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Thursday, February 05, 2015

U.S. a Cremation Nation? Maybe Not.

Decades ago, cremation was the odd exit strategy for Americans heading to the Great Hereafter.

Today, it’s fairly common. By the end of 2015, it will be more common than not.

That’s the upshot of a new survey showing the cremation rate rising above 48% later this year, overtaking the rate of burials by nearly 2 percentage points.

The result is a sea change in American funeral practices: For the first time in this country’s history – nearly 140 years after the first modern cremation on U.S. soil took place in a makeshift hearth outside of Pittsburgh – more of us will be cremated than buried.

The American Way of Death? It's looking more like Cremation Nation.

And, well into the future, if that survey is right. By 2020, the cremation rate will reach 56%. Ten years later, we’ll see 70% of all Americans heading into the hearth.

Even more may follow their lead. According to one industry official I spoke with, the U.S. cremation rate is likely to track to that of European countries where cremation is firmly entrenched: Sweden (77%), Denmark (77%), and the U.K. (73%). Some, like Switzerland (85%) and the Czech Republic (80%), boast higher rates yet.

Given our somewhat similar demographics to those countries and the growing acceptance of cremation in this one, the official saw no reason we wouldn’t, literally, go the way of that part of Europe.

But I’m not so sure. And here’s why: the green burial movement.

From hundreds of conversations I’ve had with families, I can tell you that the vast majority who come to green burial are converts from cremation. Cremation, they tell me, had been their default choice. It was more environment-friendly than modern burial, plus cheaper and a whole lot more convenient.

Then they learned about natural burial. They read about RamseyCreek Preserve, where the dead are buried sans embalming in a Southern pine forest. Saw pictures of handsome caskets made from wicker, sea grass, plain pine boards, and other readily biodegradable materials. Learned that it was possible to hold home funerals, build their own coffins, and return one’s remains to some beautiful natural environment -- to push up a tree, nourish a meadow, and rejoin the natural cycle that turns to benefit all those we leave behind. And all this without the environmental drag of cremation, with its high energy costs and resulting emissions.

Those families promptly changed their plans.

My evidence is anecdotally, I know. But it’s in keeping with a couple of early surveys showing that roughly a quarter (and more) of respondents say they are interested in green burial. A percentage that will only grow, I’m convinced, as word about green burial spreads and as the number of green cemeteries, home funeral providers, eco-casket makers and the like continues to increase.

As it does, the cremation rate will dip. At the very least, it won’t climb anywhere near as high as industry prognosticators would have us believe.

An early sign that a shift may already be underway comes from one of those Euro-cremation nations itself, Sweden, where a couple of years ago the popularity of earth burial rose for the first time in 70 years. The environmental benefits of burial over cremation was a main driver. 

Green burial. When I look to the future, I see it's where we’re headed. 

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend,” Bangor Daily News

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.