In his half-century in the death business, Richard Moylan has never experienced years like these.
As president of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, he spends his days managing the historic site where families have spent the past couple years tending to loved ones lost to the pandemic. But the bigger change had been building before then: the choice to routinely cremate over traditional casket burial of years past.
At the height of the pandemic, Green-Wood’s crematory burned constantly, 16 to 18 hours daily. A wall recently collapsed. Maintenance costs spiked. Last year, 4,500 bodies entered the five chambers, a 35% increase over 2019.
So many ashes to ashes, so much dust to dust. Cremation is now America’s leading form of final “disposition,” as the funeral industry calls it — a preference that shows no sign of abating.
In 2020, 56% of Americans who died were cremated, more than double the figure of 27% two decades earlier, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). By 2040, 4 out of 5 Americans are projected to chose cremation over casket burial, according to both CANA and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).
This seismic shift represents potentially severe revenue losses for the funeral industry. It’s leading innovators to create a growing number of green alternatives and other choices that depart from traditional casket funerals. And rapidly shifting views about disposing with bodies have also led to changes in how we memorialize loved ones — and reflect an increasingly secular, transient and, some argue, death-phobic nation.
A fear of dealing with death now?
“Some people want it over and done with. You wonder if they’ll come to regret that later,” Moylan says of cremation. “With cremation families, a lot of them don’t want to know what we do or how we do it or don’t care to know what you can do with a cremated body. This generation just doesn’t want to do the three-day-long funeral home thing.”
The increase in cremation is “the single greatest change in our funeral practices in our generation or, I’d venture to say, in the last couple of centuries,” says Thomas Lynch, a Michigan poet and funeral director of 50 years. “People want the body disappeared, pretty much. I think it reminds us of what we lost.” In the United States, Lynch notes, “this is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”
Other countries have been quicker to embrace the practice, like Japan, with a rate of almost 100%, in part because of its high population density and paucity of burial grounds. Cremation is central to Hindu and Buddhist funeral practices, releasing the soul from the body. But Judaism, Catholicism and Islam resisted it, because of views about the sanctity of body and spirit in death. Though the United States’ first crematory opened in 1876 in Washington, Pa., Americans were slow to acceptance. They were just queasy about the practice. It took a century or more to evolve.
The rising cremation rate is “upending truly conventional ideas of how death and commemoration work,” says University of Southern California professor David Charles Sloane, the author of “Is the Cemetery Dead?” He grew up in one, his father a cemetery superintendent in Syracuse.
Traditional burials often use valuable space in high-density areas and may involve embalming chemicals, and non-biodegradable caskets with metal linings. But critics of cremation counter that it is dependent on fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases.
They argue that cremation can also have a desensitizing effect on families. It can be too easy. For some, it’s drive-through death. For others, cremation offers the opportunity to control and personalize life’s final ritual.
CANA estimates that 20 to 40% of cremated remains are interred in a cemetery — placed in the ground or a columbarium, a storage area for urns — while 60 to 80% are buried in another location, scattered (Walt Disney World a favored site) or kept at home, on the mantel or stashed in a closet. Some families bypass any ritual, be it saying goodbye to the body at the crematory, holding a funeral or establishing a permanent memorial.
There’s resonance in a body that forces families to deal with death. “The body is the incarnation of our mortality and our emotional loss,” Lynch says.
“Some families see it as: ‘I did my job. They’re cremated.’ They just get frozen about making a decision from there,” Sloane says. “I don’t think it’s a lack of caring. It’s just confusion.”
CANA executive director Barbara Kemmis counters, “There’s this assumption that the funeral director is the only person who can provide a meaningful death ritual.” Her family chose to travel to Colorado and scatter her brother’s remains in a national park, a celebration that still resonates almost three decades later. “The cremation rate is 100% being driven by the general public. It’s all about what grieving families want. They’re creating their own traditions, their own experiences.”
For most of history, death was a constant of daily life. Disease was rampant. Children died all the time. Mothers died in childbirth — where often the child died, too. Wars created entire graveyards of young men and boys. People acknowledged life’s transitory nature by placing reminders on the paths they traversed routinely — not by sticking cremated remains in an urn in the basement. The dead were laid out in homes and buried on family property. They were memorialized in art and photography; their hair became keepsakes tucked in lockets and pins. They were commemorated in stone, both modest and grandiose.
In the 19th century, “rural” cemeteries at the edge of growing cities, like Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. (1831), Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836) and Green-Wood (1838), were welcomed as parks.
Six decades ago, when the U.S. cremation rate was less than 5%, Jessica Mitford advocated for it as an affordable option in her searing, best-selling expose of the funeral industry, “The American Way of Death.” Her advice was not widely heeded, even with the Catholic Church’s 1963 lifting of its prohibition on cremation (though Islam and Conservative and Orthodox Judaism still prohibit it). Rates barely budged for years.
“Of all the rituals that humans do, death rituals are the most stable and least likely to change,” says Boston University professor Stephen Prothero. In the two decades since he published “Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America,” Prothero has been astonished by the soaring acceptance. “I’m a historian. I’m always skeptical of projections. I thought they were way too high — but I was wrong.”
Cremation finally skyrocketed as America became increasingly secular. Last year, the number of people belonging to a house of worship dropped below 50% for the first time since Gallup launched the poll in 1937.
Americans also started to recognize the convenience of cremation and its lower cost. Comparisons are challenging because of the many options, but the median price of a funeral with burial and viewing is $7,848, according to the NFDA, while the median cost of direct cremation is a third of the price at $2,550. Cremation with viewing and funeral is comparable to traditional burial, with a median cost of $6,970.
For families scattered across multiple states, there often seems little point in investing the effort and expense to bury a loved one in a cemetery no one will visit. Like pet food and leisure footwear, cremation is now available through direct-to-consumer websites such as Solace and Tulip.
Cremation is more popular in states that vote Democratic, include large transient populations or endure brutal winters that make the earth frozen solid. (Canada’s rates are notably higher than those of the United States.) Cremation rates already hover near or over 80% in Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Maine. They remain half that in Utah and many Southern states with large religiously observant populations.
Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, advocate and author, says funeral directors haven’t done enough to address contemporary Americans’ wishes.
“The cremation rates are telling us something. They’re screaming at us that people are not happy with what is available,” she says. “Cremation is more a rejection of the traditional funeral industry than an acceptance of cremation.” She craves innovation and meaning: “We need safe, beautiful ways to engage with death.”
The pandemic generated profound loss. In 2021, almost three-fourths of American counties reported more deaths than births. The age-adjusted death rate spiked more than 19%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following a nearly 17% increase the previous year.
Americans are nowhere near finished with spikes in death. The number of residents over 65 will nearly double in the next three decades, according to the Social Security Administration. The nation will experience a quarter more deaths by 2050 than it did in 2019. Deaths are projected to peak in 2055, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite these escalations, many families have become no more adept at planning for the inevitable. “There is this hyper-optimism of America. You’re supposed to look on the sunny side of life, which also mitigates a full experience of grief,” Prothero says. Mourning is not always accorded its due. Bereavement leaves transpire in days.
Some who have lost a loved one revel in defying convention and remaining joyful. Families uncomfortable with the solemnity of traditional funerals have replaced them with birthday-like celebrations of life.
When families choose cremation, they sometimes do so without a sense of long-term consequences. Elisa Krcilek, a funeral home vice president in Mesa, Ariz., where 80% of the families request cremation, says: “We’ve got to do a better job informing people that there’s a time to say goodbye and a place to say hello. The moment you scatter someone, you’re done. People need a memorial, to be remembered.”
Choices are increasing
As our supermarkets make clear, Americans crave choice. And with an increase in annual death has come more choice for dealing with bodies.
Many new ideas pick up on people’s willingness to eschew a casket, but are considered more environmentally viable than cremation. They include green burials (where the body is interred in a shroud or a biodegradable container so it naturally decomposes in the ground), natural organic reduction (human composting), promession (freeze-drying the body), infinity burial suits (a mushroom suit accelerating decomposition), and alkaline hydrolysis (a water-based, energy-efficient cremation process).
“If there’s anything that is going to slow down or reverse the cremation rate in the United States, it is green burials,” says Kemmis, the CANA executive director. “People are looking to the greenest final disposition so that our deaths will reflect our lives.”
Founded in spring 2019, Recompose in Seattle is the nation’s first company to offer natural organic reduction. The body is laid in a vessel on a bed of wood chips, alfalfa and straw and transformed into soil over 30 days, enough to fill a pickup truck, for a flat fee of $7,000. Some families take some soil for personal use; about half donate it to a forest or farm. Subscribers to Recompose’s newsletter about “the death care journey” have swelled to 25,000.
“People are looking for different options,” says Recompose outreach manager Anna Swenson. “Cost is a factor. Cultural beliefs are a factor. Guilt is a factor. The environment is a factor.” Recompose plans to expand to 10 facilities during the next decade.
New initiatives have met resistance from state legislatures and the funeral industry. Change is costly for the nation’s 18,874 funerals homes, many operating on slim margins, with consolidation frequent. Cremation, where the chamber heats to an optimum temperature of 1,400 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, requires an average of two to three hours; alkaline hydrolysis, with Bio-Response Solutions’ machines starting at $174,000, can take 16 to 20.
Natural organic reduction is legal only in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Promession is approved in Sweden and South Korea. Alkaline hydrolysis, which requires expanding the legal definition of cremation to include water, has been approved in 22 states but is available for humans in only 14.
Pets are another matter. West Laurel Hill Cemetery in suburban Philadelphia is home to the state’s first alkaline hydrolysis machine, which resembles an oversize fish poacher. Over four years, beginning with a five-foot-long alligator named Sheldon, 90 pets have been reduced to a fine white powder similar to baking soda.
With a move away from burial and as families opt for less expense, some industry officials worry that some cemeteries will fall into disarray. “We’ve always had dead cemeteries, family cemeteries where family died out or the farm got sold or the church was disbanded,” Sloane says. With fewer burials, he notes, many cemeteries “are struggling to maintain themselves.”
Older, urban ones have different challenges. “The march toward cremation is a good thing for a cemetery like Green-Wood that’s running out of room,” Moylan says.
Many historic sites have transformed themselves, hosting cultural events, membership programs and death cafes where people discuss life’s final passage. Hollywood Forever, founded in 1899, was on the brink of foreclosure in 1998 before new ownership added author discussions, podcasts, outdoor movie screenings and a massive Dia de los Muertos celebration. These events not only provide additional funding but build awareness at a time when cremation is king. “Ultimately, we’re building affinity with the community,” says Laurel Hill and West Laurel Cemeteries president Nancy Goldenberg.
Cemeteries are adapting to attract families interested in green alternatives, promoting them as a return to earlier practices. At West Laurel Hill, 258 people have pre-purchased space in the natural burial site, which was once the cemetery’s landfill. In a century, the burial ground will be transformed into forest. Graves are hand-dug by shovel, rather than a gas-fueled backhoe loader. “People want to return to the earth in a very purposeful way,” says arboretum manager Aaron Greenberg.
More Americans are choosing to die at home or in hospice with loved ones nearby, according to a 2019 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, as people did for centuries, rather than in hospitals. “Passing away at home is bringing death into a place that matters,” Sloane says. “This could lead to more personalization and how we memorialize.”
Lynch, the poet and undertaker, says he would like to see more cremations that are witnessed, with families present at the last moments before the body enters the chamber. “Cremation should be public, not private.”
Death needs to be honored as it long was, advocates contend, as fully observed as life’s other events. “It would be great if more emphasis was placed on something special for the individual. If it’s personalized, it will have more meaning for the family,” Moylan says. He’s excited about green burial and alkaline hydrolysis, choices that are better for the environment. And when his time comes, Moylan says he will probably choose cremation, “probably because it’s the easiest thing to do.”