Faced with the choice of burial or cremation, Americans increasingly are choosing cremation.
Cremations have tripled since 1985. By 2013, 45 percent of deaths in the United States ended in cremation, according to the most recent data collected by the Cremation Society of North America and provided to Money Talks News.
According to a new report by the National Funeral Directors Association, a greater number of people will opt for cremation than burial in 2015.
CANA’s figures on cremation show the rapid increase in recent years and suggest that the practice will predominate in 2018:
- 1988: 15 percent
- 1998: 24 percent
- 2008: 36 percent
- 2018: nearly 51 percent (projected)
Revival of an ancient practice
The tradition of cremation, applying high heat to human or animal remains to reduce them to basic chemical compounds, is hardly new. The oldest evidence of the practice, found at Lake Mungo in Australia, is 50,000 years old.
Cremation in Europe is believed to have begun in the Stone Age, according to CANA. It was used in ancient Greece and Rome until displaced by Christian burial customs. Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest and Canada used cremation, and it has long roots in Asia, for example in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism.
The growth of cremation in the United States began in the late 1800s with the invention of modern crematories, largely in answer to public health concerns. In 1913, there were 52 crematories in North America, compared with 2,803 in operation in the United States alone in 2013.
Cost tops the list of driving forces behind the surge in cremation, but environmental concerns and changing religious beliefs also play a role.
1. Cost savings
Cost is one of the biggest reasons for Americans’ embrace of cremation. Funerals are expensive. The NFDA’s most recent survey of costs puts the median price of an adult funeral at $7,045. That includes embalming and a casket, but not the cemetery’s charges. Cremation costs about a third of that.
(Read 15 Ways to Have a Memorable Funeral on the Cheap for a breakdown of funeral costs).
DFS Memorials, a U.S. network of 85 providers, claims to offer lower costs for simple, no-frills cremation services. This “direct cremation,” DFS explains,
… is the industry term for a very basic cremation where no prefuneral services are provided. The deceased is simply collected, cremated and the remains returned to the family.
Direct cremation can be obtained in most U.S. metro areas for $500–$800, the company says.
Don’t succumb to funerary up-sell, which is said to be common in the funeral business. For example, there’s no need for embalming with cremation. Some funeral directors offer or even urge embalming with a cremation, according to Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation funeral director and blogger at Confessions of a Funeral Director.
2. Shift toward secularism
Burial is closely tied to religious tradition. The Religion & Public Life Project by Pew Research reports a growth in the number of Americans claiming no affiliation with a particular faith. Today, 16.1 percent of Americans are unaffiliated, but among those ages 18-29, roughly 25 percent claim no faith ties.
3. Changing church rules
Some faiths are relaxing or changing their traditions to include cremation. Some churches have even begun to plan columbaria, a vault with niches for storing the ashes of the deceased, on church property, according to the CANA 2014 report.
4. Concern for land preservation
Many Americans choose cremation because it preserves land, says the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Cremation lets you keep — or discard — as many pieces of a traditional funeral as you wish, because it eliminates the need for a speedy burial for health and legal reasons. Families and friends have time and leeway to organize memorial services, and they often choose to hold gatherings at home or in other less-formal surroundings instead of in funeral homes or religious institutions.
“You don’t need to purchase a grave lot (although you still can if you wish), you don’t need to purchase a vault and you don’t need to pay for the opening and closing of the grave,” writes Wilde, the mortician blogger.
6. America’s spread-out families
When most families lived and stayed near one another, burials brought people together. Family members were buried near one another, and descendants could visit ancestors interred nearby. Today, we move more frequently and families are dispersed, breaking down burial traditions that are tied to certain places. The remains from cremation can move with family members wherever they go. Or they can be scattered at locations unconnected to a cemetery.
6. Environmental concerns
Cremation is relatively gentler on the environment.
“Embalming fluids, for example, are known to contaminate groundwater with mercury, arsenic and formaldehyde,” writes Encyclopedia Brittanica. Burials with coffins involve large amounts of chemicals, plastics, metal, wood and concrete, and they require much more land.
To be sure, cremation has some impact as well. Each cremation requires enough fuel to fill an SUV tank and, depending on the quality of a crematory’s air scrubbers, “primary emissions are made up of carbon monoxide and fine soot, but sulfur dioxide and trace metals may also be produced,” writes the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance. Critics also cite the potential release of mercury from silver amalgam dental fillings.
Chemical cremation, also known as “green cremation” may prove the answer. Explains the Donated Body Program at University of California, Los Angeles:
“Water, alkali (solution), heat and pressure are gently circulated over the body, causing a reaction that begins and completes the Bio Cremation process. The sterile process prevents the release of emissions into the atmosphere and helps protect the earth’s natural resources.
Creative handling of cremains
Cremation is encouraging new traditions and countless new ways of storing or disposing of remains, also known as cremains. You can have your ashes exploded in fireworks and fired from shotgun shells, pressed into vinyl records, made into jewelry and stored in a variety of ways. Here are a few options:
(States have different burial and cremation laws, which you can check here: Nolo.)
Family plots: Urns of ashes typically can be buried or housed above-ground in family plots along with the burial remains of other family members. You will find all manner of urns and memorabilia available, with themes that range from religious to sports.
Scattering ashes: Huffington Post’s Ashes to Ashes report describes rules and restrictions for scattering ashes. “Wildcat scattering” in disregard of rules is popular in public spaces, it notes. (The report uses graphics to illustrate cremation trends; its numbers may vary from ours because of differences in sources and age of the data cited.)
Columbarium niches and urn gardens: Cemeteries and memorial parks and gardens offer homes for cremation ashes, including columbaria (indoor or outdoor walls with niches for housing urns of ashes) and burial (interment, in the language of funeral directors) of ashes, above or below ground.
Ocean reefs: Eternal Reefs, a Decatur, Ga., company, incorporates cremains into “an environmentally safe cement mixture designed to create artificial reef formations.” For $2,495 to $6,995, your “reef ball” is placed at one of several locations along the Eastern seaboard or Gulf Coast to become a home for fish, coral and other marine life, the company says (read its description of the procedure). Families can take part in the casting of the reef ball and can attend the placement of the reef ball at sea aboard a chartered boat. Larger balls can hold cremains from two or more people at the cost of $25o extra each. Pet cremains are included free of charge.
Urns: You can spend a few dollars or several thousand on urns, boxes and other objects for keeping cremation remains at home. Some urns even include automated slide show displays or narrated videos, with a remote control.
Foreverence, a funeral products company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, uses 3-D printing to allow customers to design urns in the shape of a favorite musical instrument or car, and even to “create a lifelike bust of the deceased,” according to this Associated Press article.
Wilde, the blogger, shows a customized cremation urn shaped like a male figure in this video (at 3:49). The head holds ashes, and its face can be customized to resemble the departed.
Jewelry and keepsakes: To keep a loved one close, you can choose among pendants and jewelry — cylinders, crosses, hearts and charms (angels, flowers, sports themes and memorial diamonds, for example) — to wear or display under a glass dome.
Memorial diamonds made from cremains cost around $3,000 and up, according to U.S. Funerals Online, which says:
A memorial diamond is an artificially created diamond made using the carbon DNA extracted from the cremated remains of a human being. The natural crystal synthesis that produces diamonds in nature is simply replicated in a laboratory with increased speed.
What decisions has your family made about final rites and burials? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.