more expensive than municipal cemeteries.

How much does a funeral cost?

Many people wonder whether it is cheaper to bury or cremate.  This all depends on your needs. A funeral can be planned in many ways, from a private modest ceremony to a lavish event stretching over several days.  In this article we will compare options to give our readers some questions to contemplate.

What factors should you note when considering burial?

  • Do you wish the burial to be in a municipal or private cemetery?
  • Will the casket be present at the main funeral service or will the burial take place privately prior to the service?
  • What coffin or casket would you prefer? This is often decided based on your budget and personal tastes and beliefs. It can increase the overall cost of the funeral considerably if an extravagant coffin or casket is selected.
  • Will the funeral service take place during the week or over a weekend? Weekend services incur additional costs when compared to weekday funerals and some cemeteries are not open over weekends.
  • Will you require repatriation of the deceased to a rural village or to another country? This too incurs additional costs.

What factors should you note when considering cremation?

  • Do you want a prior viewing or attendance? When a private or unattended cremation takes place, a very basic cremation coffin is used. If the family wish to view the deceased and/or attend the cremation, then a standard coffin or casket is required.
  • Is the coffin or casket going to be displayed at the funeral? If so, it is the family’s choice what type of coffin or casket is used and once again, this depends on your budget and your preferences.  Some families don’t believe an extravagant coffin is necessary for a cremation.
  • Some families are under the impression that it will be too emotional for them to have a coffin/casket present at a funeral service, therefore they opt for a private, unattended cremation with a memorial service. However, from a grief & bereavement perspective the opposite may be true. Having the coffin/casket at the funeral service can have a positive effect on the grief tasks that lie ahead. It also assists the family with paying their last respects and getting closure.
  • What container will you use for the cremation ashes? Most crematoria return the deceased’s ashes in a temporary container. The family then decides what they wish to do with the ashes. If scattering the ashes, a temporary container is suitable. If ashes are interred in a niche or wall of remembrance, then a more durable container is required. If the family wish to retain the ashes, an urn or other storage vessel is required. Each option has a different cost implication.
  • What medical reports are required? When cremation is chosen, there are additional medical reports required, as would be expected. The attending medical doctor needs to certify the cause of death and then a further report is required from a confirmatory medical practitioner (a medical referee states that the cremation can take place). Each medical report incurs a cost.
  • Is a post-mortem investigation required? In the case where death is due to unnatural causes, an inquest must be held and a post-mortem will be performed by a forensic pathologist. Because cremation is final, there is no possibility of any medical investigation being undertaken after a cremation has taken place. In cases of death due to natural causes, a private post-mortem can be commissioned by the family if there is any doubt as to the cause of death. This does come at an additional cost.


We hope this article has answered some of your questions.  It is really not clear whether cremation is cheaper than burial, as there are so many variables.  However, a basic unattended (private) cremation without any memorial service is likely to be the cheapest option (but not by a considerable amount). A burial in a municipal cemetery with a small family graveside service and a modest coffin choice should cost a similar amount to an unattended cremation. However, there may be additional costs associated with removal of an existing tombstone or slab and the replacement or erection of a new tombstone and slab.

The most important consideration is to ensure that your family’s needs are met and budgeted for.  The more information you have now and decide on now, the less you will need to consider when you are grieving and the fewer regrets you may have in time to come.

For further information or for a confidential consultation please contact Sonja Smith Elite Funeral Group on 012 654 9902 , email us on or visit our website to find a branch closest to you. For emergencies please contact our 24-Hour number 079 895 4414.

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