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

Caskets and urns

  • 80% of bodies were cremated in the “alternative” container, usually heavy cardboard or inexpensive wood box provided for each cremation as part of the cost (as opposed to any sort of casket).

  • 4% were cremated in body bags, body wrappings, or no container at all.

  • 57% of cremations were accompanied by an urn purchase either from the crematory or elsewhere (as opposed to simply taking the ashes in a minimum cardboard or plastic container).

Ceremony

  • 67% had no ceremony prior to cremation.

  • 56% had no memorial service after cremation.

Disposition of ashes

  • 54% of cremated remains were taken home by the survivors or scattered in a non-cemetery location.

  • 7% were not picked up, or were placed in common grave by the crematory.

And what of the 20 years since? From CANA, we only get a portion of the picture, and nothing systematic, unfortunately. But the informal data from CANA leaders and officials—whom I quote regularly here—are in my view still useful for knowing what consumers are up to.

To that end, let’s look at CANA quotes from the past 12 years:

  • In 2006, CANA reported that over 80% of cremated remains were being taken home by the survivors, presumably either for later deposition at a cemetery, scattering, or keeping at home in an urn—up from 54% in 1996.3

  • In 2015, a CANA leader observed that 60% of cremated remains were being taken home (likely intended for later scattering or keeping), and 40% were going to grave sites or columbaria, at a cemetery, church, or elsewhere.4

  • In 2018, CANA’s executive director estimated that 60%-80% of cremated remains were being taken by survivors, presumably either to keep at home or for another form of disposition or placement.5

This 12 years’ rise-fall-rise pattern, with reports of between 60%-80% of ashes going home with survivors rather than being interred in a grave or niche, obviously reflects guesswork on the part of the CANA experts. Lacking hard numbers, they likely report “what they are hearing” from crematory operators, funeral directors, and product suppliers. But from an historical perspective, within the range of anecdotal measurements we have a fluctuation between high percentages of customers taking the ashes home after cremation, rather than bringing them to a cemetery or doing anything specific right away.

Whether 60% or 80%, the percentage of ashes going home with the family fits with trends we’ve seen from other studies, including the jump in cremation adoption since the early 2000s, and the emergence of cremation as the standard practice.

As we saw in the 2011 study, some customers now believe that scattering is what they are supposed to be doing with the ashes, and they offer excuses for doing anything else.

Regarding the 1990s trends of most cremation customers having no funeral ceremony beforehand and also most having no service afterward, we are going to have to look at other studies for confirmation of those changes. I, personally, believe the 1997 CANA study undercounted the number of memorial services held afterward, because families have no obligation to apprise the crematory about what is happening later. It’s just my guess, but I think most people end up holding some event that could be classified as a ceremony, somewhere.

But we can say with assurance that many more people are choosing cremation, and this movement appears to have cemented a new tradition in which the first option for cremated remains is simply to carry them out of the crematory or funeral home.


  1. “CANA Special Report: 1996/97 Cremation Container, Disposition and Service Survey” (Chicago, IL: Cremation Association of North America, 1997), 1, http://www.cremationinfo.com/cremationinfo/PDF/dreport.pdf

  2. ibid., 3–4

  3. Pamela Roberts, “What Now? Cremation Without Tradition,” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying 62, no. 1 (February 2011): 3, https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.62.1.a

  4. Rick Montgomery, “Cremation’s Popularity Is Changing Death’s Rituals,” The Kansas City Star, October 2015, http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article41883210.html

  5. Darrell W. Hill, “Cremation the New Normal,” Darrell W. Hill, January 2018, https://medium.com/@darrell_12291/cremation-the-new-normal-2e6542ec575f

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.