Tag Archives: religion

The Funeral, Deconstructed

In the field of archeology, Jill Baker uses the concept of a “funeral kit” to describe combinations of elements in burials that seem to indicate “routine practice, rite, ritual, and ceremony” within a culture.1 We can use “the twentieth-century funeral” to identify the American funeral kit of the recent era.

The industry’s explanation of this funeral kit was spelled out many years ago and stayed consistent for decades—in fact, there are people today who use the same explanations as those used 50 or more years ago to describe the functions of the various funeral parts. That is not a criticism, because it just means there came a time when people had to come up with clear ways to describe their businesses, and they did a good job of it.

We usually explain practices when they come under attack. Obviously, throughout the entire history of religion in the West, we find the councils, creeds, and confessions emerging during times of division or in response to some heresy or other challenge.

Ethnicity is played out the same way. As Fredrik Barth fascinatingly noted, groups view their distinctive symbols as most important at the margins, where they interact with others.2

In the same way, the American funeral concept was formulated and rationalized in large part as a response to the five Cs—critics, consumer advocates, clergy, cooperatives, and cremationists—in the twentieth-century.

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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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The “Nones”: When No Religion Is The New Religion

In the history of the human species, few ideas come more naturally to us than the belief that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Along with pastors, politicians, and social scientists, funeral directors can be heard observing that the world seems to be losing its religion, and that this is probably a bad thing.

Nothing shows the present ruin more vividly than the light of a sacred past.

Perhaps it is ominous, then, that one of the fastest-growing and largest religious segments in the United States today is the group known as the “Nones,” who comprised 2 percent of the population in the 1950s but now make up between 20 and 25 percent, depending on the survey.

The Nones are defined in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 as a “nonreligious, irreligious and anti-religious bloc” who answered the identification question with “None” or “No Religion”. Survey respondents could fall into any of the following categories: “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, Secular.”1

Exact percentages of Nones within the U.S. population have varied, but the trend has been similar among all surveys of American religion. Because the Gallup organization has the longest record of tallying such information, I’ve used Gallup results for the past 70 years to create the following graph:2

The data raise interesting historical questions, such as what occurred in America in the 1950s to cause such a return to religion, and then what happened in the 25 years after 1992 to cause such a falling off.

For my purposes, the more relevant questions have to do the “Nones” themselves, including what they believe, and what kind of changes they might signal, or even cause, in American funeral practices.

Even more important, both for people who may be buying funerals and those who may be selling them, is the bigger question of what exactly is the relationship between religion—or lack thereof—and funerals. The Nones give us a useful angle for exploring such questions because they will eventually have a direct influence on American funerals when they make the purchases.

Answering these questions will require a series of posts, beginning here, with a brief look at who the Nones are, and where they really are on the “religious” spectrum.

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Growth Of Non-Denominational Protestantism

Among American religious groups, Protestants comprise the largest, with 49% of the adult population, compared to Catholics with 23%, according to the latest Gallup poll conducted in December, 2017.1

Within the Protestant community, the fastest-growing group, by far, are “non-denominational” churches, which the Pew Religious Landscape Study of 2014 estimated as including from 4.9% to 6.5% of the U.S. population, depending on how you define the data.2 The largest Protestant denomination was the Southern Baptist Convention with 5.3% of the population, making “non-denominational” Protestant churches the de facto largest or second-largest denomination.

Data from the General Social Survey revealed that from the 1970s through 2014, the number of non-denominational Protestants grew at a much faster pace than any of the denominations—more than 400% over a forty-year period, shown in the following graph:3

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