Half in US choose cremation as views on death change

Story highlights

  • In 2016, just over half (50.2%) of Americans chose cremation, while 43.5% opted for burial
  • Cost, geography, religion, tradition are all factors in the change

(CNN)The memorial service he arranged for a local jazz musician after the cremation is a point of pride for Stephen Kemp of Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, Michigan.

"I cleared out half of my chapel. They brought in all their bands and friends, and they played music," he said, recalling how the musician's friends arranged the deceased's alto, tenor and soprano saxophones on the wall around a photograph of the man. "The priest came in and gave a small eulogy, and they went out of the funeral home playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' "
    Next, the mourners went to a club in downtown Detroit to host a "jazz breakout," Kemp said. The entire day was "a wonderful tribute" to a man who had devoted his life to music.
    As a funeral director, Kemp believes, his job is to turn mourners' wishes into reality. In many cases, today's reality is cremation.
    In 2016, just over half (50.2%) of Americans chose cremation, while 43.5% opted for burial, according to a new report from the National Funeral Directors Association. Though the trend is new, this is not the first time the cremation rate exceeded the burial rate: 2015 was the first year these rates flipped, the report indicates, with 48.5% of Americans choosing cremation compared with 45.4% selecting burials.
    Liberated from tradition, memorial services have become more expressive and more unique.
    "It is real important for us as funeral directors to adapt to people's wishes," said Kemp, who is also a spokesman for the association. As he sees it, a good memorial service can create memories while reviving faded ones.

    Flames and ash

    Cremation's growing popularity bodes ill for funeral homes. In the United States, the number of funeral homes has fallen nearly 10% over a decade, from 21,495 in 2005 to 19,391 in 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association report.
    Jeff Jorgenson, founder of Elemental Cremation & Burial, a green funeral home in Seattle, said that when he got into the industry 11 years ago, "it was one of those things that we talked about as the 'cremation problem.' "
    "There isn't as much money in it, let's face it," Jorgenson said, so funeral directors tried their best to resuscitate people's interest in burials.
    It wasn't happening, though. The reasons people choose cremation are topped by saving money, with convenience coming in a distant second, according to the new report.
    "Whether we as an industry want to recognize that or embrace it or dance with it, that's up to the individual funeral director," Jorgenson said. "Things are changing."
    Unprepared though the industry may have been, efforts have been made. Nearly 30% of funeral homes in the United States operate their own crematories, and another 9.4% intend to open a crematory within the next five years, according to the report.
    Beyond the choices of "disposition" -- how a body is dealt with after death -- there are also changes in what services and experiences people want, Jorgenson said. "Things like a memorial service, a visitation or a viewing -- these are things that we're trying to figure out how to tie into these minimal services. And that's where the industry really struggles."
    With cremation, more people have begun hosting memorial services in their backyards and homes, Kemp said: "I've had funeral services in parks, in bars, in sporting arenas."
    Among the 53.6% of consumers who would choose cremation for themselves, the number who want a complete funeral with visitation has been declining over the past three years: from 26.6% in 2015 to 14.1% in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association report.
    "Whatever you want to do, we'll do it, as long as it's within the confines of the law," Jorgenson said.
    His Seattle-based company is and has been ahead of the curve for some time.

    Geographic differences

    Kemp said "the West Coast and some of the Northwest part of the US have always done more cremations than burials. And now it's becoming more popular all over the US."
    Cremation rates vary across the country, peaking in Washington state, where 76.4% of the dead were cremated during 2015, according to the report. Nevada followed with 75.6%, Oregon at 74.3%, Hawaii at 72.7% and Maine at 72.4%.
    Jorgenson said there are a few reasons why Washington, Nevada and Hawaii have high cremation rates, such as lack of religion, high education rates and transient populations.
    Educated people tend to opt for cremation, he said, and when it comes to transients, "those that die there don't want to be buried there." Additionally, some cultures "don't have a religious purpose for a big ceremony." In the end, cremation is simply a "practical way to handle your body," he said.
    "You take out the time constraints; you take out the cost; you take out all the song and dance -- I mean, to do a burial, you're looking at one or two days just in the arrangement process," Jorgenson said.
    The lowest rates for cremations are found in Mississippi, at 20.9%, trailed by Alabama at 25.7%, Kentucky at 27.3%, Louisiana at 29.7% and Tennessee at 31.3%.
    Kemp explains that "the South and Southeast still lag behind because they're a little more traditional, and the gravesites are probably a little bit less expensive than what you would see in some other geographical areas."
    High land costs combined with decreasing burial space mean cremation rates often top 70% in dense urban areas worldwide, according to the report.
    And though religion has played a role in Southern tastes in the past, it may have less impact going forward.

    Does faith matter?

    Cremation is the prevailing practice in places where the custom is ancient and most of the population adheres to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism or Jainism. Many Americans of Japanese descent, for example, routinely opt for cremation just as they might in Japan, where cremation is nearly universal.
    Other nations with high cremation rates -- 80% or higher -- include Taiwan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Sweden, South Korea, the Czech Republic and Thailand.
    Although nonreligious Americans are more likely than others to consider cremation, the proportion of Americans who feel that religion is an important part of a funeral has decreased from just under half in 2012 to slightly less than 40% in 2016, according to the report.
    While more than three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as faithful to one religion or another, fewer than 40% of Americans feel religion is an important part of a funeral.
    The breakdown of religion in the United States includes 22.8% who are unaffiliated, describing themselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular," according to a Pew Research Center study. Following non-Christian faiths are 5.9% of Americans, who include Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. The largest group is Christian: 70.6% of Americans. Of these, nearly 21% are Catholics, their large number influencing the shift toward cremation.
    The reason? In 1963, after centuries of insisting on full-body burials, the Vatican lifted the ban on cremation.
    "People still ask us if it is OK to be cremated," said Mary Ellen Gerrity, director of the Office of Cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. Apparently, it takes time to get used to a new idea. "We have a crematory on the property," she said.
    Scattering ashes (referred to as 'cremated remains' by the church) is not permitted under Catholic rules.
    Gerrity said, leaving the "cremated remains on the mantel at home, that's not a proper burial." In her diocese, and many others, people can place the cremated remains in a niche in the mausoleum.
    Along with cost, geography and religion, Jorgenson said, another important element is tradition.

    The big three options

    "Everyone in my family has been cremated," Jorgenson said. "And I'm not gonna be any different, right?"
    Under the law in most states, he said, there are only three things you can do with your body: burial, cremation and medical donation.
    "Cryogenic is not a thing, not legally," Jorgenson said. For example, "space burials," touted by one company, require cremation first, and a Georgia-based company that creates an artificial reef out of your remains also relies on cremated remains.
    "Everything else is a variation on one of those three things ... marketing spin," he said.
    Some states have begun to allow alkaline hydrolosis or "resomation," a kind of wet cremation process if you will, with a similar result where all you get back is the bone, Jorgenson said. He hopes Washington laws change in time so resomation can be his own choice.
    "You basically make an alkali solution at temperature and pressure, put the body in for a couple of hours, and it reduces the soft tissues to a liquid," he said. Bones made brittle are processed, he added, so "it's not like you have a cartoon skeleton at the end." Compared to cremation and burial, he said, resomation has a lower carbon footprint, is cleaner and has significantly less environmental impact. The only downside is that resomation is legal in only 10 states.
    Still, it represents a shift in thinking about death and many believe we have the baby boomers to thank for that.

    The importance of planning

    "I am no expert on death trends, but I do know from the growing popularity of death cafes and the emergence of death doulas that death is coming out of the closet, if you will," said Ashton Applewhite, author and an anti-ageism activist.
    Applewhite believes people want to be more in touch, at the deepest level, with processes "that were once not industrialized and not hidden out of sight." It's like slow food, she said. As they revise their views of old age, baby boomers will also take a more clear-sighted look at disposition.
    "Because there are so many of us, we occupy a unique place in demographic history. We do have a sense of being able to shape the culture. That is arrogant, but it also is legitimate," she said.
    Kemp, who counts himself among baby boomers, said, "A growing number of people are coming in and saying, 'This is what I want, and I don't want anyone to change it.' "
    As he sees it, families have become less nuclear, and parents would rather set things up so their kids, who may live at a distance, won't have the burden.
    "I often caution them to please let your children know what you're doing," he said. "In some situations, things have been set up by a parent and then the children find out and they say, 'What? Mom wanted to be cremated?' "
    When it comes to disposition, Jorgenson finds that most people "leave it for their family to figure out."
    "About 30% of people out there will prearrange some form of their disposition beforehand," he said. This figure is based on prepayment data, he said, and it has been consistent over the past couple of decades. "They tend to be pretty uptight. I mean that in the nicest possible way," Jorgenson said, laughing. "They're people like engineers and attorneys and very practical people."

    Talk about it ... and keep talking

    "If your mom has never said what she wanted, you might feel bad about putting her in a cardboard box and cremating her," Applewhite said.
    Another reason to have a recurring conversation about what you think you want while dying and after death is so that "your family doesn't have to guess," she said.
    "There's a Mexican saying that the appearance of the bull changes when you enter the ring," she said. "The longer we live, the less afraid of dying -- not the more afraid -- we become.
    "If you think about the terribly gloomy and negative and ageist lens and youth-oriented lens through which we look at aging ... we project, 'Oh, my God, it must be awful to have to use a walker; it must be awful to be bent over,' whatever it happens to be.
    "It's actually the knowledge that time is short that helps people live in the moment," Applewhite said.
    As an activist, she hopes to provoke more awareness of the "powerful and beautiful aspects to aging." She also wants people to know that their "anxieties are way out of proportion."
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    "We're eventually going to die, but just looking makes it instantly less scary," Applewhite said. "The more we talk about it, the less afraid we are and the more we can involve whoever we want -- friends or family -- and ... orchestrate the kind of death we think might be fantastic."