What is a Burial Vault?

Mary McMahon

A burial vault is a structure which is designed to protect a coffin. Essentially, a burial vault acts like an outer enclosure for a coffin. These protective structures are rarely seen outside the United States, although American manufacturers have certainly tried very hard to encourage overseas cemeteries to adopt the use of burial vaults. The term “burial vault” can also refer to an underground tomb, especially outside of the United States.

A burial vault protects coffins and makes cemeteries safer for visitors by keeping the ground level.
A burial vault protects coffins and makes cemeteries safer for visitors by keeping the ground level.

The basic idea behind a burial vault is that it prevents a coffin from being crushed, which means that the ground over a grave will not subside over time as the coffin rots away and eventually flattens, along with its contents, under the pressure of the soil. Burial vaults are also resistant to the weight of heavy machinery from above. A similar concept, the grave liner, covers the top and sides of a coffin.

Ostensibly, the use of a burial vault makes a cemetery safer for visitors, by ensuring that the ground stays level. Cemeteries, however, encourage and sometimes even require the use of burial vaults for a much more practical reason: because they make maintenance much easier. Mowing lawns and performing other grave maintenance is much easier when the ground is even, as will be the case with burial vaults.

Companies which manufacture burial vaults often tout the “protection” provided by burial vaults, sometimes using language which is dangerously close to inaccurate. While a burial vault can prevent water seepage and slow the rate of decomposition, it will not put off the inevitable: the body in the coffin will eventually decay. Many companies make a range of burial vaults available in concrete, metal, and plastic, with various decorations designed to appeal to the emotions of family members, including rose-colored concrete for “the mother of the family,” or burial vaults with sports themes.

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Using a burial vault also increases the cost of a funeral substantially, as vaults can be equivalent in cost to a mid-range coffin. Some religions such as Judaism discourage the use of vaults because they slow the rate of decay and eventual return to the soil, and also because they conflict with the modest funeral practices encouraged by religious officials. Green cemeteries, which offer natural burial to consumers who are interested, also do not permit the use of burial vaults, for much the same reason.

People who do not wish to use burial vaults may want to research their local cemeteries to see which ones require vaults, so that they are prepared in the event of a death. Doing advance research and funeral planning can also save money and make things easier when the time comes, by relieving mourners of major decisions.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - They aren't environmentally friendly either. I mean, if every single person on the earth had a burial vault, we'd be tripping over them in the street. The coffins that people use these days are bad enough without encasing them in concrete as well.

I think it's unfortunate that funerals seem to be such big business. It gets in the way of people being able to choose sensible options when they are being encouraged to buy big when they are feeling vulnerable.


@MrsPramm - That seems like a fairly legitimate (although creepy) reason to have a burial vault. But I don't know if they should bother to have them today just to keep the grass level. It seems like a lot of expense and a lot of waste just to protect something that is going to rot away anyway.


I think originally they would use burial vaults because there was a real danger from grave robbers. I learned about it on a tour the last time I was in Europe.

There was no other way to get fresh cadavers in the old days and medical students and scientists or even artists needed to be able to use real bodies for their studies. So they would pay quite large amounts for corpses and it got so that they would barely be in the ground before they were dug up again. So the families started installing vaults in order to protect them.

According to the guide, eventually it got to the point where people were coming up with more creative ways to get bodies and the police had to stamp down on the practice very firmly.

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