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.
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.
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.