Why Most Americans Choose Cremation Over Burials
The National Funeral Directors Association in the United States has predicted that by 2035 nearly 80% of Americans will choose cremation.
When the first American indoor cremation machine was opened in 1876 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the creator and operator, Francis LeMoyne, was harshly criticized by the Catholic Church. The new method of disposal was considered dangerous because it threatened traditional religious burial and society’s sense of morality and dignity.
Less than 100 years later – in 1963 – English writer Jessica Mitford penned the bestselling book The American Way of Death as a means of educating Americans about what she saw as the terrible commercialization of death, dying, and memorializing. After a sharp criticism of undertakers, cemeteries and other associated professions, she ended with a plea for cremation.
However, until 1970, according to figures from the Cremation Association of America, only about 5% of Americans chose the method. In 2020, more than 56% of Americans chose it.
So what has led to such a drastic change today? As an American historian who wrote The Last Great Necessity: The Cemeteries of American Historyfollowed almost 30 years later with Is the cemetery dead?I know that people choose cremation for different reasons, depending on their situation.
Here are three main ones:
1. Funerals and ground burials are expensive
Although numbers differ by source, families spend an average of more than $8,000 on funerals, ranging from $6,700 in Mississippi to just under $15,000 in Hawaii, according to the World Population Review.
That compares to $1,000 to $2,000 for a direct cremation, in which the crematorium or funeral director provides no service beyond the actual cremation of the body, as the Parting.com blog points out, which compares funeral and cremation prices. .
However, many survivors do not choose to have the least expensive cremation. The National Association of Funeral Directors noted that for a funeral with cremation, the median cost was over $6,000 — certainly a saving, but not the huge amount claimed by many websites.
Moreover, this is not new: direct cremation was much cheaper than a full burial in 1960 or 1990 as well.
2. Environmental costs
Cost clearly plays a role, but not a determining factor in such a rapid evolution of cultural practices. A second major factor is the environmental concerns associated with conventional internment, in which a body is placed in a coffin and the coffin is buried or entombed.
Alexandra Harker, a landscape architect working to improve America’s sustainable environments, described how concerns about such burials in the cemetery range from land use issues to methods of preparing and storing the body.
Some people are increasingly upset about the environmental costs of a funeral. A conventional burial requires the body to be embalmed, usually with formaldehyde; placed in a coffin, often made of hardwood or steel; then lowered in many cases into a concrete or steel grave or vault, with the surrounding lawn usually kept green by the use of pesticides. About 1.5 million burials or entombments means Americans use thousands of tons of copper, bronze, and steel, more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, and millions of feet of timber.
In a related concern, Harker notes that in a survey conducted by the Cremation Association of North America in 2008, 13% of people chose cremation due to concerns about scarcity of land in cemeteries. Cremation burials take up much less space than ground burials.
However, people are exploring the idea of a “green” burial in some new cemeteries where money earned from burials can be used to fund a “conservation easement” that protects the space so it will be there long after the internees became part of the land.
Conventional cremation burns the body using natural gas, which is not considered as environmentally sensitive as simply burying the body without using harmful chemicals among other materials. Natural gas emits particles and hard metals like mercury, especially in old crematoria.
3. Fewer Americans belong to a church
A third factor is the severing of people’s connection to religious institutions, which alienates them from the cemetery.
In 2021, only about 47% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, compared to 1999, when more than 70% of adults said they were affiliated with such a religious institution.
A growing number of young Americans in particular are not tied to the religious institution where their grandparents and parents might have had a service after their death or from where the funeral processions would have departed for the cemetery. The result is that they are more likely to opt for a body disposal method that gives them control of the remains.
Is cremation here to stay?
Will the cremation boom affect other elements of how Americans respond to deaths? Americans have long been accused of having “death anxiety,” a fear even of discussing death. For many families, the control that cremations give them has been accompanied by an increased willingness to mourn publicly, as evidenced by the rapid spread of roadside shrines, memorial tattoos and other “memorials of every day” which are used by a large number of families.
Most Americans are now comfortable with cremation as a practice. They love the power it gives them to bury the remains in the cemetery, keep them in their homes, or scatter them in forests, parks, oceans and streams.
Alternatives, such as green burial, will challenge this practice, but for the foreseeable future, Americans have joined much of the world in embracing cremation.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.