We can finally put the dad joke to rest: People are no longer dying to get into cemeteries.
Year over year, cremation is proving itself as the preferred destination after death, particularly for its low cost, small environmental footprint, and logistical ease.
And unless funeral directors figure out how to disrupt their own industry, they risk losing footing to a method that has now become the default option.
Data from the National Funeral Directors Association show 2015 is the first year cremations beat out burials in terms of popularity, at 48.5% over 45.6%. Over time that trend will only accelerate, NFDA predicts.
By 2020, cremations will control 56.2% of the death market share. By 2030, they will be the preferred choice for 71% of the US population.
Underlying these statistics are broader societal trends.
We are becoming more eco-friendly, thinking not just of ourselves but the planet that will absorb the chemicals coating our casket and the embalming fluid pooling in our bodies.
We’re also more cost-conscious, which means spending upward of $US10,000 on a funeral service no longer has the appeal when cremation costs a fraction of that.
And we are less religious, which means death — along with the ceremonies that follow — begin to lose their sanctity.
The death of a tradition
Elizabeth Fournier has been a mortician for 25 years at Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation in Boring, Oregon. Her state has the third-highest rate of cremations in the country and the lowest rate of burials. It stands in direct contrast to Mississippi, where nearly 80% of people choose to be buried.
Why the gap?
“A lot of people migrate to the west coast,” Fournier says.
In building families in California, Oregon, and Washington, people tend to leave behind their southern and East Coast legacies. For the ones that stay, tradition continues to dominate the culture.
“Families stay in Texas, they stay in Alabama, they stay in Mississippi,” Fournier says. “And you do what the people did before you.”
To keep cremation from suffocating the industry, funeral directors must get creative in how they operate, says Annie Luchsinger, director of operations at Attendant, a company that assists families with their loved one’s finances after death.
“Cremation is a primary contributor to the decrease in number funeral homes,” she tells Tech Insider.
By the NFDA’s tally, the number of funeral homes in the US has declined from 21,528 in 2004 to 19,391 in 2015, with yearly revenue seeing parallel lags.
The biggest task for funeral directors is transforming a bleak family obligation into a vibrant, multi-pronged business.
This includes “making memorial videos or tributes, offering keepsake jewellery and remembrance items, or partnering with other service providers” that can ultimately “contribute to multiple, new revenue streams that can help keep them in the black,” Luchsinger says.
Attendant has also seen new-age homes dabble in using Google’s Hangout function. Farflung relatives can video conference with the funeral service without having to make a cross-country journey — a way to send their love in pixels, even if it’s not in person.
The strategies might appeal to some people, but cremation has momentum on its side. Attitudes are changing in America, and the long-term costs we bear in preserving burials, both individually and as a society, are no longer worth it for many mourners.