The Death of the Funeral Business

The wheels are coming off the funeral business as God takes a backseat to online memorials, Facebook messages and "life celebrations." How we're blurring the line between life and the grave.
Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder.

Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder.

Over the summer, my 98-year-old Aunt Elizabeth passed away, after a long, full life.

In the wake (heh) of her memorial service, I got a letter from her daughter, my cousin Stephanie. It had a chart of our family’s two burial plots at Hillside Cemetery in Roslyn, showing who’s interred in which graves, and … well, let me just quote:

The original cemetery contract entitles one burial to be made in each grave without additional charge. … This is called the “first right.” But if someone decides to be buried in one of the seven graves that have never yet been opened, and wants to be sure that the burial will be deep enough to allow for a second later burial in the same grave, he/she must pay a fee (currently just under $2,500) to reserve the “second right” to that grave. If the second right is not paid for at the time of the first burial, there will not be room for a second burial in the grave. It follows that if everyone who eventually uses those graves pays up front for the “second right,” the two lots can accommodate 16 more burials. On the other hand, if no one who eventually uses those graves pays for the second right, the two lots will accommodate only nine more burials.

It went on from there.

Mine is a family that takes six months to decide who’ll host the annual Christmas Eve party. The prospect of the dozens of us cousins jockeying for eternal occupancy of those remaining grave sites (“There are also guidelines about burials of spouses of family members”) is dizzying. And frankly, the chances of any of us ponying up $2,500 at our time of death to altruistically save the space atop us are dim. When it comes to that, I love my relatives, but I’d have a hard time opting for the open slot above Aunt Phyllis, who was a wonderful woman but worried ceaselessly about my weight.

Luckily, I don’t envision any grand family smackdowns over the vacant graves. I plan to be cremated. So do my siblings and husband. Forty-three percent of Americans who died last year were burned instead of buried—up from 24 percent in 1998. That’s a staggering rise in the course of just 15 years. (The figure was under five percent as recently as 1972.) By 2017, the Cremation Association of North America predicts, half of us will be consumed by flames. In Britain, three-quarters of the dead already are.

Much of the impetus for this is economic: A traditional American funeral costs $8,300 (not counting plot), vs. $1,400 for cremation (with urn and no service). But what we do with ourselves when we die isn’t just a matter of money, and funerals aren’t just about disposal of the dead. They’re rituals we perform in order to adjust to the loss of a loved one, and to place that loss within a larger framework that gives meaning to the life that’s gone.

For Americans, religion once provided that framework. The rise in cremation dovetails neatly with the increase in those of us who have no religious affiliation—now one-fifth, the highest percentage ever, according to a recent Pew Research poll. We’re not nearly as concerned with the hereafter as we used to be. The number of Americans who don’t believe Christ rose from the dead jumped by 13 percent in a single year from 2012 to 2013.

A societal changeover from burial to cremation is momentous for our culture. It signals a cataclysmic shift in how we think about our bodies and ourselves. If we’re no longer preserving our remains for the glorious moment when the trumpet blares the Resurrection, does it matter what we do with them? What is the meaning of life, and death, once religion goes?