Cremation

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Karen Heller’s “The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom” for The Washington Post is a nearly pitch-perfect roundup of how egocentric choices seem to diminish every cultural and religious custom they touch. 

For all the language about not denying death and “hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased,” the “celebration of life”  movement is just as death-haunted as some funeral traditions in the cultural past — and, as shown in Heller’s report, silent on larger questions about an afterlife.

After leading with a solid illustration from a “Memorialpalooza” for entertainment agent Howard West, Heller turns to the factors (hello Baby Boomers) driving the trend of funerals as parties. This passage is long, but essential reading:

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals.

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population. …

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

Not a dying trend: This is why cremations — and religion — keep making headlines in the U.S.

If you read my last post on the subject, you know that my wife, Tamie, wants to be cremated when she dies.

I, on the other hand, prefer to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact.

I bring up this issue — once again — because the rising number of cremations in the U.S. again has sparked a wave of headlines.

The New York Times is among major news organizations covering the trend, with a story headlined "In a Move Away From Tradition, Cremations Increase":

An envelope was in Carmen Rosa’s desk in her apartment in Co-op City in the Bronx — an envelope that she had instructed her son not to open until after she died. Inside were more instructions, and they left her son, Alfredo Angueira, flabbergasted.
Ms. Rosa, the longtime district manager of Community Board 12 in the Bronx who died in March 2015 at age 69, directed that she was to be cremated and her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery. Mr. Angueira called that “a shocker.”
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted,” he said, explaining that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge where celebrities like Billie Holiday and Frankie Lymon are interred. So are at least four of Ms. Rosa’s relatives, including her mother.
But cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now, for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.

Right away, the Times hints at a strong religion angle (read: changing beliefs) behind this trend.

And later, the story notes:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In America, cremations now outnumber burials — what's religion got to do with it?

In America, cremations now outnumber burials — what's religion got to do with it?

My hippie wannabe wife insists that she wants to be cremated when she dies.

"I think it's environmentally friendly," my bride tells me. "Countless acres are filled up with remains inside caskets.

"Plus, it will allow me to spare you guys a lot of expense and possibly trauma and heartache," she adds.

Rather than be buried in a cemetery, Tamie says she wants to be "mixed in with the roots of a tree and planted in the mountains in the breathtakingly beautiful area where six generations of my family have made memories together. I think it would be nice to contribute to nature rather than be a burden on it."

Well, alrighty. 

As for me, I want to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact. I don't like flames. So it sounds like my wife of 27 years and I will — at some point hopefully many years in the future — spend the first part of eternity apart.

In all seriousness, we are both people of strong Christian faith — but we come down on different sides of the cremation vs. burial question. 

I bring up the topic because of a fascinating Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story this week that noted cremation is becoming the new norm in America:

When Scott Beinhauer’s forebears expanded their funeral business in 1921 with a location just south of the then-new Liberty Tunnel, they added a rare piece of equipment: a crematory.
For nearly a century it stood as the second-oldest crematory in use in the nation, although it would have received only occasional use for its first few decades, when more than 95 percent of Americans were still opting for burial.
That began to change in the 1960s, and now the nation has reached a cultural tipping point, with cremations outnumbering burials. The Memorial Day tradition of paying respects for the departed are increasingly taking place in columbariums rather than graveyards.

Longtime GetReligion readers will be thrilled to know that the byline atop the Post-Gazette trend piece belongs to Peter Smith, one of the best religion writers on the planet.

That means — hurrah! — that the writer definitely gets religion, and that makes this story a joy to read. Well, as much a joy as a story about dying can be ...

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What world religions practice cremation? Why do some reject it?

What world religions practice cremation? Why do some reject it?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

What do various faiths say about cremation vs. burial of remains? I know in some places like the United Kingdom cremation has become very common, maybe even surpassing ground burial.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Cremation (high-temperature burning that turns a corpse into ashes and bone fragments) is indeed by far the majority practice in the United Kingdom today. It’s also on the upswing in the United States, where the National Funeral Directors Association posts these statistics: As recently as 2005, families chose cremation with 32.3 percent of deaths, rising to an estimated 48.5 percent for 2015 and a projected 71 percent by 2030.

One reason for the shift is cremation’s lower cost, currently a median $6,078 compared with $8,508 for burial (with vault). The NFDA says other reasons for cremation’s growing popularity are “environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions, and changing consumer preferences such as a desire for less ritualized funerals.”

Advocates of cremation say it’s sanitary, makes better use of land particularly in cities, and the “cremains” can be portable if preserved in urns rather than scattered. Non-religious arguments on behalf of burial are continuation of tradition acceptable to all family members, and the permanent site always available to visit for reflection (though cremated ashes can also be preserved at one location such as a columbarium).

Turning to the religious aspect, cremation is customary in both Hinduism and Buddhism, religions that believe the dead person will be reborn into different human bodies or other species over countless lives. In the highly disputed suttee tradition, some Hindu widows would immolate themselves alive on a funeral pyre after their husbands’ bodies were burned up.

Please respect our Commenting Policy