Surveys Show A Trend Toward The Least Expensive Cremation Choices

Cremation’s progress in the U.S. is still in a state of flux. There are differing opinions around the funeral industry about what will happen next, and how the rate of change is changing. Has the cremation trend slowed down or is it speeding up? Are people who buy funerals planning to spend less or more?

Statistics on cremation and its effects on funeral practices are not plentiful but, as we’ve seen over the past dozen or so posts, there is data out there. Some of the questions I would like to see answered are often not addressed systematically, so in order to find out the prevalence of simple (or “direct”) cremation, for example, or what consumers are thinking about traditional funeral ceremonies, information must be cobbled together from various sources. Through that process, the best I think we get is a partial picture.

But I plan to continue work on completing the picture as I find more data to review. In the meantime, here are some final pieces from research by industry consultants and suppliers over the past eight years.

Johnson Consulting Group “Trends & Insights” report

One of the foremost funeral consulting companies reviewed over 235,000 sales records and over 70,000 customer satisfaction surveys from their client firms covering a recent two-year span. The study’s main focus is on information for funeral business owners, including topics related to revenues and profitability that aren’t relevant (at the moment) to this blog—but there are a couple of relevant pieces of information.

From 2014-2016, the study found a trend that matches what we’ve seen in other surveys, of an ever-faster increase in cremation adoption.

Percentage change from 2014-2016 in customers choosing cremation and burials:1

  • 4.3% cremation increase (1.8 percent 2014-2015; 2.6 percent 2015-2016).

  • 3.8% burial decrease (1.4 percent 2014-2015; 2.4 percent 2015-2016).

Without stating the exact figures, the report also said that direct cremation was “increasingly the most common cremation disposition chosen.”2

We should note that the Johnson Consulting Group survey only covers a subset of the U.S. funeral business environment. It’s about their customers, who a) are performing about 4 percent of funerals in the U.S. each year, and b) have hired Johnson Consulting Group. One thing we can say, though, is that these firms are likely doing enough business in the grand scheme of things to be considered going concerns. Any individual company’s fortunes may be on the upswing, or plummeting, but there has to be a chance of survival and probably enough cash flow to merit hiring a consultant. Therefore, I think their data are relevant to the American market as a whole.

Batesville Cremation Options survey

One of the largest suppliers of funeral products, Batesville conducts periodic consumer research and has a lot of skin in the game so I think they try to produce accurate reports. The recent study includes people who either have made cremation arrangements, or are leaning toward choosing cremation for themselves or a loved one.3

  • 42% selected minimum service, i.e. simple or “direct” cremation.

  • 16% selected only private family identification viewing of the body.

  • 71% would choose a minimum body container for the cremation process.

  • 56% would purchase an urn above the minimum provided for returning the ashes.

From the first two data points, we see that 58 percent of these cremation buyers prefer holding essentially no ceremonies with a funeral business, although they may intend having them elsewhere, such as at churches, hotels, country clubs, or other event locations. As a rule, the “private viewing” means the crematory or funeral home prepares the body for a brief period when a small number of family members can have a private moment with the deceased. There would be a charge for the body preparation; the body may be more likely to be in some type of purchased container (although the next point seems to suggest it won’t be); and there is likely a charge for the time and/or viewing room—but the total charge would be much less than if there were a typical visitation and funeral ceremony. And while more than half will buy an urn from someone, a large majority of customers opt for the bare minimum allowable box in which the body will be cremated. This is usually heavy cardboard with no liner, or an inexpensive wood product, as opposed to any type of “cremation casket.”

Starmark Funeral Products survey

This producer of cremation caskets surveyed 1007 adults aged 55 and over from across the U.S., who planned to choose cremation for themselves. Respondents were first asked their preference from three price tiers of cremation services:4

  • 65.4% selected “Budget” cremation, or cremation with no ceremony or viewing at all—usually known in the industry as direct cremation.

  • 22.2% selected cremation with only “Private Family Services” which in this context meant the body would be viewed only by family in a closed event—this terminology is not something most customers are familiar with, and as evidence a portion of respondents seemed to think “private family” included some form of what the industry would consider “public” viewing by family, so separating respondents in this group from the next one may not be accurate.

  • 12.3% selected cremation with “Public Services,” or a viewing and ceremonies conducted by the funeral home.

Of the Budget cremation group:

  • 80.7% said cost was the main factor.

  • 33.8% would find the lowest-priced provider.

  • 65.9% would scatter the ashes.

  • 92.3% wanted the body cremated as quickly as possible. Only 7.7% wanted the body preserved for a period of time either with refrigeration (5.6%) or embalming (2.1%).

In addition:

  • 62% of the Private Services group wanted the body cremated as quickly as possible.

  • 58.9% of the Private Services group would scatter the ashes.

  • 38.4% of the Public Services group expected to save money by choosing cremation.

  • 44.4% of the Public Services group would scatter the ashes.

  • 76.8% of the Public Services group planned to have the casket open and body viewable.

  • 100% of the Public Services group wanted the body preserved either through refrigeration or embalming (about 50% each).

Taken together, the data from all three above studies confirm that most customers have moved away from the notion that they need to spend more money than absolutely necessary on the final disposition of their loved one’s body. Perhaps Americans are just in an economical phase regarding funeral arrangements, and will eventually spend more. But there is little question they are choosing to save money at this time.

What we don’t know for certain is why they are doing this. From the Starmark survey, we find further confirmation Americans want to save money. A large majority select direct cremation, and they say they do so because it saves money. As we saw in an earlier post, the FAMIC study also showed cost as the main reason people preferred cremation, albeit in a lower percentage of respondents.5 (I suspect the difference between the FAMIC and Starmark survey results is because of how the questions were asked, but in both surveys “money” is overwhelmingly the most-selected factor in cremation decisions).

But what does this really tell us? When someone says “cost” is the main reason for choosing direct cremation, it does not necessarily mean they can’t afford to spend more. It could easily mean they don’t prefer to pay more for that part of the process. We have no way of knowing how much they will spend on ceremonies later. They may host a $200 per head dinner. They may have a blow-out party. They may rent a boat and sail to Bali to scatter the ashes.

All three of the studies reviewed here show a majority of people choosing the least expensive form—simple, “budget,” or “direct”—of the least expensive disposition option: cremation. By a wide margin they plan to scatter the ashes. They also choose not to buy much at all in the way of a “casket” for the body that will be cremated. A tremendous majority prefers the barest minimum container for cremation. Our preference not to buy cremation caskets may simply reflect that we are a practical society and don’t want to spend money on a box that will be immediately burned up. But it also very likely reflects something of how we perceive dead bodies today. I think we do want our dead treated with respect, but the data suggest many of us don’t see the need to keep the body in a specific grave site, nor ensconce the deceased in extravagant trappings.

We seem to have moved toward an understanding of death in which the actual person who is deceased is no longer in the body. That is a very different understanding, as I explain in the discussion of “deconstructing” the modern funeral, than people had when our twentieth-century funeral traditions took shape. Spending less on our loved one’s body fits with the contemporary concept of death, which veers toward a spiritualized if not Gnostic-dualistic understanding of what it is to be human.

But philosophy or theology aside, money spent specifically on treatment of the dead body, as we will see throughout history, is no reliable measure of beliefs, of esteem for the deceased, nor of the dead person’s status in society.

  1. Johnson Consulting Group, “Trends & Insights,” American Funeral Director 141, no. 1 (January 2018): 71

  2. ibid., 75

  3. Nectar L. Ramirez, “A Lesson from London: Mind the Gaps,” American Cemetery & Cremation 87, no. 8 (August 2015): 4

  4. Gerald Davis, “2010 Cremation Consumer Survey” (Starmark Funeral Products, 2010),

  5. FAMIC, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization: Executive Summary 2015” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, September 2015), 27,; Harris Interactive, “Interview Schedule: 2010 Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, August 2010), 19,; Wirthlin Worldwide, “Study of American Attitudes Toward Ritualization and Memorialization January 2005” (Funeral and Memorialization Information Council, February 2005), 87,