Tag Archives: business

Funeral Business Critiques, Part 1

Most companies get criticized at some point, but funeral businesses are somewhat unique in coming under fire merely for existing. This is especially true in the U.S., home of some of the most plentiful, and most celebrated, works of funeral criticism.

As I mentioned last week, funeral prices have been questioned for millennia, but that isn’t the primary topic today.

Even She Who Shall Not Be Named did not focus solely on prices. Professor of religion Stephen Prothero believes that her contemptuous book mainly found the American funeral gauche, rather than overpriced: the modern funeral director a priest of “sham ceremonies” conducting a “tacky parade of the fake” on “a boulevard to bad taste.”1

Undoubtedly, in her cursed monstrosity, She seemed to signal that the American Way of Death might not have seemed so strange if She had not been accustomed to the English Way of Death.

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The “Nones” And The Funeral

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

Source: FAMIC Study, 2015
Definitely or Somewhat Likely 2004 2015
Protestant 41% 64%
Catholic 36% 62%
Other 36% 57%
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?

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Religion And Funerals

We know there are relationships between religion and funeral practices in America. For a long time, almost all funeral ceremonies were primarily religious, and today that still probably describes the vast majority.

When religion changes, therefore, we might expect some effect on funerals and burials. The effect isn’t easy to predict or quantify, though. Funeral changes, in turn, might arise from various causes apart from religion.

Theologian John Heywood Thomas notes that funerals touch on the meaning of life, but are also practical processes that, over time, have become neat and efficient, wherein the goal is to provide a “nice” service:

All too often death is for many both comfortless and without fear, a non-event. Besides the psychological effects of such an ignoring of death there is the more important ethical consequence that we neither properly value the life that has ended nor apply ourselves to that—perhaps secondary but still urgent—task of bringing our hearts to wisdom.1

The minister and professor Thomas Long suggests that as our religion has become less serious, our funeral practices have followed suit:

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Questions About What We Need From Funerals

What do we need from funerals?

Some people say the answer lies in rituals having certain psychological effects. Others say it’s about doing what humans have done in the past. Some point to religion, or community bonding, or ecology.

It all gets very involved. In order to help potential funeral buyers get a handle on what they might need, I plan in future posts to discuss ways different parties have answered the question, and domains of knowledge supporting or contradicting their opinions.

Without delving into controversies, let’s just list the related questions that arise when we ask the main question above.

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