NFDA Reports On Cremation, Ceremonies, And Disposition

An important source of data regarding American funeral practices is the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the oldest and largest of the funeral industry trade associations. The NFDA publishes a periodic report on cremation and burials, drawn from government vital statistics records and surveys of funeral homes, crematories, and consumers.

While the report focuses on information for funeral home managers to serve customers and plan for the future, it also gives another piece of the broader picture of what Americans are doing when they have to make funeral arrangements.

Disposition of Ashes After Cremation

NFDA studies, what was done with cremated remains (percentage of cases)1
2017 2015
Returned To Family 39.0 38.0
Scattered At Non- Cemetery Location 19.8 20.2
Buried Or Scattered At Cemetery 38.7 37.9
Placed In Columbarium Niche 8.6 7.4

Tracking with what we’ve heard from the CANA experts, a solid majority of about 60 percent of cremation customers are bypassing the cemetery—at the beginning of the process, at least—and taking the ashes home with them, either to scatter or keep.

In the table above, astute readers will notice the totals add up to more than 100 percent, highlighting, first, that people can do more than one thing with the ashes. You can take them home, and then scatter them, and perhaps bury part at a cemetery and do something else with the other part. The table also shows there is some guesswork involved from the funeral home’s standpoint, because they may not know exactly what the customer is going to do. For example, I think some customers may take the ashes home and scatter or bury them much later.

Apart from any other possible deviations in their data (see below), the NFDA survey would not capture all possible consumer behavior. But while the 60 percent figure may be at the low end of estimates of cremated remains bypassing the cemetery, it basically fits with estimates from other sources.

Type of Ceremony Held with Cremation

  • 32% of cremations were direct cremations (no ceremony with funeral home).

  • 37% were cremations followed by memorial services.

  • 31% of adult cremations included a viewing/wake (and casket purchase).2

Direct cremation, or simple cremation, means the funeral home or crematory completes the legal paperwork, cremates the body, and returns the ashes to the survivors. They perform very little preparation of the body apart from what is necessary for a visual identification, and provide no ceremony. The body comes in, and ashes go out. Direct cremation is usually the least expensive form of disposition a funeral home provides. (There is usually, also, an option for “direct burial” which is similar, except that the family typically has to purchase cemetery space, so overall it can be more expensive than direct cremation).

Because direct cremation is so much less expensive than other forms of disposition—often only one-fourth or less the cost of a funeral with a viewing—and does not preclude the family from holding ceremonies on their own, one could predict it may replace the twentieth-century funeral as the default funeral practice in America. For that reason, and because of the long, historical record of cremation practice which we will see in more detail in posts to come, I am keeping a close eye on the trend.

How often do consumers buy direct cremation? According to above NFDA data on funerals in 2015, about a third of the time. However, I think the NFDA report may underestimate the percentage of direct cremations in the U.S. as a whole. NFDA’s membership, from whom the association could be expected to gather the most reliable data, only contains about half of the funeral homes in the country. The NFDA studies are conducted in conjunction with a university research department which uses both hard data and estimates based on state trends to arrive at the figures.

In addition to the many non-NFDA funeral homes, there are states where standalone crematories are allowed to operate—unfettered by protective walls. Therefore, while the one-third figure may quite accurately represent the proportion of direct cremations provided by NFDA-member funeral homes, American consumers may be buying direct cremations more frequently than one-third of the time. That is just my opinion, of course.

Eventually I hope to find more comprehensive research studies, and other insights into current funeral practices, to help answer the question of just how prevalent direct cremation has become.

Consumer Preferences For Burial and Cremation

NFDA Annual Consumer Studies, 2015 and 2017, percent of adults age 40 and over3
2017 2015
Prefer Burial 20.9 20.8
Not Sure/Undecided About Burial 18.1 14.6
Feel It Is Important To Have Body Or Ashes Present At Ceremony 55.2 50.0
Associate Cremation With Funeral And Viewing 11.8 10.2
Associate Cremation With Memorial Service 40.0 35.1
Associate Cremation With No Ceremony 7.9 6.9
Cremation Customers Who Personally Want Funeral Service With Viewing Prior To Cremation 14.1 26.6

NFDA consumer sentiment surveys show a fairly stable situation over the past two years, with the positive trends (for the industry) that more people wish to have the body or ashes present for the ceremony, more think of cremation being accompanied by a viewing, and more people think a memorial service should follow the cremation.

On the downside, about 90 percent of people don’t think of cremation requiring a body prepared for viewing beforehand, and the proportion expecting to have a full-fledged funeral service with a visitation/wake prior to cremation plummeted from over one-fourth to less than one-seventh in only two years.

But apart from these variations in what people expect to do along with the cremation, the steady data point is that 21 percent—only 21 percent—prefer burial. We don’t know the number of respondents to this survey, or their ages or funeral experiences, but I think that is another important part of the overall picture of the future of American funerals.

To drive home that point, here is one more piece of data from the NFDA studies:

Cremation and Burial Projections

NFDA study, number of dispositions per year (in millions)4
2010 2017 2025 2035
U.S Deaths 2.47 2.68 2.97 3.52
Cremations 1.01 1.44 1.96 2.80
Burials (whole-body) 1.30 1.20 0.93 0.54

I added the death projections from my earlier chart, which show how dramatic and far-reaching the change in funeral practices appears to be.

The collapse in total expected burials in the U.S., alongside the drastically increasing number of deaths, is interesting because cremation in America is still in its formative stages. Our customs are evolving. Business practices are in a state of flux. It is not at all clear that the companies providing most of the cremations today will still dominate the markets in five or ten years.

All in all, the very dynamic nature of death rates and consumer preferences reveal what I think of as a “gap” in cultural traditions. What that means is that we don’t know exactly what we will be doing, funeral-wise, in the decades to come … but we are going to be doing an awful lot of it.


  1. “NFDA Releases 2017 Cremation and Burial Report,” Memorial Business Journal 8, no. 27 (July 2017): 5; “2015 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections” (National Funeral Directors Association, July 2015), 6, http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/healthnewsfl/files/201507/03-a_2014_cremation_and_burial_report__2_.pdf

  2. “NFDA Releases 2017 Cremation and Burial Report,” 2

  3. ibid., 7; “2015 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report,” 6

  4. “NFDA Releases 2017 Cremation and Burial Report,” 1; U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Changes – National Birth, Death, Migration Projections: United States by Year, Age, Gender, and Ethnicity for Years 2014-2060,” CDC WONDER Online Database, December 2014, http://wonder.cdc.gov/birth-death-migration-ethnicity-projections-2014-2060.html; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, “Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2016,” CDC WONDER Online Database, December 2017, http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html

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.