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A sea change: Why are “most Americans today choosing cremation”?

Genesis 3:19

More than 30 years ago, my brother, a Catholic priest, was the victim of something that he never discovered during his life. And he would have been very angry had he known it.

His dictate about a practice in the Catholic Church was ignored in a devious way, but one that I now think was the right approach.

It had to do with cremation and bringing the remains into the church for a funeral — but more on that later.

To place this in context, you have to realize how adamant the Catholic Church was against cremation in its history — only to change their tune more than a century later,

When the first U.S. indoor cremation machine was opened in 1876 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the creator and operator, Francis LeMoyne, was severely criticized by the Catholic Church. The new method of disposal was viewed as dangerous because it threatened traditional religious burial and society’s sense of morality and dignity.

David Sloane, “Most Americans today are choosing cremation … ,”

Religious News Service, August 11, 2021

Today, however, at least 56 percent of Americans who pass away reject the traditional funeral and are opting for cremation. In fact, the National Funeral Directors Association in its 2018 Cremation and Burial Report said that by 2035, approximately 80 percent of the people in the U.S. will choose cremation.

In 1963, when an English writer, Jessica Mitford, wrote a scathing analysis of the commercialization of dying in her best seller, “The American Way of Death,” only five percent selected cremation as their means of burial.

Today, that has risen to more than half for a variety of reasons.

Cost is the driving factor

The reality is that the costs of funerals are one of the major factors. The truth is that the funeral industry is driving itself out of business — or at least out of the most lucrative parts of the business.

So often today when I read an obituary, it will say, “At the request of [the deceased], no viewing will take place and internment will be private.” That means that an area in which the funeral directors made money, the viewing that includes an expensive rental of the funeral home, is now history in many cases.

The directors can still preside over a cremation, but they make a small fraction compared to a traditional burial,

Although figures differ depending on the source, families are spending an average of over US $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 with $1,000 to $2,000 for a direct cremation, in which the crematory or funeral director doesn’t provide any services beyond the actual cremation of the body, as the blog, which compares the pricing of funerals and cremations, points out.

David Sloane, Religious News Service, August 11, 2021

Plummeting membership in religious organizations

Another major reason is that the people who pushed for traditional burials were the religious organizations, and in America, they have become anathema to a large segment of the population,

A third factor is the disruption of people’s connection to religious institutions, which leads them away from the cemetery.

In 2021, only about 47% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, compared with 1999, when over 70% of adults stated they were affiliated with one such religious institution.

A growing number of younger Americans in particular are not tied to the religious institution where their grandparents and parents may have had a service after their death or from which funeral corteges would have left for the cemetery. The result is that they are more likely to opt for a method of disposing the body that places them in control of the remains.

David Sloane, Religious News Service, August 11, 2021

As Baby Boomers continue to pass away at record numbers, this is just going to increase because younger Americans en masse have rejected organized religion, but not God or a higher power.

The environmental cost

Others simply dislike the entire process of embalming a body so that it can last for centuries in a conventional cemetery.

A second major factor is environmental concerns related to a conventional internment, in which a body is placed in a casket and the casket is buried or entombed.

Alexandra Harker, a landscape architect working to improve America’s sustainable environments, has described how concerns about such burials in the cemetery range from issues about the use of the land to the methods by which the body is prepared and stored.

Some people are increasingly upset by the environmental costs of a burial. A conventional burial necessitates the body being embalmed, usually with formaldehyde; placed in a casket, often made of hardwood or steel; then lowered in many cases into a concrete or steel grave liner or vault, with the surrounding lawn typically kept green by the use of pesticides. Roughly 1.5 million burials or entombments means Americans are using thousands of tons of copper, bronze and steel, over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and millions of feet of wood.

David Sloane, Religious News Service, August 11, 2021

Americans are now “comfortable with cremation”

The major change, however, is that Americans have come to accept cremation as a reasonable alternative to a traditional burial. It is both a philosophical and a practical acceptance, and it is likely to change the future of funeral directors in America,

Most Americans are now comfortable with cremation as a practice. They like the power that it gives them to inter the remains in the cemetery, keep them at home, 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.

David Sloane, Religious News Service, August 11, 2021

I have chosen to be cremated, but as I approach my 76th birthday, I realize that I need to pay for it now. I have hesitated to do so because I had moved from Pennsylvania, but once I move back later this year, I will do that.

As for my brother

Back in the 1990s, the Catholic Church approved of cremation but did not allow the remains to be in the church during the service. A friend of our family passed away and was cremated, but my brother told the family that they could not bring the remains into the church.

A friend of the family, however, who thought that was wrong, carried the fairly large container into the church. Few knew what was in it, but I did. It was the remains of the family friend, and she was buried in the Catholic Church as was her wish.

My brother never learned about this. I was tempted to tell him late in his life, but opted not to do so. He was taking blood pressure meds, among many others.

The Catholic Church changed that policy and now allows the remains, although some of the right-wing bishops probably still forbid it.

While the Old Testament is more fiction than fact, these words still resonate with me,

For you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.

Genesis: 3:19

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