Sam Kaplan for AARP
En español | Traditional funerals are on their death bed. More people are skipping the two days of visitation, religious service and burial of an embalmed body in a casket that can cost as much as a used car, and instead opting for funerals that are easier on the planet and the budget. They’re going for more personal rituals, too, that break the rigid customs that became the norm in the 20th century. Here’s a look at what’s out there.
Cremation has become the new normal. Last year, cremation surpassed traditional burial for the first time in the United States. That’s a huge milestone and marks a sea change in funeral traditions. In 1970, just 5 percent of people opted for cremation. This year, about 55 percent of those who die will be cremated, says the Cremation Association of North America, and by 2030, that number is predicted to rise to 71 percent. The main reason people are being burned instead of embalmed? Cremation is a lot cheaper, costing a third as much as a regular burial. It also saves natural resources, like land for a burial, and wood or steel for a coffin.
The next wave in cremation is a process called alkaline hydrolysis, a.k.a. liquefying a body. It works like this: The corpse is put in a vat of solution that dissolves everything but the bones, which are crushed into ashes and returned to the family. It’s a more eco-friendly process than flame cremation, which spews as much carbon dioxide into the air as a 600-mile drive. Alkaline hydrolysis is legal in 15 states, and so new that there aren’t statistics available for how many people are choosing it. It’s comparable in cost to a regular cremation.
This trend of the 21st century is straight out of the 19th century: Green burials, in which an unembalmed corpse is placed into a biodegradable container and buried directly in the ground. Nature does the rest. Its growing popularity is driven by concern about the environmental impact of burying corpses pumped with toxic embalming fluids, and a desire to cut the massive amount of natural resources used in traditional burials. Green burial is better for the budget, too, costing less than half as much as a traditional funeral. “It’s a return to the simple funeral customs that used to be common,” says Kate Kalanick, executive director of the board of the Green Burial Council. The GBC doesn’t keep stats on how many green burials are happening in the U.S., but Kalanick says they’ve seen their list of green burial providers grow from just one when they launched in 2005 to more than 400 this year.
There’s a growing movement of people who are skipping the mortician and caring for their dead loved ones themselves. Instead of whisking the body off to a funeral home and letting others handle it, the family washes and dresses it, has the viewing at home, and handles the burial themselves. It’s no frills and very personal. “It’s about the family taking back the care of the loved ones in death,” says Ed Bixby, owner of Steelmantown Cemetery in Steelmantown, N.J., who specializes in helping people conduct at-home funerals. It’s also much more affordable than a traditional funeral. The National Home Funeral Alliance, a nonprofit that educates the public about DIY funerals, says an at-home funeral can cost as little as $200 if you bury your loved one out in the yard. For those not up to DIY-ing an entire funeral — like the part where you’ll need to keep the body in ice packs — you can hire a funeral home or other specialists to help with some of the steps.
Some funeral homes have added dogs to their staff to comfort mourners. At Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisc., Olli, a young cockapoo, cuddles with families as they plan funerals. “Families love having him here,” says owner James Olson. “It takes their minds off what we are doing just for a moment.” There are no statistics on how many pups are working at funeral homes, but a survey from the National Funeral Directors of America found that nearly 35 percent of Americans are “extremely interested” in having a therapy dog at their funeral. So it’s reasonable to expect to see funeral homes answering that need.
Ashes to ashes, dust to, um, shotgun shells? There are a slew of companies offering more interesting things to do with loved ones’ cremains than leave them in an urn. A British company will press them into a vinyl record with a custom song. Your local tattoo artist can mix them into tattoo ink and give you a custom tat in their honor. And an Alabama company will put them into the ammo of your choice so you can blast them to the afterlife in a one-gun salute. Because scattering ashes is so 2001.