Environmental concerns are one of the reasons Americans are opting for cremation. Godong/Stone via Getty Images
The National Funeral Directors Association has predicted that by 2035, nearly 80% of Americans will opt for cremation.
When the first U.S. indoor cremation machine was opened in 1876 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the creator and operator, Francis LeMoyne, was severely criticized by the Catholic Church. The new method of disposal was viewed as dangerous because it threatened traditional religious burial and society’s sense of morality and dignity.
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Less than 100 years later – in 1963 – English writer Jessica Mitford wrote the bestselling book “The American Way of Death” as a way to educate Americans about what she viewed as the awful commercialization of dying, death and commemoration. After a strong criticism of funeral directors, cemeterians and other associated professions, she ended with a plea for cremation.
So what has led to such a dramatic shift today? As an American historian who wrote “The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History,” following that up almost 30 years later with “Is the Cemetery Dead?,” I know that people are choosing cremation for different reasons, depending on their circumstances.
Here are three main ones:
1. Funerals and ground burials are expensive
Although figures differ depending on the source, families are spending an average of over US$8,000 on funerals, ranging from $6,700 in Mississippi to just under $15,000 in Hawaii, according to the World Population Review.
That compares with $1,000 to $2,000 for a direct cremation, in which the crematory or funeral director doesn’t provide any services beyond the actual cremation of the body, as the blog Partings.com, which compares the pricing of funerals and cremations, points out.
However, many survivors don’t choose to do the least costly cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association noted that for a funeral with a cremation, the median cost was over $6,000 – certainly a savings, but not the enormous amount many websites proclaim.
Additionally, this is not a new development: Direct cremation was far cheaper than a full burial in 1960 or 1990, too.
2. Environmental costs
Cost clearly plays a role, but not a determining one for such a rapid shift in cultural practices. A second major factor is environmental concerns related to a conventional internment, in which a body is placed in a casket and the casket is buried or entombed.
Alexandra Harker, a landscape architect working to improve America’s sustainable environments, has described how concerns about such burials in the cemetery range from issues about the use of the land to the methods by which the body is prepared and stored.
Some people are increasingly upset by the environmental costs of a burial. A conventional burial necessitates the body being embalmed, usually with formaldehyde; placed in a casket, often made of hardwood or steel; then lowered in many cases into a concrete or steel grave liner or vault, with the surrounding lawn typically kept green by the use of pesticides. Roughly 1.5 million burials or entombments means Americans are using thousands of tons of copper, bronze and steel, over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and millions of feet of wood.
In a related concern, Harker notes that in a survey by the Cremation Association of North America in 2008, 13% of people chose cremation because of worries about cemetery land scarcity. Cremation internments take up much less space than ground burials.
However, people are exploring the idea of “green” burial in some new cemeteries where money earned from burials can serve to fund a “conservation easement” that protects the space so it will be there long after those interned have become part of the land.
Conventional cremation burns the body by use of natural gas, which is not considered as environmentally sensitive as simply burying the body without the use of harmful chemicals among other materials. Natural gas emits particulate matter and hard metals such as mercury, especially in older crematories.
3. Fewer Americans belong to a church
A third factor is the disruption of people’s connection to religious institutions, which leads them away from the cemetery.
In 2021, only about 47% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, compared with 1999, when over 70% of adults stated they were affiliated with one such religious institution.
A growing number of younger Americans in particular are not tied to the religious institution where their grandparents and parents may have had a service after their death or from which funeral corteges would have left for the cemetery. The result is that they are more likely to opt for a method of disposing the body that places them in control of the remains.
Is cremation here to stay?
Will the rise of cremation affect other elements of the way Americans respond to deaths? Americans have long been accused of having “death anxiety,” a fear of even discussing death. For many families, the control that cremations give them has been accompanied by a increased willingness to publicly mourn, as evidenced by the rapid spread of roadside shrines, memorial tattoos and other “everyday memorials” that are utilized by a widespread number of families.
Most Americans are now comfortable with cremation as a practice. They like the power that it gives them to inter the remains in the cemetery, keep them at home, or scatter them in forests, parks, oceans and streams.
Alternatives, such as green burial, will challenge this practice, but for the foreseeable future, Americans have joined much of the world in embracing cremation.
David Sloane does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The days the music died: A look at funerals of the greats, from Elvis to Prince
He died Dec. 25, 2006. Along with thousands of fans, Michael Jackson, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder were among dozens of celebrities who attended or performed at various events. There was a public memorial at New York's Apollo Theater on Dec. 28. Another memorial drew more than 8,000 fans to the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, on Dec. 30.
A private funeral was held in North Augusta, in Brown's native South Carolina.
Brown's body (which underwent three wardrobe changes in Augusta) was placed in a bronze casket polished to a high shine. It was driven through the streets of New York to the Apollo in a white, glass horse-drawn carriage. There was a similar procession in Georgia, where fans screamed when Jackson entered the arena.
And the music? It was ever-present, shown on video screens and performed live, as was the case with the send-offs for many other luminaries in the business.
Jackson spoke briefly in Augusta: "James Brown is my greatest inspiration. ... When I saw him move, I was mesmerized."
The sudden death of Jackson himself at age 50 convulsed fans around the globe on June 25, 2009. After a private service, a public memorial on July 7 at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles was broadcast live around the world. The audience has been estimated at more than 1 billion.
Jackson's bronze casket, similar to Brown's, was plated with 14-karat gold and lined with blue velvet. Each of Jackson's brothers wore a single white sequined glove to honor him. The celebrities on hand included Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.
Queen Latifah read "We Had Him," a poem written for the service by Maya Angelou. Jackson's daughter, Paris, only 11 at the time, wept as she spoke of her love for the "best father you could ever imagine." The ceremony was televised around the world.
Jackson was buried weeks later, on Sept. 3 in Glendale, California at a private burial attended by Elizabeth Taylor among others.
The soul and gospel superstar was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel on Dec. 11, 1964. He was just 33. The details of his death have been disputed over the years and accounts of funeral and public memorials vary.
One report had thousands of fans clogging streets for a public viewing in Chicago, where he had lived as a boy and where Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, showed up. The crowd at a church service was so big that Cooke's wife and two daughters had to be lifted over the people to get inside.
Cooke's body was on view in Los Angeles for three days, shielded in a plastic case.
A second church service, also in Los Angeles more than a week after his death, included Ray Charles singing "The Angels Keep Watching Over Me."
The Notorious B.I.G.
Considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, Biggie Smalls was shot to death on a Los Angeles street in a drive-by on March 9, 1997.
On March 18, thousands of fans lined the route of a hearse that carried his body from Manhattan through the streets of Brooklyn, passing his childhood home. People hung out of windows, climbed lampposts and hopped on top of cars for a glimpse.
The procession came after a private, star-studded service at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan. Rap and other music royalty of the time turned out: Queen Latifah, Flava Flav, Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim, Lil' Caesar, Run-DMC, DJ Kool Herc, Busta Rhymes, Salt 'N Pepa, and Foxy Brown among them.
Biggie's body sported a white double-breasted suit and cap, and was in a mahogany coffin, according to one report. His mother, Voletta Wallace, read scripture in a room alive with the scent of roses.
His estranged wife, singer Faith Evans, sang "Walk With Me, Lord."
Her family declined to hold a public service after her sudden death in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2012, at age 48, choosing to honor the pop icon with a televised, invitation-only funeral at New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey.
And what a funeral it was on Feb. 18. It lasted four hours at her childhood church that seated 1,500. Her shining casket was transported by a gold-colored hearse and topped with roses of soft purple and off-white.
Performances by Stevie Wonder, CeCe Winans, Alicia Keys and others were mixed with hymns sung by the church choir. Houston's musical mentor, record mogul Clive Davis (she died right before she was to attend his pre-Grammy party), and Houston's cousin, Dionne Warwick, spoke. So did Kevin Costner, her co-star in the 1992 film "The Bodyguard." And Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer were among the guests.
It was a procession fit for a king.
Presley died at Graceland in Memphis on Aug. 16, 1977. The crowds in the aftermath got so thick that then President Jimmy Carter called out 300 National Guard troops to manage things.
After a trip to a funeral home for embalming, the body was returned to Graceland and set up in the foyer for public viewing. More than 30,000 fans were let in, according to one account.
The funeral on Aug. 18 was modest, held in Graceland's living room. It was attended by celebrities, of course, including his "Viva Las Vegas" co-star Ann Margret, along with James Brown. More impressive was the long line of cars following Presley's white hearse on the way to Forest Hill Cemetery for burial next to his beloved mother, Gladys Love.
An estimated 80,000 people lined the street with handmade signs to watch the procession.
After a thief tried to snatch his body, the remains of both Elvis and his mother were moved to a garden at Graceland.
Death, as in his personal life, was a private affair for Prince Rogers Nelson, but the world mourned after he was found unresponsive in the elevator of his Paisley Park home and studio complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota, on April 21, 2016. He was 57 and an autopsy revealed an accidental drug overdose from fentanyl.
Some fans continue to question the circumstances of his death, and he was quickly cremated, but at the time shock and sadness took over around the world.
The U.S. Senate passed a resolution praising his achievements. Vigils and tributes multiplied for days, with cities lighting buildings, bridges and other venues in his trademark purple.
At Paisley Park, fans stood sobbing outside the chain-link fence, leaving flowers, drawings and other tributes.
The funeral was held in Minnetonka, Minnesota, at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall where he often worshipped. His many collaborators and bandmates over the years, including Sheila E. and Larry Graham, attended.
The bluesy rock queen with the psychedelic Porsche joined the burgeoning 27 club on Oct. 4, 1970, the day she died of a heroin overdose. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered by plane in the Pacific Ocean and along Stinson Beach in Marin County, California.
Her funeral was tiny and very private, but she had one last party left. Her will set aside $2,500 for an all-night bash for her friends, both famous and those behind the scenes, held Oct. 26 of that year at a popular Marin club, The Lion's Share.
Everyone was treated to performance from The Grateful Dead, thanks to Joplin.