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?

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  • MystiKasT

    well blacks are sending us all to our graves a little earlier than we’d like

  • Jim Black

    I’ll are wrestle you on Christmas Eve for that spot on top of Aunt Mildred!

  • lindab2

    Totally agree with this article, but I have to share what my 98 year old mother said about funerals — hers, in particular. “I don’t want a ‘memorial” — I don’t want a ‘celebration of my life’ for god’s sake. I want people to cry!!”

  • RuthAnnHarnisch

    I’m a member of the Infinity Burial Project. Jae Rhim Lee has designed what Stephen Colbert called “The ‘Shroom Tomb,” a biodegradable suit impregnated with toxin-mitigating mushroom spores. We can decompose and detox the earth at the same time! I wonder if I can combine that with a donation of my corpse to the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee where the study of decomposition aids in forensic science.

  • Apotopaic

    One factual error: dead bodies do not cause disease. Common misconception, unfortunately, that has led to mass graves after disasters.

  • Lee Calhoon

    And I love what Johnny Carson said about how he wanted to be buried…he said, “when I die I want to be freeze dried and pounded into the ground with a mallet”

  • RealityTeeVee

    That funeral home chick on Mob Wives from Philly will probably do them in.

  • Tizzielish

    A way to perk up the funeral biz is to have second lines, as they do in New Orleans. Gigs for musicians, community building, celebrating the deceased’s life through joyful singing and dancing. why not?

  • BT Hathaway

    Hi Sandy, congrats on the Marketplace interview. I caught the tail end of your talk with Kai last night. I’m a 4th generation funeral director who is facing 60% cremation rather than the 6% of your friends from Philly. At my rates, the entire business model starts to break down and your title becomes quite apt. I expect we will see (particularly in the northeast) a dramatic decline in the number of funeral homes in the years ahead.

    So now we need to find ways to address modern cremation which I see as detached and industrial. There’s nothing comforting about a generic serial number and an ugly black plastic box, so I’ve started something called MemryStone, ceramic markers which survivors inscribe with a message and send through the cremation process. The markers return with the final remains and provide a personal form of identity confirmation and a touchstone for love and memory. Molded by hand in SE Massachusetts and available to anyone across the country.

  • Tom Wiggins

    Everybody wants to go to Heaven, just nobody wants to go Today :))

  • Heritage Funeral Home

    It is misleading to compare an $8,300 funeral (not including plot) with a $1,400 cremation (with urn and no service). Cremation is simply an alternative form of disposition. A family can still have an $8,300 funeral and then either pay for the crematory charge or for the cemetery charge. Cremation does not preclude a wake or other services. Too many times, families think that they HAVE to have a direct cremation and that they are not allowed to have a wake – which of course is not true. Cremation is simply a more affordable form of disposition,

  • Jeff Harbeson

    Brilliant and well written piece. The funeral industry as a whole is still conducting business like they did 10 years or more ago. However, consumers are shifting in their views of death, religion and certainly the economy has forced many to make funeral arrangements with their pocketbook, not their heart. Smart providers, such as the firm profiled here, are changing their operations to meet the consumer demand.