Walk through most cemeteries and you’re bound to notice row after row of grave sites. Usually the site is marked by a memorial — a headstone or flat marker — where families can visit and place flowers. These denote in-ground burial plots, typical of what most people consider when they think about funerals and burial planning. But did you know that there are other types of burials, too? A question we often hear from families is, “Can you be buried above ground?” and the answer is yes, there are in fact a few different ways to have an above-ground burial.
Funeral homes and cemeteries offer a range of options for people and families to choose the type of service that suits their desires, their budgets, and which aligns with their cultural or religious values. In a similar way, cemeteries offer a range of internment options for people and families with different preferences and budgets, too. There are, of course, the traditional in-ground burial plots mentioned above. But in addition, there are also other burial options, including two types for being buried above ground:
Larger cemeteries often have what’s called a mausoleum. It’s also common to find mausoleums in urban cemeteries, where space for in-ground burials may be limited. Some older, traditional cemeteries might have mausoleums, too — a hundred years ago, it was more common for wealthy families to have a family mausoleum, either in a cemetery or on their own private estate.
Both mausoleums and columbariums have family options for being buried above ground, where multiple family members can be entombed in their own private building. If a family cannot afford or don’t want a private mausoleum or columbarium, there are public versions of both as well. Some cemeteries call them “mausoleum wall crypts” in the case of public mausoleums.
First, let’s get our terms correct. When people say “above-ground” burial, what they usually mean is entombment in a mausoleum. So, what’s a mausoleum? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it’s “a large tomb, usually a stone building with places for entombment of the dead above ground.” Mausoleums were traditionally built in a classic style with columns, although many newer structures are designed with a minimalist style to reflect the solemnity and stateliness of their purpose. Some are designed to blend in with nature, which helps create a feeling of serenity and peace for people who visit their loved ones.
In any case, mausoleums are for above-ground placement of a casket. Caskets are placed in crypts, which are made of heavy materials like concrete (or stone, in ancient times). Crypts are built, shelf-like, from floor to ceiling and along each interior wall of the mausoleum. Larger mausoleums can sometimes have crypts on 20 levels. Some crypts are built to house two caskets, which is an options for married couples who choose to be buried above ground.
For centuries, mausoleums have been used in cemeteries to house the remains of people who have passed away. Today, mausoleums are housed in climate-controlled buildings that protect crypts and visitors from extreme temperatures and ensure the area stays dry at all times. This is often very compelling to those planning their burial in advance, as well as loved ones.
In many ways, a columbarium is very much like a mausoleum. It’s a large, sturdy, above-ground structure built to house the remains of people who have passed away. It’s also usually built in a climate-controlled building where families and loved ones can visit and be protected from the elements. However, some can be outdoors, thoughthey all tend to ensure protection from wetness.
Both types of structures mark burials with some sort of brass or other metal plaque that denotes the name of the person who’s buried inside, much like a grave site marker or headstone. In both structures, visiting families can spend time reflecting or praying. They can usually leave flowers, too, unless the cemetery has rules about this.
Another similarity to a mausoleum is that in a columbarium, you can choose to have an individual burying space or a group of spaces where other family members can be buried, too. Please note that the term “burial” does technically mean the interment of remains underground but in today’s funerary language, the word “burial” has come to mean any type of internment or entombment – in other words, “burial” can take place underground (an “earth burial”) or you can be buried above ground.
The main difference is the type of “burial” that takes place inside each structure. In a mausoleum, the remains are placed in a casket and then the casket is placed in a crypt inside the mausoleum. In a columbarium, on the other hand, it is cremated remains that are entombed. So, whereas a mausoleum is a building for sheltering or housing caskets, a columbarium is a building for housing cremation urns.
Obviously, the crypts in a columbarium are much smaller than those built for caskets. In addition, the door on each crypt might have a granite front like the crypts in a mausoleum or it might have a glass front. The glass front allows visitors to view the crematory urn as well as any special items that have been selected to be placed there. Columbariums are also for people who wish to have a formal place to keep their or their family member’s cremains, where they can visit and reflect or pray.
Selecting the final resting place for a loved one or for yourself is deeply personal. Ultimately, the best choice will be made after some careful consideration and perhaps a few family discussions. But it’s good to know that if you should need some help or more information before making your selection, there are trusted resources for you out there. For more questions about types of burials or how to plan ahead, choose a cemetery near you below to speak with someone.
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