Funeral or Cremation?
In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov/opub/ted/the-rising-cost-of-dying-2017.htm) reported that the price of funerals in the U.S. rose 227% over the previous 30 years—almost twice as fast as consumer prices for all other items. A funeral has become the second most expensive purchase a family makes. The rise in expense is partly because the price of caskets has risen as well as the price of a burial plot, especially in heavily populated cities. In the debate about funerals vs. cremation, price and ecological concerns are major issues.
Over the same thirty years, cremation has become more acceptable, even in among religious orders that used to discourage or even forbid it. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, over 50% of Americans now choose cremation and nearly 80% do so in some states like Washington, compared to rates of about 5% in the 1970s. This sea change has inspired a number of related developments. According to the Wall Street Journal (March 30, 2019), the National Funeral Directors Association (www.nfda.org) estimates that we’ll reach 80% across the nation by 2035. In the same edition, the Wall Street Journal warned investors to get out of “Death-Care Stocks,” because they are being pressured to reveal the true costs of funeral services. This despite the fact the United States will see a 40% increase in the number of deaths over the next 20 years.
One way people are responding to the cost of a funeral is to hold it at home. A basic home funeral can cost as little as $1000, plus, of course, the casket and burial plot if you plan ground burial. Caskets can run from $500 to many thousands of dollars. Add to that perpetual care (maintaining the grave in the cemetery) for about $1000, a cement liner for the grave (so that the ground doesn’t sink and make it hard to mow the grass), the cost of opening and closing the grave and the headstone. All of this means it is still costly to plan a traditional burial even if it is held at home, fueling the discussion about funerals vs. cremation. Growing interest in green or natural burial addresses both the cost of burial and the ecological concerns created by burying caskets in cement liners.
In a green burial, bodies are buried a shroud or an inexpensive, biodegradable casket made of materials like wicker or recycled cardboard and that cost less than $1,000. Green burial grounds do not permit cement liners and are often situated in settings with natural landscapes where maintenance of the lawn is not a problem. Green burial grounds are considered ecologically friendly. They are, however, not easy to find. Where I live, in Santa Barbara, the nearest green burial ground is over a hundred miles away.\
Whole body burial at sea
Burial at sea is also available these days, even to those who have not served in the military. The body is placed in a rental casket for transportation to the ship and burial location, wrapped in a shroud made of cotton sailcloth and slipped out of the casket into the ocean feet first. Families sometimes write tributes on the shroud or tuck flowers into the cords along with loose flowers that will mark the spot where the location of the body.
Family members rent or charter a separate boat charter in order to attend the burial. Even with the extra boat for the family, burial at sea can cost as little as $3400 and is more ecologically sensible than burial in the ground. The least expensive way to handle the body is, of course, cremation and there are several ways that it can be accomplished.
If you prefer burial, there are three ways to save the cost:
1. Home funeral with ground burial saves the cost of using a mortuary facility for the funeral.
2. Green burial saves the cost of the casket, the burial, the liner, opening and closing the grave and the maintenance fee.
3. Burial at sea has the same advantages as green burial.
New methods are beginning to develop based on modern funerary science. In the funeral vs. cremation discussion, cremation is clearly the cost effective choice. There are also a wide variety of ways to memorialize, store, bury or scatter the ashes. The Neptune Society has created a helpful graph comparing the costs of cremation to burial. Tradition cremation, however, involves the production of green-house gases, so innovative are in the works to address this problem.
Alkaline Hydrolysis is a process that uses pressure, heat and lye to break the body down into a disposable liquid and an ash that can be returned to loved ones. The coffee colored liquid smells like ammonia, but it is sterile and can be washed down a drain. This kind of cremation has only recently become available in the U.S. and some states have not finished vetting the process. California, for instance, will not offer alkaline hydrolysis until 2020. Other, even more experimental methods are likely to arrive on the scene soon. One currently used in Sweden is similar to freeze-drying. It is called promession.
This method involves submerging the body in liquid nitrogen and bombarding it with sound waves until it is broken down into a fine white powder . Once the liquid is evaporates, the powder retains nutrients and can be used as compost for planting a tree, shrub or a garden.
What about the ashes?
Ashes from any type of cremation can be stored or buried in an urn, or mixed with cement and turned into a garden ornament or placed in the ocean as a part of an eternal reef. One company will shoot them into deep space or lunar orbit (www.heavensabovefireworks.com) or load the into fireworks. You can compress them to create a diamond, or swirl them into blown glass as part of a paper weight. You can place them in a tree planting system or turn them into a vinyl record that plays a tune of your choice. And, of course, you can scatter them in a forest, the ocean, or at home. You must have a permit to scatter them in a National Park, and permission to scatter them on privately owned property.
When my son-in-law died last year at the age of 46, my daughter chose a direct cremation, which her cost less than $1000. He was picked up from home after he died and the ashes were returned to her in a velvet box. We scattered some of the ashes in a private family ceremony on his favorite local mountainside. Several weeks later, my daughter held a memorial service at her home. The neighbors pitched in, taking down parts of their fences to accommodate the crowd. We served tacos and whiskey sours (his favorite recipe). We had live rock and roll and rented a tent we festooned with pictures of Don and draped with his tee shirt collection. Later, I had his tee shirts stuffed into large teddy bears for the girls (who were 6 and 10).
There were lots of children in attendance, running around, eating, dancing and making s’mores over the fire pit he built. It didn’t cost much and he would have loved it.
The advantages of cremation over funerals include:
1. Lower cost
2. Cremation is more ecologically friendly
3. There are many ways to store, bury, memorialize and scatter ashes
4. Timing is less important in disposition of the body