Being diagnosed with severe emphysema, as I was recently, has a way of focusing one’s thoughts on the reality of personal mortality. To the extent that WebMD can be considered reliable, I have about a 55 to 60 percent chance of still being alive in four years. Needless to say, these odds are better than 50 percent or less, and I plan to use my remaining time wisely—in contrast to my teen years and early adulthood, when cigarettes were an integral component of my daily life. When I quit in 1974 after some twenty years of smoking, I had acquired a two- to three-pack-a-day habit.
Since the 1972 publication of my The American View of Death: Acceptance or Denial?, which I coauthored with Dennis C. Foss, much has changed, including death rates and average life expectancies. While neither death nor dying have been eradicated, average life expectancies have increased significantly between 1970 and 2010 (see table 1). Though the data reveal notable increases in life expectancy for all categories, males have made gains vis-à-vis females, with the greatest relative gains accruing to black males: namely, 11.8 years.
Among the most probable reasons for the gender-related shifts are the increasing proportions of women entering the labor force, which subjects them to additional stresses and anxieties. Gainfully employed women also bear the greater burden of housework and child rearing relative to men, thereby further negatively affecting their life prospects. Additionally, the smoking rate among women has been on the increase.
The life prospects for males have been further enhanced by certain behavioral changes, most noteworthy being the decline in the smoking rate.
Regarding the declining differentials due to race, it seems highly probable that attitudinal and behavioral changes accompanying the civil rights movement, including the antidiscrimination legislation of the mid-1960s, have had salutary effects. Affirmative action programs have likely played a major role as well.
To what extent have American attitudes toward death changed since the publication of my book? Probably not much, because the same pressures and inducements to simultaneously accept and deny death persist. To the extent that they have changed, available evidence suggests, but does not prove, more realistic acceptance of death.
I believe that the strongest objective evidence for greater attitudinal acceptance of death may be found in increasing cremation rates. Traditional funeral-industry practices of body preservation and burial probably reflect and contribute to death denial more than acceptance, because the apparent intent is to preserve the body following death. (The body is drained of blood, which is replaced with embalming fluid. It is then placed in a casket, which is often further encased in a concrete or steel container before being lowered into the ground or entombed in a vault.) In marked contrast, cremation totally destroys the body by burning it to a crisp, so to speak, from whence probably emanates the euphemism “crispy critter.” It is literally the implementation of the process of rendering ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Of course, it is also possible that cost differences have accounted for the growing popularity of cremation. Whereas the price for a traditional funeral may be several thousand dollars, a cremation can be had for but a few hundred dollars, on average. It seems likely that the growing popularity of cremation is due to some combination of increasing death acceptance as well as its being less expensive.
In the fifty-year period from 1960 to 2010, the cremation rate in the United States increased from 3.56 percent to 40.62 percent, with the National Funeral Directors Association projecting an increase to 51.12 percent by 2025. The overall national rate conceals a great deal of state-by-state variation, however, as revealed in table 2. A cursory examination suggests that cremation rates tend to be lowest in the southern and certain midwestern states. Those states, as has been shown in recent previous research, tend to be more religious. In my recently published When Hate Happens, So Does Other Bad Stuff: Respect Diversity—Teach Tolerance—Fight Hate! (FriesenPress, 2013), I demonstrated that states exhibiting “extreme religiosity of beliefs and practices” also had the highest “hate rates.”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey—the results of which were published in 2009 and which involved a representative probability sample of over thirty-five thousand adults—contained a series of questions pertaining to religious beliefs and practices.
My original, and novel, composite measure or indicator of extreme religiosity derives from how individuals in each state responded to five select beliefs-and-practices questions: (a) they are “absolutely certain that God exists”; (b) they “believe the Bible to be the actual word of God, literally true, word for word”; (c) they assert that “religion is a very important part of their daily lives”; (d) they “attend religious services at least once a week”; and (e) they pray at least once a day” (emphasis added). It is calculated as a simple standardized z-score.
Figure 1. Relationship between extreme religiosity, HIGHREL, and the cremation rate, CREMRATE, for the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. (r = -.716; p = .000)
Figure 1 displays the relationship between extreme religiosity, labeled as “HIGHREL,” and the cremation rate, “CREMRATE,” for the fifty U.S. states and Washington, D.C. As can be seen by examining the scatter diagram and associated statistics, the relationship is a strong negative one; namely, the higher the degree of extreme religiosity, the lower the cremation rate (r = -.716; p = .000).
From the 2008 Pew Forum and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, I also developed corresponding and comparable measures of moderate and low religiosity, MODREL and LOWREL. The relationship between MODREL and CREMRATE showed a moderately strong positive relationship (r = .373; p = .007), while that between LOWREL and CREMRATE was a strong positive one; namely, the higher the degree of low religiosity, the higher the cremation rate (r = .773; p = .000).
The findings of the current study suggest that the increasing secularization of American culture and society will be accompanied by a corresponding increase in the popularity of cremation as an alternative to traditional funerary practices. Simultaneously, such an eventuality is likely to indicate greater willingness to accept the reality of death.