1996: Final Arrangements For Cremation In A Rural Population

A Replication Of Dawson’s Study On Differences In Final Arrangements For Cremation Using A Rural Population Vs An Urban Population was a 1996 Master’s thesis project by a student at the University of Nebraska. The student author’s plan was to follow the framework of the Differences in Final Arrangements study conducted by Dawson, Santos, and Burdick in 1986 and published in 1990 (hereafter “Dawson”). Dawson had surveyed subjects in metropolitan areas, so to expand the project the author intended to use a similar survey among the rural population in various parts of Nebraska to better understand the choices and influences on customers selecting cremation.1

Subjects: Respondents for 28 deceased individuals who were cremated. Average age of deceased 74.5 years. (Author gives data on deceased but not on respondents). Most cases were in rural Nebraska but several were from other areas.

Main findings

Funeral services for these cremation cases were very similar to services for whole-body burial cases:

71% had a ceremony at a church or funeral home, 79% had a graveside service, 86% of the cremated remains were buried, and 79% had a monument or marker at the grave.

Almost the sole influence on the decision to cremate was the preference of the deceased.

Study detail

The key differences between this study and the work by Dawson and colleagues are the small number of subjects and the inclusion of only cremation cases.

The author met a number of challenges attempting to replicate the work of Dawson and colleagues for this Master’s thesis. As described below in the final section, she met resistance from the state funeral directors association and from funeral directors themselves. Partly because funeral directors were told by the state association not to participate, the author had access to far fewer subjects than planned.

Using Dawson as a guide, the author created a 38-item questionnaire designed to capture the same information. This survey was somewhat smaller: it asked about the “Influence” of various factors affecting the final arrangement decisions; it did not include a separate section on the “Importance” of factors, as Dawson did.

Demographic and personal comparisons with Dawson respondents also was not included because the author did not provide any respondent data.

Another limitation was that the questionnaire apparently confused some respondents regarding religion. Choices were Protestant, Catholic, and Other, but because 36% answered Other, the author believed that people in denominations (e.g. Methodist, Baptist) may have answered Other. Respondent problems with the forms could be a reason the author left out respondent data.

Because of the low response rate, the author supplemented the quantitative data collection with a “qualitative” component, conducing extensive personal interviews with about a third of the respondents. A few notes from the qualitative information are included in the discussion below, but for anyone interested in reading the interview notes, they are included as an appendix in the thesis linked in the citation.


Deceased Characteristics

  • 85% Caucasian; 15% African-American
  • 22% participate in church/religious activities at least 1-2 times per week
  • 39% married at time of death; 61% widowed, separated, or single

Cremated Remains Disposition

  • 86% Burial of Ashes
  • 11% Scattering
  • 4% Ashes Taken Home

Services and Items Selected

  • 25% Ceremony-Funeral Home
  • 46% Ceremony-Church
  • 79% Ceremony-Graveside
  • 14% Memorial Service-later date
  • 7% No Ceremony held
  • 79% Monument/Marker at disposition
  • 16% Body Embalmed
  • 8% Visitation w/ Viewing of Body
  • 26% Visitation, Body Absent
  • 64% Social Gathering After Disposition

Mean Influence on Decision to Cremate
Rating 1=No Influence to 5=Very Much Influence

  • 4.31 Preference of Deceased
  • 2.96 Preference of Respondent
  • 2.73 Keeping Expenses Low
  • 1.81 Concern for Use of Land

(All other factors rated less than 1.40: religious tradition, family tradition, funeral home personnel, cemetery/crematory personnel, clergy/religious counselor, deterioration of the body, appearance of the body, traditions, convenience).

Additional observations

Because of the disparity in sample sizes and types of data collected, I am not going to compare this study’s results with Dawson’s except on a few points. For readers interested in comparing, you can click here to check the Dawson results section.

This study is best considered on its own as a small slice of funeral practices in the mid-1990s. I think it could serve as a preliminary model for a full-fledged repeat of Dawson, however, and a cautionary tale for researchers who might try to produce such a study.

Compared to Dawson, subjects in this study had simple explanations and traditional tendencies. (That could probably be the summary of the data collection part of the project.)

  • Reasons for cremation: Preference, of deceased.

  • Substantially weaker influences were wishes of respondent and keeping expenses down (2.73 concern with expenses is not high but is higher than the 2.14 in Dawson)

  • Nearly all cases had traditional ceremonies and then buried the cremated remains. In fact, except for the very low rates of embalming and viewing, the funerals for these cases must have seemed very much like standard funeral rituals for whole-body burials, including the services at the cemetery.

  • In the “Qualitative” section of the report, the author notes that most of the respondents she interviewed reported cases of people who died from cancer, and because of the ravaging effects of the diseases did not want their bodies viewed. It is possible that cancer cases made up a large share of the data, which may account for the large percentage of traditional ceremonies but low percentages of embalming with viewing.

Whereas Dawson’s sample yielded results that foreshadowed cremation trends in the nation to the current day, the cases in this study recalled cremation traditions that traced back many years earlier, when cremation in America served as basically a preliminary treatment before burial.

The author experienced a difficult interaction with the “industry” that likely never would have occurred to scholars in the gerontology department at the university, but is a valuable lesson for prospective researchers.

She intended to work directly with hundreds of funeral directors in rural Nebraska for customer referrals of the type provided to the Dawson team. But after sending out nearly 200 request letters on university letterhead, according to the notice reproduced in the appendix to her thesis, she was notified by the Nebraska Funeral Directors Association that, citing “confidentiality and invasion of privacy legislation which currently regulates funeral directors and the country as a whole,” they had “sent our members a bulletin strongly recommending that they not send the information you request.”

She then also received some negative replies from funeral directors, and a number of those she wrote to never replied, so it was something of an accomplishment that she ended up with data for the 28 cases covered in this study. A few funeral homes, and some personal contacts, supplied the cremation case subject referrals.

In fairness, even without resistance from the state association, there would likely be funeral home owners who would balk at providing access to their customers. The funeral business “customer” is in some ways more like a patient, and I imagine plenty of people in the business do not even use the term customer. The survivors are a special sort of client whom, we might assume, the funeral directors would feel inclined to insulate and protect from outside investigations of all types.

Research on funeral practices is rare, and studies that capture information from people who make funeral arrangements are extraordinarily rare. A spate of research on consumer experience with funerals took place in the period from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, consisting of maybe 5-10 studies, and none approached the quality or number of participants in Dawson that I know of. This author’s ordeal shows why such research is so infrequent: it is hard to get access to funeral home customers.

  1. Nadine C. Freshman, “A Replication of Dawson’s Study on Differences in Final Arrangements for Cremation Using a Rural Population Vs an Urban Population” (University of Nebraska, 1996), https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/studentwork/601/