When we look at past funeral practices we can lose sight of their main purpose, because their main purpose is so taken-for-granted now that we never even have to think about it.
But for most of history people sure did have to think about it.
In order to understand many elements of funerals—for instance, cremation and embalming—we have to step back from the conveniences of modernity to put ourselves in the shoes of our cultural ancestors. In doing so, we also can get a clearer understanding of how funerals are evolving today.
Our death practices serve two main purposes, one practical and one ceremonial.
The practical purpose is to take care of a dead body, which generally means stopping the decomposition process and/or putting it somewhere away from where people live.
The ceremonial purpose is to hold a social gathering which might be considered optional but usually isn’t, because the body is meaningful. Whether the ceremony is a religious ritual or a secular event, whether for many people or only for a few, whether conducted according to a traditional program or ad hoc, we usually do something careful, respectful, and social when someone dies.
Continue reading Understanding History, Part 2: The First Purpose Of Funerals →
When we’re trying to decide what types of funeral arrangements to buy there are certain considerations that come to mind, including how much we can afford, and what is necessary as far as legal requirements, respect for the deceased, religious traditions, and all of the concerns we have about grief and mourning.
Is too much of a funeral extravagant? Is too little of a funeral a mistake?
These questions underlie much of the work on this site, including the research studies I’ve been reviewing in recent weeks. Studying what people have been doing for their funerals and how that has been working out for them is helpful, and I plan to continue describing new research as it comes to light.
When making arrangements or advising others or just thinking about all the choices, one question that has arisen in my mind is, what have people done in the past? And I don’t just mean the past decades or even the past century: I mean, what different ceremonial things did we do for the thousands of years we’ve been taking care of our dead and leaving physical traces or written explanations that can be examined today?
Continue reading Understanding History Part 1: Introduction →
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.
Continue reading Surveys Show A Trend Toward The Least Expensive Cremation Choices →
The key changes that cremation has caused in American funerals, as I explained last week, affect the two main segments of the funeral industry. First, ceremonies can be curtailed and no longer need to be held under the supervision of a funeral director, and second, the body no longer has to go to a cemetery.
These funeral home and cemetery effects are not directly related. The ashes can be interred at a cemetery whether or not there was a ceremony, and you can hold rituals regardless of burial plans. Only limited data exist to tell us what consumers are actually doing, because academic researchers do not conduct many studies of funeral purchases (and none recently), and the funeral industry tends to report only partial data—fragments rather than the whole picture. Through the studies already reviewed and some more to come, I will try to create an accurate picture of the overall impact of cremation.
Continuing, then, to build this data puzzle, we turn again to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) for a few more pieces.
CANA, as noted previously, provides complete data on annual cremations performed in North America based on official vital statistics reports.
Although consumer research does not appear to be a CANA priority in recent years, back in the 1990s they did conduct one study that gives a useful benchmark for where things stood before the recent decades of accelerating change.
The CANA Special Report: 1996/97 Cremation Container, Disposition and Service Survey reported on a survey of 241 crematories which asked the crematory operators to provide details of 50 consecutive cremations. They were also asked the total number of cremations they performed during the previous year, which was used to create a weighted value proportionate to the 492,434 cremation performed in the U.S. in 1996. Results had a 90 percent confidence level of being within a deviation of about 5 percent.
Following are results of the 1997 CANA survey:
Continue reading New Cremation Trends Include Taking The Ashes Home →