1986: Differences Between Burial And Cremation Arrangements

Differences In Final Arrangements Between Burial And Cremation As The Method Of Body Disposition examined the funeral and burial arrangements selected by a national sample of customers who chose cremation as the form of bodily disposition, compared to choices made by customers selecting whole-body burial. The project produced interesting results, and is notable for focusing on funeral purchases, which is a rarely-studied topic, as well as for its target audience. Working under the sponsorship of the funeral industry, the researchers were able to collect data from funeral home and crematory customers who were next of kin or very close survivors, whose ages were typical of such customers—which is not often possible for research into funeral practices.1

Subjects: 703 adults who were either next of kin or the closest survivor of people whose arrangements were handled by funeral homes and crematoriums in the cities listed here within the previous 10 to 30 months. Respondents were: 496 females, average age 58.7 years; 207 males, average age 60 years. 470 were bereaved of people who were cremated, and 233 of people buried. Subjects were in six metropolitan areas: Phoenix, Arizona; San Diego, California; Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Kansas City, Missouri; and Seattle, Washington.

Main findings

Nearly 40% of cremation cases were accompanied by no ceremony at all (19.8%), or a memorial service at a later date (18.7%).

Only 36.4% of cremation dispositions were followed by a social gathering, versus 62.7% of whole-body burials.

Over 57% of cremated remains were either buried (40.4%) or placed in a niche (16.8%).

Neither saving money, nor saving land, nor convenience were cited more as reasons for making the choice of cremation than for the choice for whole-body burial.

Embalming was used in only 14.3% of cremation cases, versus 64.4% of whole-body burial cases; on questions about the importance of the body in final decision-making, cremation customers rated it significantly less important than did burial customers.

The study authors seemed to intend a broader survey than was ultimately performed.

Study detail

Titled “Project Understanding: A National Survey Dedicated to Developing a Better Understanding of the Loss Experience,” the 1985-1986 survey reported by Dawson and colleagues in the Omega journal was sponsored by the funeral industry and conducted by gerontology and psychology researchers from the University of Notre Dame.

Participating funeral homes and crematoriums were coordinated through the National Research and Information Center (NRIC). For this project, the funeral trade association members of the NRIC (see further discussion in last section below) presumably encouraged their own company members to participate. The project was thus unique in its national scope, its large sample of cremation customers, and its access to next of kin or closest survivors who would likely be knowledgeable about if not responsible for the arrangements purchased. Cases where the deceased was a child or young adult, or where no close survivor was available, were ruled out. The funeral arrangements examined thus were all of a “normal” nature and might be considered fairly representative of the population as a whole.

Surveys and cover letters were mailed to over 1700 potential subjects, with follow up and reminder mailings, and after removing incomplete surveys and those that did not fit the criteria, 703 were left for the study.

The report in Omega does not describe the questionnaire in detail, but in addition to the cover letter it appears to have inquired about various aspects of the arrangements purchased, related activities, and items present at the services. Survey data includes:

  • Demographic and other information about the respondent and the deceased
  • Funeral and memorial products that were part of the final arrangements
  • Ceremonies and disposition activities
  • Influence and importance of different factors on selection of arrangements


Demographic and other findings not detailed in the tables below

Respondents were 93.6% white, 61.0% Protestant, 21.8% Catholic.

Detailed religious characteristics were not reported, but Catholics were 18% of cremation respondents and 17% of the cremated deceased.

Cremation was associated with higher levels of education, employment, and income.

Memorial services at a later date were held in less than 15% of all cases (but 18.7% of cremation cases).

Cremated Remains Disposition: from survey responses

  • 40.4% Burial of Ashes
  • 28.7% Scattering
  • 21.5% Ashes Taken Home
  • 16.8% Cemetery Niche
  • 3.8% Ashes Not Claimed

Tables of Results

Characteristics of respondent for burial and cremation cases
Religious Activities 1-2 times/week 42.9 23.0 -19.9
Married 30.9 37.7 6.8
Widowed 57.5 46.4 -11.1
Reporting on Death of Spouse 58.4 46.6 -11.8
Single, Divorced, Separated 10.3 14.9 4.6
Characteristics of deceased in burial and cremation cases
Married 65.7 53.0 -12.7
Lived Alone 13.7 20.4 6.7
Lived Group/Nursing Home 12.0 16.4 4.4
Lived w/ Spouse/Other Family 71.7 59.1 12.6
Selection of various services/items for burial and cremation cases
Ceremony-Funeral Home 67.0 33.2 -33.8
Ceremony-Church 44.2 29.8 -14.4
Ceremony-Chapel (cemetery/crematory) 15.5 12.6 -2.9
Ceremony-Graveside or at Cremation 66.1 21.9 -44.2
Memorial Service-later date 6.4 18.7 12.3
No Ceremony held 1.7 19.8 18.1
Monument/Marker at disposition 82.4 41.7 -40.7
No Monument/Marker used 1.3 21.7 20.4
Body Embalmed 64.4 14.3 -50.1
Visitation w/ Viewing of Body 75.5 22.3 -53.2
Body Present, No Viewing 9.4 4.5 -4.9
Visitation, Body Absent 2.1 10.9 8.8
Private Viewing Only 11.2 10.9 -0.3
Social Gathering After Disposition 62.7 36.4 -26.3

Regarding the following two tables: The authors indicate the “Influence” questions were asked early in the survey, while “Importance” section was near the end—probably to capture nuances in how respondents thought about their decisions in retrospect, and after consideration of other ideas the survey might have stirred up.

Mean Influence on Final Arrangements Decisions, Rating 1=No Influence to 5=Very Much Influence
Preference of Deceased 3.74 4.12 0.38
Preference of Respondent 3.70 3.46 -0.24
Religious Tradition 3.27 1.98 -1.29
Family Tradition 3.31 2.14 -1.17
Funeral Home Personnel 2.05 1.42 -0.63
Cemetery/Crematory Personnel 1.78 1.34 -0.44
Clergy/Religious Counselor 2.34 1.66 -0.68
Keeping Expenses Low 2.31 2.14 -0.17
Mean Importance to Final Arrangements Decisions, Rating 1=Not At All Important to 5=Extremely Important
Preference of Deceased 4.27 4.58 0.31
Preference of Close Survivors 3.66 3.54 -0.12
Social/Community Tradition 2.52 1.96 -0.56
Cost of Arrangements 3.47 3.29 -0.18
Convenient/Efficient Arrangements 3.64 3.35 -0.29
Appearance of Body at Death 3.77 2.60 -1.17
Deterioration of Body After Death 3.33 2.51 -0.82
Concern for Use of Land 2.69 2.58 -0.11

Additional observations

Looking back from over three decades’ of history, the 1986 consumer responses do not seem surprising, except perhaps in the sense that trends that have now reached full fruition were evident even then: cremation customers placing less importance on “tradition”; cremation associated with fewer ceremonies from funeral providers, and perhaps fewer ceremonies of all types; less emphasis on the deceased’s body among cremation customers; and less “influence” or “importance” overall expressed by cremation customers in the consideration of final arrangements.

Out of all the many results of this study, that latter point may have been the most telling. Not even “saving money” or “saving land” were game-changing factors in the choice of cremation. There actually weren’t any strong factors to differentiate the choice from that of whole-body burial. Convenience/efficiency was marked as more important by the burial group.

It almost makes one think that our current cremation trend might not have come about because of a major shift in thinking about life or death. Could it be that certain considerations that drove past burial practices no longer hold true, and cremation is a reversion to some sort of mean? Oh, that’s probably just crazy talk.

I may refer back to these results in future posts to discuss changes in American funeral preferences.

One oddity of the study worth noting is that it appears to have been the first part of a larger project planned, but never carried out, by the researchers. (I did an extensive search through the various journal archives for work by Dawson and each of the colleagues and found nothing more from the “Project Understanding” research.)

They certainly framed this report in a way that promised, at minimum, some analysis of how cremation was affecting mourners. In the report preamble section they noted conflicting study results and questions regarding the functions of funeral rituals: Some writers had suggested cremation was changing funerals for the worse, and some warned that simplified funerals with less social involvement might have “negative effects on survivors and society as a whole”—an ominous warning.

The authors therefore listed several directions for research to answer these questions:

… what other kinds of final arrangements are included when cremation is employed; what factors might influence the choice of cremation; satisfaction with the final arrangements; and the effects these arrangements might have on grief resolution and other bereavement factors.

But only the first two questions were addressed.

That is unfortunate, and it was probably a decision that both the authors and the NRIC sponsors regretted afterward. A Web search identifies the NRIC as affiliated with the National Funeral Directors Association. The authors of this study describe NRIC as a non-profit sponsor “funding research concerning death, grief, and funeral services.” Data from the survey includes much about funeral and cremation purchases, but also data about flowers and monument purchases. These aspects of the project indicate the NRIC was a consortium likely including multiple funeral trade associations and other types of organizations. Although the NRIC is defunct, in later years another research-oriented organization called the Funeral and Memorial Information Council arose within the industry with a similar concept and supporting organizations.

For funeral companies in 1986, information about how cremation was affecting their customers would have been invaluable: to better serve their customers, to make decisions about the future of their businesses, and to understand the changes that were to overcome their industry during the subsequent decades. Clearly, the researchers were interested in knowing how new funeral practices were affecting the bereaved.

Apart from the Harvard Study, which was able to locate mourners through the Boston department of vital statistics, and a small number of others, virtually all research into funeral choices is conducted through university populations, which tend to skew young in age. This study, by contrast, had direct access to typical funeral home customers.

To get an idea of just how rare an opportunity Dawson and colleagues had with this study, check the upcoming post reviewing a student’s attempt to recreate it in rural Nebraska ten years later. I won’t give away the ending, but the funeral industry played a very different role for her.

This project was conducted at a time when the researchers could state that “direct cremation, disposition without other previous funeral arrangements, is a legal alternative but is discouraged by clergy and funeral personnel alike and is probably not very common.” The survey reached a uniquely representative target audience. As such, the study offers a rare snapshot of consumer choices during a vanished period in American funeral history, just before the industry would undergo a major transformation and direct cremation would become one of the standard forms of disposition in many parts of the country.

  1. Grace D. Dawson, John F. Santos, and David C. Burdick, “Differences in Final Arrangements Between Burial and Cremation as the Method of Body Disposition,” OMEGAJournal of Death and Dying 21, no. 2 (1990): 129–46, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2190/BVE1-11TH-E6JM-TLVP