New Cremation Trends Include Taking The Ashes Home

The key changes that cremation has caused in American funerals, as I explained last week, affect the two main segments of the funeral industry. First, ceremonies can be curtailed and no longer need to be held under the supervision of a funeral director, and second, the body no longer has to go to a cemetery.

These funeral home and cemetery effects are not directly related. The ashes can be interred at a cemetery whether or not there was a ceremony, and you can hold rituals regardless of burial plans. Only limited data exist to tell us what consumers are actually doing, because academic researchers do not conduct many studies of funeral purchases (and none recently), and the funeral industry tends to report only partial data—fragments rather than the whole picture. Through the studies already reviewed and some more to come, I will try to create an accurate picture of the overall impact of cremation.

Continuing, then, to build this data puzzle, we turn again to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) for a few more pieces.

CANA, as noted previously, provides complete data on annual cremations performed in North America based on official vital statistics reports.

Although consumer research does not appear to be a CANA priority in recent years, back in the 1990s they did conduct one study that gives a useful benchmark for where things stood before the recent decades of accelerating change.

The CANA Special Report: 1996/97 Cremation Container, Disposition and Service Survey reported on a survey of 241 crematories which asked the crematory operators to provide details of 50 consecutive cremations. They were also asked the total number of cremations they performed during the previous year, which was used to create a weighted value proportionate to the 492,434 cremation performed in the U.S. in 1996. Results had a 90 percent confidence level of being within a deviation of about 5 percent.1

Following are results of the 1997 CANA survey:2

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1990-2015: FAMIC Survey On Preferences For Cremation And Funeral Services

Study Of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization And Memorialization was begun in 1989 as a joint project of numerous funeral/cemetery industry organizations under the umbrella of the Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC). The first survey was conducted in 1990 by Wirthlin Worldwide and results were published in 1991, with followups by Wirthlin and then Harris Interactive about every 4-5 years since. The study’s purpose has been to gauge consumer attitudes about the industry as a whole, about the people who work in the industry, and about “ritualization and memorialization” services and products.1 In the early years of the survey, I believe showing changes in consumer attitudes was a primary emphasis of the reports. Recently, however, as I explained in the previous post, in recent FAMIC reports, historical data are not included for certain questions and information on related trends has thus vanished.

But by pulling data from several FAMIC reports we can still find useful information on how consumer opinions about funeral practices have changed as cremation becomes more prevalent.

Subjects: US adults in geographic, gender, and ethnic proportions intended to represent the general population. 1990: 1000 (635 age 40+); 1995: 1001 (584 age 40+); 1999: 1002 (615 age 40+); 2004: 961 (961 age 40+); 2010: 858 (507 age 40+); 2015: 1543 (1238 age 40+). Oversampling of several ethnic groups was conducted to collect data on certain questions. For sets of questions that qualified the respondent, such as “Were you involved in selecting a provider?” the number of valid responses to subsequent items may have been fewer than the total participants because only those who said “yes” to the first would have been asked. The method of the survey changed in 2015 when it was brought online; in previous years subjects were interviewed by telephone.2

Main findings

Between 1990 and 2015, as measured in the FAMIC studies, consumer sentiment regarding cremation has changed 180 degrees from negative to positive—from 61 precent unfavorable to 65 percent favorable.

Evidence for the reversal is most telling in the reasons people now give for choosing cremation: whereas in 1990 there were a couple of main rationales centered on the financial and land-saving advantages of cremation, now there are many. This indicates a tradition so familiar that consumers now see many advantages in it.

Respondents continue to feel very favorably about the people working in the funeral business, and most say they would not want to change anything about the funeral experience. However, perceptions of the value of funeral ceremonies have declined somewhat.

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FAMIC Data On Consumer Preferences

Why do people choose cremation? If you have to make funeral arrangements, you might wonder what the differences are between various options, and also what most other people are thinking when they select one over the other. If you are in the funeral business, you’re probably also interested in these questions.

They don’t have simple answers, because they lead to many other questions—which I allude to in describing the scope of this project. I may well expend another 100,000 words digging into the differences between all the funeral choices.

As to questions such as what consumers think and whether they are happy with their choices, we need to pull together disparate research because there are no comprehensive consumer opinion data studies, unfortunately.

About every five years since 1989, the funeral industry has hired a public opinion research firm to survey consumer attitudes. In the 1990s the research partner was Wirthlin Worldwide, but since Wirthlin was purchased by Harris Interactive about 15 years ago the latter (I believe) has been the survey partner ever since. While this would seem to be a great opportunity to understand their customers, as we saw with the 1986 study (and, maybe, the 1996 study), sometimes the industry seems averse to certain research topics.

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Cremation’s Rapid Recent Increase In The United States

During the early decades of the modern rebirth of cremation that began in the late 1800s, the U.S. had more crematories, and performed many more cremations, than in Great Britain, even though the overall U.S. rate was only a couple percentage points relative to annual deaths. In the 1940s, however, cremation took off over there in a way it never had here. In 1967, cremation was used in the majority of deaths in Great Britain, while the U.S. cremation rate was still only 4 percent.1

Cremation increased to account for about a quarter of all death dispositions by the end of the 1990s, at which time the historian of American cremation, Stephen Prothero, observed that the trend had “flattened out.”2.

A 2003 report by the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) showed that the U.S. cremation rate grew from 6 percent in 1975 to 19.6 percent in 1995, and reached 26.2 percent in 2001, for an average annual increase of about 0.8 percent. CANA projected the cremation rate would reach 43.6% by 2025.3

But the increase increased: A 2012 CANA report showed that cremation was actually used in 33.8 percent of U.S. deaths in 2006 and would grow to 42.2 percent in 2011 (see below for chart of annual rate increases).4

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