Burial is what so many think of when we imagine what happens to a person after they die. Yet few of us realise how very expensive burial is, or understand why.

There are many reasons why somebody will choose burial for their body after death.  Burial is a very important part of the death rituals for many cultures and faiths, especially if there is a belief in the resurrection of the body of the person who has died. Some people simply don’t like the idea of being cremated. Sometimes, there are family traditions or pressures associated with burial as a method. Or you may own an existing family plot. 

If burial is important to you, it can be a big shock to discover that, no matter how much you’ve tried to keep costs down for your funeral, you’re still faced with a bill of many thousands of dollars for a burial plot.

How much is it?

In Canberra, using Gungahlin Cemetery as an example, the minimum price for a burial plot (as of January 2024) starts at around $7,500 if you choose a natural burial, then jumps to just under $10,000 for a traditional burial with a simple plaque in the lawn. This is considerably more expensive than cemeteries in the region, which can be several thousands cheaper, depending on the site. Depending on the cemetery, the fee may only cover the land itself. You may also be required to pay a grave preparation fee (essentially digging the site). If you wish to have a memorial plaque or headstone, that cost also needs to be allowed for.

In comparison, cremation at the public crematorium in Gungahlin can be just under $1200. Of course, if you wish to purchase a plaque or other permanent memorial site, that will add to the cost.

Why is it so much?

In Australia, cemeteries generally have what are called ‘perpetual leases’. The definition of ‘perpetual’ may differ from state to state, and even cemetery to cemetery. However, generally speaking, we operate on the principle of only one person per gravesite for a very long time.

Let’s say the initial ‘perpetual lease’ is only 25 years (generally the minimum in Australia). The plot and the area around it will need to be maintained for at least that period of time. In very simplistic terms, if your plot cost $5000, over 25 years that’s only $200 per year. This has to pay to keep the access to the site clear, the grass mown, and any plaque or headstone in good condition. In Canberra, ‘perpetuity’ is currently defined as ‘forever’, so your fee has to go a long way.

Of course, once a cemetery is full, the maintenance still needs to take place, even if there are no new fees being paid. So, maintaining a cemetery is a very expensive business.

What happens overseas?

In many countries, you may only have the rights to a gravesite for as few as 10 years. After that time, the family may either renew the plot or disinter their person and collect the bones for storage in an ossuary.  In Episode 689: Digging up the Bones of podcast series This American Life, there is a segment called Family Plot’ which explores this experience. Producer Lina Misitzis travels to Greece with her family to exhume the bones of her dead grandmother. 

What if I have a family plot?

Many families purchase multiple plots at the time of a patriarch or matriarch’s death, so other members of the family can be buried together. Another option is for two people (for example, a husband and wife) to be buried in the same plot. In both cases, the cost of the plot is paid upfront and can be a great saving for the family members who require burial in later years.

However, it may still cost you several thousand dollars to have the gravesite excavated and prepared for a new casket.

Can I choose a cheaper, more regional location to save money?

Some cemeteries have requirements that people who are buried there must have a connection to the area. If your family or friends want to visit the gravesite regularly, location may be important. They may not be able to visit if you’re too far away.

Can I use my property for burials?

There are, unsurprisingly, many rules about whether you can bury somebody on your own property.  It is possible in some situations, if you have five or more hectares of land. However, the cost of meeting the requirements may end up being more expensive and onerous than arranging for burial at a public site. For more information, please read Burial on Private Land by NSW Health. 

How can I pay for all this?

If burial is something that is very important to you, you may want to consider starting a fund to allow for the cost. We’ve written two articles to help you plan your finances:

Further reading:

This Tenure Discussion Paper  to the ACT Government by the ACT Public Cemeteries Authority is genuinely interesting, if you’re fascinated by all the factors that impact the design and choices in our cemeteries. Tenure of gravesites is also discussed in Pathways towards sustainable burial and cremation options for NSW. The Institute for Sustainable Futures prepared this report for Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW.

Key takeaways:

  • Research your preferred burial options now
  • Remember to allow for the cost of preparing a pre-paid plot