Americans who do not identify with any religious organization or tradition are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, in terms of religious identification, as shown by the data on the “Nones”.
Actually, those data also show that Americans who refuse to even answer survey questions about religious identification are really the fastest-growing segment—but lacking any idea what to do with that information, I will set it aside for now.
The Nones are the latest manifestation of Americans going their own way in religion, a tradition that extends back in the nation’s past and often has been cause for alarm. Thirty-eight years ago, a prominent polling organization noted a movement toward personal religion as harbinger of “an absolute goodbye to the present religious arrangement in North America.”1
That did not happen, precisely at the time, because “church” Christianity in America became stronger through the 1980s and beyond, although the denominations that grew were relative newcomers.
But as sort of a delayed effect, although not necessarily bidding us adieu, the “religious arrangement” of the United States now does seem to be changing.
In the funeral business, such trends merit attention, if only because of the apparent strong link between decreasing religion, and increasing cremation.
A 2015 survey commissioned by the funeral industry found that 91 percent of people with “No organized religion” would consider cremation as an option if they had to make arrangements for someone else, compared with 64 percent of Protestants, 62 percent of Catholics, and 57 percent of “Other,” with large across-the-board increases over the previous decade.2
Cremation as an Option for Friend or Family Member
|Definitely or Somewhat Likely||2004||2015|
|No Organized Religion||60%||91%|
Two trends foretelling a continued increase in cremation are the growing favorable attitude by all Americans—as the numbers above show, each religious segment may be as likely to choose cremation as another option for bodily disposition—and the tremendous growth of the non-religious segment, whose attitudes toward cremation are most favorable of all.
Apart from more cremations, what else might we expect from a nation of less religious funeral buyers?
The first expectation might be that less religious customers would lead to less religious ceremonies.
A decade ago, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 found the number of Nones growing rapidly, but also that only 66 percent of Americans “expect to have a religious funeral or service” when they die.3
A more recent funeral industry study found that from 2012 to 2016, the percent of Americans who consider it “very important” to have religion as part of the funeral service decreased from 49.5 to 39.5.4
The more secular ceremony is so well established it is almost a truism by now. Funeral services may still have the aura of quasi-church services, but they are increasingly likely to be ceremonies with more of an ad hoc feel and content akin to a biopic—a “this was your life”—where the focus is more on the eulogies than any sort of sermon.
In the past, as industry consultant Dan Isard suggests, funerals were integrally related to religious rites. If our society’s overall religious allegiance has changed, then perhaps “the perceived value of a funeral is changing for many within our population.”5
He raises a question that I think goes to the core of what funeral services really are, and by extension how we should think about the future of funeral practices. It seems obvious that the content of funerals has changed and probably will continue to do so, and also that the way we think about funerals is changing. But the perceived “value” is much harder to track (unless by “value” we only mean how much customers want to pay, which admittedly is the definition Isard is working from.)
For one thing, funeral directors and other people in the funeral business are adapting to customer changes—because as I have said before and will say again, there are a lot of very smart people working in the industry.
Funeral business owners have incorporated “celebrants” into their service options for times when clergy are not appropriate or necessary.6 For customers who feel “close to God” in nature and view natural burial as more consistent with their beliefs, there are increasing “green burial” options.7 New or remodeled funeral home chapels for services are likely to be more open, bright with natural light, and intended to focus, as one funeral director says, “less on the religious aspect and more on the celebration of life.”8
The funerals are going on, as they must. Does a lack of religion mean people will want to pay less, or have simpler ceremonies? I plan to spend more time on this question, but will make one historical observation that opens the door to future discussions:
As Philippe Ariès recalled in his history of Western death practices, the tie between religion and death may have always been close, but the relationship between religion and funeral practices has often been different from what most people would expect. For a long part of our history, religious authorities were not the main proponents of “respect” for the dead in the popular sense. Quite the contrary.9
Maybe the impulse to treat our dead reverently, and to hold services of a certain type, has been rooted in something besides the religious organizations of the time.
George Gallup and David Poling, The Search for America’s Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 16–17↩
Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “American Religious Identification Survey 2008: Summary Report” (Hartford, Connecticut: Trinity College, March 2009), 4, 10, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf↩
“NFDA Cremation and Burial Report Shows Cremation Rate at All-Time High,” American Funeral Director 140, no. 9 (September 2017): 89↩
Daniel M. Isard, “The Past, Present, and Future of Cremation,” American Funeral Director 140, no. 7 (July 2017): 47↩
Glenda Stansbury, “A Case for Celebrants,” American Funeral Director 136, no. 4 (April 2013): 42–46↩
Lauren Markoe, “Green Burials Reflect Care for Earth, Family Finances,” The Christian Century 131, no. 4 (February 2014): 18↩
Patti Martin Bartsche, “Design for the Times,” American Funeral Director 138, no. 11 (November 2015): 47↩
Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death: The Classic History of Western Attitudes Toward Death over the Last One Thousand Years, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000), 542–43↩