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.

Study detail

Changing consumer preferences for funeral products and services are hard to pin down because they are hard to survey. The people who are easy to get to, such as college students, have limited knowledge. The people who have the most funeral experience out in the world—who have made funeral arrangements and have been to the most funerals, i.e. actual customers—are not easy for researchers to reach. A small number of studies capturing opinions from different segments of the population do exist, conducted mostly by academics or funeral industry groups. Of the latter, the FAMIC surveys are among the most valuable.

The “Study of American Attitudes” examines many topics related to the choices consumers make when they buy funeral products and services. It is geared toward helping people in the funeral business provide better service and prepare for the future by getting a sense of what is motivating their customers. What values influence funeral choices? What do consumers think about cremation? To whom do they turn for information? Are they likely to prearrange?

Different groups in the consumer marketplace are known to have their own preferences and traditions, so the study has focused at times on ethnic and religious segments of the population. Also, recent editions of the survey have asked about innovations such as “green” cemetery and funeral options as well as services for pets.

For this post I am focused on the data regarding cremation preferences and perceptions of the value of funerals, but the FAMIC study contains a great deal of other information that will likely be relevant to future topics here.

Results

Would choose cremation (1990-2015)3

Would you choose cremation for a friend or family member? (% of adults age 40 and over)
2015 2010 2004 1999 1995 1990

Definitely

31

28

26

26

20

16

Somewhat Likely

34

27

20

19

19

15

Not Very Likely

15

12

11

14

14

11

Not At All Likely

20

28

37

39

44

50

Reason for choosing cremation (1990-2015)4

What is the main reason for choosing cremation for yourself or a loved one? (% of adults age 40 and over, top responses)
2015 2010 2004 1999 1995 1990

Saves money

22

33

30

27

27

19

Saves land

3

12

13

17

16

16

Simpler

6

3

8

7

10

NA

Ashes can be scattered

14

2

3

4

4

3

Preference

11

14

6

10

2

NA

No reason to save body

11

1

5

3

2

NA

Convenient/ easier for family

10

3

2

3

NA

10

These above are among the few questions reported in all years of the FAMIC study since the beginning.

Next are a couple more items only reported for the most recent years (results from earlier years may exist, but were not included in post-2000 reports.) One thing that jumps out is that 2010 was either a banner year for the industry or a banner year for the survey, but the trend lines from 2004 through 2015 are consistent across all attributes.

Ratings of funeral service ceremonies and providers (2004-2015)5

TOTal agree; Strongly agree; Somewhat agree.

How you would rate the funeral process you experienced, and the people and businesses (% of adults age 40 and over).
Attribute 2015 TOT% 2015 Str% 2015 Som% 2010 TOT% 2010 Str% 2010 Som% 2004 TOT% 2004 Str% 2004 Som%

The service was an important part of helping me begin the healing process after the death of my friend or family member

72

43

28

87

60

27

78

49

29

The service helped me remember the individual and helped me say good-bye

78

49

30

88

67

21

84

53

31

The service had meaning and value and reflected the deceased’s life

80

51

30

92

63

29

86

56

30

The service was helpful in paying tribute to or commemorating the life of my friend or family member

82

53

29

95

65

30

89

56

32

People in the industry are professional and competent

82

53

29

89

57

32

86

52

34

Take special care to make ceremony and arrangements reflect the wishes of the family

85

61

24

95

72

23

90

57

33

What would be changed about the funeral experience6

Relatively few respondents said they would want to change anything about their experience with a funeral home, but by far the most selected option (double, or many times more than, the next-most selected), had to do with costs, and tactics that increase them. Few requested changes even registered in all three surveys so I am only listing the top ones that did.

Whether you would change anything about your experience with funeral homes (% of adults age 40 and over)
Change? 2015 2010 2004

Yes, would change something

15

11

11

Lower price, too expensive, stop upselling

36

42

34

Need to consider cremation

7

4

3

Less commercial, more compassion

5

15

5

Make service more personal

1

7

11

Additional observations

The major takeaway from the portion of FAMIC data presented above is that Americans now see a lot of reasons to choose cremation. This is significant.

When one of the key reasons from 25 years ago—“saving land”—barely even registers on the preference scale anymore, we might draw conclusions about environmentalism, or how perceptions of cemeteries have evolved. But we definitely recognize a funeral tradition that has become mature. When you learn to use a new tool you find numerous ways to make your life easier with it. When you become comfortable with a new cultural practice, you can appreciate its effect on more and more parts of life over time.

While we Americans still appreciate the service provided by the funeral business, our appreciation of the value of the ceremonies themselves has weakened. We are not particularly critical of the funeral experiences we’ve had, which points to respect for the funeral providers, but we are becoming less clear on the positives.

And as our regard for the ritual in general turns lukewarm, the new tradition of practice has been established. We are no longer a society that uses cremation for certain circumstances. The current predominance of cremation is not an aberration. We are now a cremating society.

Taken together, the trends of declining appreciation for rituals and increasing familiarity with cremation point to a new era of ritual concepts: a slate not necessarily becoming blank, but being erased to make room for new content.

I suspect that the common image of a “funeral” in most Americans’ minds still centers on the ceremony with a casket and hearse ending at a grave site, simply because of its prevalence in the arts. Gradually, as more final arrangements are cremations, and we attend more ceremonies without a casket as the centerpiece, new images will likely emerge.

The reversal of public opinion on cremation from 2/3 negative to 2/3 positive has just occurred during the past quarter century, so our generation of new symbolism is in the earliest stages. But let’s not forget another crucially important trend from my earlier report: funeral prices during this quarter century of change have gone up pretty quickly compared to everything else in America. Circumstances can hasten changes in how people think, in the images and symbols of our world. The hard reality of cost—which is by far the main critique that people have of the funeral business—may speed up the adoption of new symbols. We will discuss the changing symbolism of death more in future posts, when our focus turns to the psychology of rituals.

Along with every other survey I’ve covered on this site so far, the FAMIC study has its limitations. FAMIC surveys do not always ask the questions one might have assumed would be asked, and the data presented can be inconsistent across the surveys. For example, the 2015 survey did not ask (or at least did not report answers to), the following questions which might be considered very relevant to people in the funeral business:

  • What type of ceremony did you have, or would you have, for someone who was cremated?
  • What did you do, or what would you do, with the ashes, such as burying at a cemetery, or scattering, or just keeping at home?

But no study is perfect and the FAMIC organizers undoubtedly had to take into account various competing interests in deciding what could be covered in the limited amount of space and time available in the survey process.


  1. FAMIC, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization: Executive Summary 2015” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, September 2015), 2, http://www.ctfda.org/docs/PR-FAMIC170818.pdf

  2. ibid., 3–4

  3. ibid., 25

  4. ibid., 27; Harris Interactive, “Interview Schedule: 2010 Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, August 2010), 19, http://sites.sitemajic.com/-1529/FAMIC_Study-InterviewSchedule.pdf; Wirthlin Worldwide, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization January 2005” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, February 2005), 87, http://sifuneralservices.com/industry_trends.aspx

  5. FAMIC, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization,” 13–14; Harris Interactive, “Interview Schedule,” 10–14; Wirthlin Worldwide, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization January 2005,” 55–65

  6. FAMIC, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization,” 15

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