In media coverage of green burial, it's whole body interment in the woodland cemetery that garners attention. Yet it's another, lesser form of natural return that's gaining the converts: cremation.
A look at the figures shows cremation's steadily rising arc. From 1876, the date of the first modern cremation in this country, the cremation rate ticks inexorably upward, accounting for less than 1% of all dispositions in the early part of the last century to more than ten percent in the 1980s. By the end of the '90's "Decade of the Environment," a quarter of all our dead are heading to the hearth; today it's nearly a third. Within the next two decades -- by the year 2025 -- the number of cremations will overtake burials for the first time in our history.
How popular will cremation become in a country where the modern funeral -- with its chemical embalming of remains which are then coffined, packed into a vault and buried beneath a ton of earth -- has defined the American way of death for the better part of the last century?
If historical precedent elsewhere is any indication, some 70% of all Americans will eventually opt for cremation's purifying fires. And not look back. "In almost every country where cremation surpasses burials and continues, the cremation rate gets to anywhere from 60 to around 70 percent and then holds," according to Jack Springer, director of the Cremation Association of North America (www.cremationassociation.org), per Great Britain (70%), Sweden (69%), and Denmark (71%). The same trend, Springer contends, will happen here.
No historical event or great awakening accounts for our turn to the flames. A recent survey points to the same impulses that are driving the popularity of green burial in general: low cost, simplicity, and environmental benefit (i.e., preserving land).
The funeral industry has fought our growing preference for cremation, which represents lost sales on the very goods and services that boost its bottom line -- embalming, metal coffin, the burial vault. Though it's starting to come around, however reluctantly. Witness the line of handsome urns being cranked out by coffin manufacturers, the addition of cremation services on the funeral director's General Price List. Even cemeteries are catering to the coming Cremation Nation. A recent newsletter from one memorial park heralded the opening a "nature trail" on its grounds, where cremated remains can be buried beneath a tree, along the trail or beside a pond.