How Cremation Is Changing Funerals

The next few posts are going to be about cremation and its effect on American funeral rituals, with data showing how we are changing our funeral practices (and how things may continue to change in the future). To kick off this discussion, here is a very brief capsule overview of why cremation is an important topic:

Cremation has changed the way Americans do funeral rituals. The changes could be summed up under the general category of “short cuts.” There are two main areas of these ritual efficiencies, which the previous reviews of research studies have dealt with in part, but which I am going to address in more depth in this and upcoming posts.

First, cremation allows survivors flexibility in holding ceremonies, because they can have the body cremated and then not have to plan the ceremony according to any set schedule. Apart from being cremated, the body of a deceased loved one can’t really be left around for very long: according to the twentieth-century funeral model, the entire process of preparing the body for viewing, holding the ceremonies, and getting the body to the cemetery was only a window of a few days to a week at most. The funeral home had to do almost everything, and the family and other survivors had to work mostly within the funeral home’s time frame. With cremation, the family can take the few steps needed to have the body cremated, and then they can do anything they want, whenever they want. They never have to go back to the funeral home again.

Second, cremation transforms the body of a deceased loved one into a normal object within everyday life, to which the family or other survivors are not obligated to render any special treatment. A regular dead body, on the other hand, is basically the opposite of a normal object, and by law is going to a very particular type of place. In the old model, the body needed to be placed into the ground or in a tomb, which almost always meant purchasing property rights from a cemetery. This also placed an onus on the family to buy some type of monument or marker for the grave. A cremated body on the other hand is allowed to go almost anywhere, and requires no additional purchases.

The two areas of ritual change are interrelated, but generally speaking the first affects funeral homes the most, because they make most of their money from preparing bodies and placing them in caskets, and organizing ceremonies, all of which might be unnecessary for a cremation case. The second affects cemeteries who may never see the deceased person’s body at all.

The above explanation simplifies the reality, namely in the sense that cremation is not new anymore, and new rituals are evolving around it as we have seen in previous posts. In addition, funeral directors have learned new ways to make things easier for the family and provide value. Cemeteries are having a tough time with cremation, but as we will see in future posts, there are reasons people invented cemeteries in the first place. Maybe cemeteries will make a comeback by proving their timeless relevance.

But without question, cremation has made things hard for people working in funeral and cemetery businesses.