A special place in the ground

Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today’s longtime religion reporter, had an interesting story recently about the growing number of Americans who are opting out of clergy-led funeral services. It’s not clear what kind of growth in the secular death business we’re talking about — it appears cold, hard numbers aren’t available — but Grossman writes that times have really changed:

“What we’ve found in the past decade is that when you ask people whether they want a minister, people say, ‘Not interested,’ ” says William McQueen, president of his family’s longtime business.

“Today, of all the ceremonies we deal with, I’d say 50% are religious or clergy-led, 20% celebrant-led and 30% are having no ceremony or one led by family,” says McQueen, who becomes president of the Cremation Association of North America at the group’s annual meeting this week in Denver.

Religious funerals were the only available option 25 years ago, “even if nobody showed up,” McQueen says.

John Reed Sr., president of the National Funeral Directors Association, says 50% of Americans today say they don’t belong to a church and don’t see value in a religious funeral. But “they still want ceremony and celebration at the end of life.”

More than one in four U.S. adults (27%) say that when they die, they don’t expect to have a religious service, according to a national survey of 6,000 people.

That last stat was interpreted by the co-author of the survey as meaning that a quarter of Americans don’t expect to meet God on the other side. That’s an interesting inference considering that even the most liberal survey findings have shown only about 15 percent of Americans have “no religion.” Of course, not every person who is religious believes in God, but it’s odd that someone who associated their lives with religious tradition would do away with it upon death. Typically, we think of the end of life as a time of heightened spiritual awareness.

Grossman’s article, supplemented by a post at her Faith & Reason blog, has generated a lot of comments (351 at present). And Grossman should be commended for picking up a story that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

But I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. It had to be the limited commentary about what individuals opting out of clergy-led funerals think happens when they die.

Carmen Kistner says she and her husband had no ill feelings about church life: “We just wanted something different, something that was truly about him and his life.”

Now, you’re probably expecting me to kvetch about how Grossman should have asked someone who had a secular celebration if they regretted forgoing the ordained escort. That’s ridiculous. She should have asked three.

The above trailer includes a few clips, though not the best, from Donny’s seaside funeral. (Walter mentions God, but this is not a religious service.)

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  • Dave

    it’s odd that someone who associated their lives with religious tradition would do away with it upon death. Typically, we think of the end of life as a time of heightened spiritual awareness.

    Perhaps, in that state of heightened awareness, they find they don’t need formal churchly trappings after all.

    Just sayin’…

  • lina

    One aspect might be cost.

    Both my parents were life long members of the church, and heavy supporters but when they died, and their funerals were from the church, we had to pay the priest, the organist, and the sextons. All of these people were considered full time employees of the church.

    It is a lot more cost effective to have a graveside service.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I would have liked some digging at Mr. McQueen’s quote about how 25 years ago, religious funerals were the “only available option.”

    Really? In 1985 there were no secular services of remembrance offered anywhere?

    But I suspect that too much digging into things like this would have highlighted how the trend is not so much more non-religious or non-clerical funeral services as it is more formalized services in those veins.

    And of course, the idea of a preacher at every burial is relatively recent. Earlier in U.S. history, many towns or areas without clergy held funeral services which were presided over by laypeople.

  • Jerry

    Brad, I agree with you that the asserted linkage between not having a clergy-led burial and not being religious is highly suspect at best. It does say something about how many unchurched people there are and how that is affecting burial ceremonies.

  • Peter

    Seems to me an important distinction to be explored isn’t so much whether the deceased considered themselves religious, but whether they were regular members of a parish, congregation, or community.

    I have been to some pretty horrifying funerals where the minister or priest involved had no personal experience of the deceased and was forced to do a canned ceremony that just served to highlight how out of sync he was. One particularly bad one, the presider kept getting the name wrong.

    Not to say that it is always the fault of the clergyperson in question. But faced with the choice of choosing a minister who didn’t know the deceased (who the survivors don’t know either) and putting together a loving secular service, I can see why some people make the choice.

    I know they aren’t mutually exclusive. On the other hand, you don’t get a do-over if it goes horribly wrong, either.

    There’s a different story happening if lifelong regular church-goers are specifically asking that their minister not be involved in their funeral.

  • Peter

    Umm… what Jerry said. Sorry, missed that post!

  • Adrienne Crowther

    There are more and more articles everyday on this topic. We babyboomers are seeking more personal, more spiritual (our own spirituality, as opposed to organized religious spirituality)approaches to the end of life. Even body disposition has been re-evaluated. Look at the growing number of green burials and, especially, cremations. And now with the internet, we have so many more options for honoring the end of life. A great example is http://www.shineonbrightly.com, where a variety of handmade, beautiful art cremation urns and other pieces are available to honor our loved ones.