How Growing Non-belief is Changing Funeral Rituals

Simon Davis has an interesting article at Religion News Service about how the growing number of non-religious Americans is changing our typical funeral rituals. In particular, it has increased the number of people being cremated to the point where more people are cremated than buried. The article starts with the story of Jim Underdown, director of CFI-Los Angeles, and his father’s funeral.

Before his death a few years ago, Jim Underdown’s father, James, requested that he be cremated — becoming the first in his family to do so. A month later, the family had a memorial luncheon in Chicago. In accordance with his wishes, his cremated remains were scattered in a favorite wooded area in Wisconsin.

The decision to forgo traditional burial was in line with his father’s rejection of religion, Jim Underdown said. “He certainly didn’t want any churchiness surrounding his death.”

Choosing cremation is becoming more common every year in the United States, largely for similar reasons. According to estimates by the funeral industry’s main trade group, 2015 is on track to be the year that cremation surpasses burial for the first time, as a long-standing trend continues. A key factor driving this: decreased religiosity.

“A surge in the number of Americans that no longer identify with any religion has contributed to the decline of the historically traditional funeral in America — and the rise in cremation as the disposition of choice,” says the National Funeral Directors Association in its latest annual report.

For the past few years, the association has conducted surveys asking Americans 40 and older to rank the importance of including a religious component in the funeral for a loved one. The percentage of people responding that it is “not at all important” has more than doubled in the last three years, from 10 percent to 21 percent.

A separate survey is conducted every five years by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, a trade group representing several associations in the death care industry, including the NFDA. In the most recent study, in 2015, 91 percent of nonreligious respondents said they would be “definitely” or “somewhat likely” to consider cremation for a friend or family member.

According to data from the Cremation Association of North America, cremation percentages correlate with regional variations in religiosity. For example, in less religious Oregon, 73 percent of burials involve cremation; in more religious Mississippi, cremations make up just under 18 percent.

That’s really interesting in and of itself, but it’s also changing other things about dying. It changes the way we think about death itself and it changes how we grieve. All of this brings to mind a funny conversation I had with my dad a few years ago. He’s 80 years old now and a lifelong atheist, but my stepmother is Pentecostal. I had a dream that he had died and she and I got into a fight because she wanted her pastor (sorry, “prophetess”) do the funeral.

So I called my dad and told him about this dream and he chuckled and said, “That doesn’t seem too farfetched.” I said, “I know, that’s why I’m calling. I think you should probably make your wishes known now so we can avoid that kind of thing.” And he paused for a minute and gave me a response that is just so much like him that I should have predicted it. “Let her do what she wants,” he said. “I don’t plan to be there anyway.”

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