Cremated remains can rest in a cemetery's columbarium. Photo: Flickr

Burial and cremation are the two most common options for laying loved ones to rest. You may know that cremation is less expensive, but there's more to know about cremation costs and cremation in general. Let's dive in.

For starters, cremation has been growing in popularity over the past few decades. According to data  presented by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), cremation was selected as the "method of disposition" only 3.6% of the time back in 1960. That rose to 26.2% in 2000, 40.6% in 2010, and a sizable 45.1% in 2013. That trajectory is generally expected to continue, with estimates calling for 55.8% in 2020 and 70.5% in 2030. In its latest quarterly report, Service Corporation International, "North America's leading  provider of deathcare products and services," noted  that its cremation rate rose from 50.7% in 2014 to 51.3% in 2015.

Why the shift? Well, cremation costs are a big part of the story because they can be significantly lower than traditional burial costs. Many also value cremation as a more environmentally friendly option, as it doesn't require the consumption of land for cemeteries and wood or steel for caskets. If the body is not embalmed, then embalming fluids such as formaldehyde are not used – though embalming can be part of the cremation process if the body needs to be preserved for a while, until a viewing at a service. (Cremation is not completely green, though, as it requires energy and produces emissions.)

Ashes can be stored in a container such as an urn or scattered in a meaningful place. Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau, Wikimedia Commons

Cremation costs

According  to the Cremation Research Council, the average cost of cremation a few years ago was $1,100. There are some important things to note about that price. For one thing, it's an average, and the cost can vary considerably by region and even by provider. (For example, a recent survey  of funeral homes based in or near Buffalo, N.Y. found direct cremation costs ranging from $475 to $2,585!) So though you probably won't be in the mood for it when the need arises, it's worth shopping around. Start by calling local funeral homes.

Next, know that the figures mentioned above are just for a direct cremation, which typically only includes disposing of the remains, although sometimes transport to and from the crematorium and the death certificate are also covered. Opting for a cremation doesn't necessarily mean that you'll forego a funeral or other extra expenses, so that cost is really just a starting point. It's easy to contrast that $1,100 figure with the 2012 national median  cost of a funeral with a burial of about $7,000, but that's not quite fair. The $7,000 includes the median cost of a hearse ($295) and a metal casket ($2,400), which don't factor into typical cremation services. The $7000 figure also includes the cost of transporting the body to the funeral home ($285) and the use of facilities for a funeral service ($495), which a cremation disposition can include. This shows the importance of shopping around and determining exactly what is covered in the price of a cremation.

Another consideration is where the remains will ultimately go. It can cost nothing to scatter ashes somewhere, but you might alternatively opt for a pricey decorative urn, or you might pay to house the ashes in a cemetery's columbarium.

Overall, though, most people are likely to save up to several thousand dollars with cremation instead of a burial.

Minimizing costs

If you want to keep costs to a minimum, you can -- in part by thinking outside the box a little. For example, you can have a direct cremation, have a memorial service in a home or your church, and then keep the ashes at home or scatter them in a meaningful spot. You may even get the cremation for free if the body is first donated  to and used by a medical school. (You can save a lot with burials, too, such as by burying the deceased in a shroud or a plain wooden box instead of a costly casket.)

It's smart to learn about funeral, burial, and cremation costs long before you need to make some final decisions -- and, ideally, to have family members discuss their preferences with each other. You can save yourself a lot of headache and money by being prepared.