How the Nonreligious Are Reshaping American Burial

Simon Davis

Prior to his death a few years ago, Jim Underdown’s father, James, requested that he be cremated, becoming the first in his family to do so. A month later, a memorial luncheon was held in Chicago. In accordance with James’s wishes, his cremated remains were scattered in a wooded area in Wisconsin of which he was fond. The decision to forgo traditional burial that was the norm in his family was in line with James’s rejection of religion. “He certainly didn’t want any churchiness surrounding his death,” said his son, Jim, who is executive director of the Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles.

The desire to eschew burial and opt for cremation is becoming more common each year in the United States, largely for similar reasons. According to the annual report of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) issued last July, 2015 was projected to be the year that cremation surpasses burial for the first time in the United States, the culmination of a long-standing trend. A key factor driving this is decreased religiosity. The NFDA’s latest annual report singles it out: “A surge in the number of Americans that no longer identify with any religion has contributed to the decline of the historically traditional funeral in America—and the rise in cremation as the disposition of choice.”

For the past few years, the NFDA has conducted surveys asking Americans forty and older to rank the importance of including a religious component in the funeral for a loved one. The percentage of people expressing the least enthusiasm—those responding that it is “not at all important”—has more than doubled in the last three years, from 10.4 percent to 21.4 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of people calling a religious component “very important” has declined from 49.5 percent in 2012 to 42.3 percent in the same period. A separate survey is conducted every five years by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC), a trade group representing several associations in the death-care industry, including the NFDA. In the most recent study, in 2015, 91 percent of nonreligious respondents said they’d be “definitely” or “somewhat likely” to consider cremation for a friend or family member. That is by far the highest pro-cremation response rate that FAMIC has recorded—and an all-time high even for the “Nones” (the other religious groupings FAMIC polled are Catholic, Protest, Baptist, and Other).

It should be noted that not all religious groups active in the United States either mandate that a body be buried in a typical casket and vault or shun cremation. With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox Church, most Christian denominations no longer actively oppose cremation. Reform Judaism also permits it. Islam prohibits cremation but mandates burial without a casket. On the other hand, Buddhist and Hindu traditions have long encouraged cremation.

 

To be sure, burial need not incorporate a religious ceremony. So why is it then that the nonreligious are increasingly drawn to cremation? Overall, according to Barbara Kemmis, the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), cost is the most-cited reason that her organization has found in its consumer surveys that people prefer cremation. However, there are other considerations—particularly the flexibility to have a memorial ceremony after some time has passed, with practically limitless options for venue. Kemmis said that she hears the term destination funerals used more often these days. In the Underdown family’s case, the month that intervened between James’s death and his memorial service not only gave his family time to plan it but also allowed more notice for other people invited from all over the country so they could attend. A CANA infographic shows a very high correlation between cremation rates and religiosity among states. (For example, in religious Mississippi, 17.7 percent of the dead are cremated; in noneligious Oregon, it’s 73.2 percent).

Citing the FAMIC data, Kemmis’s sense is that nonreligious people are also highly likely to not be beholden to what are today considered traditional funeral rites—hence, their greater desire to choose cremation. “When I hear consumers talk about it, there [might be] balloon releases, [or] dove releases, and different things that are unique and personal . . . certainly what no one would call ‘traditional,’” she said. This lack of attachment to postmortem traditions factored heavily in James Underdown’s thinking: “He had no feeling of belonging in a place where ‘one’s own kind’ would be resting nearby for all time—like a Catholic or Jewish cemetery. He knew that once he was dead, it didn’t really matter what happened to his body, because he would not be able to experience anything anyway,” said Jim.

Are other options besides cremation and burial such as body donation or “green” burial seeing similar gains in traction? NFDA statistics don’t break out selection of these options individually, but the total national percentage they report for these alternatives is 6.9 percent in 2015, an increase from 6.3 percent in 2005. Some states record method of disposition on the death certificate. Kemmis’s research shows that body donation percentages in California and in Arizona, where this information is tracked by state agencies, is “well into the double digits.” Among people who identify as atheists or secular humanists, body donation may be even more popular. Margaret Downey is a secular humanist celebrant from Philadelphia who has officiated weddings, baby-naming ceremonies, and funeral services across the country for more than a decade. She says that body donation is actually the most frequently chosen option for those who ask her to officiate at memorial services. From a ceremonial point of view, the main difference from burial or cremation is that cadaver donations are typically done immediately, so services in these cases usually don’t include a viewing of the body.

Surveys of prospective body donors have not been included in funeral and cremation industry questionnaires, but there has been some research published in medical journals. A 2012 study in Anatomical Science Education looked at the religious affiliation of people who had signed up as donors in New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa. The nonreligious were substantially more likely to donate than the general population in all countries. A 2004 study of Maryland households in Clinical Anatomy found that—among other factors—“attitudes about religion/spirituality” were “significantly associated with 40–70 percent less odds of willingness to consider donation.” However, a 2012 PLoS One study that looked at couples’ body donations in Hawaii didn’t find a correlation with religious observance or lack of it.

Reliable statistics on how many people opt for green burial (inground burial without a casket of a body that has not been embalmed with formaldehyde) are not readily available. However, the Green Burial Council (GBC), a private nonprofit organization that certifies funeral providers and burial grounds, knows of 115 burial grounds that meet its criteria—a tiny fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousands of cemeteries in the United States, albeit one that is growing. In April, GBC published the responses to its survey from thirty-seven cemeteries in its network. The nonreligious/unaffiliated were significantly overrepresented, being 72.7 percent of the total number buried in the respondents’ cemeteries, second only to Protestants at 77 percent.

 

The NFDA projects that by the year 2030, only 23.2 percent of Americans will be buried in caskets in cemeteries, a sharp decline from 61.4 percent just ten years ago. Given that growth in the number of American Nones shows no signs of abating, might this mean a more enduring shift in what Americans consider a “traditional” funeral/burial to be? Kemmis believes cremation is “becoming the new tradition in the United States” for the nonreligious and the religious as well. For the former, cremation offers a way to create an individualized memorial service. For the latter, it can be seamlessly incorporated into traditional practices. She illustrates the point by paraphrasing what a funeral home outside of Boston that serves predominantly Catholic families told her: “When a family chooses cremation, it’s [just] an extra step. You’ve got the mass, you’ve got the wake, you go to the cemetery . . . but first we go to the crematory.”

This article has been adapted from one posted by the Religion News Service on December 17, 2015.

Further Reading

Anteby, Michel, Filiz Garip, Paul V. Martorana, and Scott Lozanoff. 2012. “Individuals’ Decision to Co-Donate or Donate Alone: An Archival Study of Married Whole Body Donors in Hawaii.” PLoS One 7, No. 8: e42673. Published online August 7, 2012.

Boulware, L. E., L. E. Ratner, L. A. Cooper, T. A. LaVeist, and N. R. Powe. 2004. “Whole Body Donation for Medical Science: A Population-based Study.” Clinical Anatony, October.

Cornwall, J., G. Perry, G. Louw, and M. Stringer. 2012. “Who Donates Their Body to Science? An International, Multicenter, Prospective Study.” Anatomical Sciences Education July/August.

Green Burial Council. 2015. “Green Burial Cemetery Survey.” January. Available at http://greenburialcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-GBC-Survey.pdf.pdf, March 7, 2016.

Simon Davis

Simon Davis is the online marketing director for a health-care publications company and event coordinator for the Center for Inquiry–Washington, D.C. He grew up in Greece.


Cremation’s popularity is swelling. One factor seems to be growth among the nonreligious.

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