What Can The First Modern Cremation Tell Us About Cremation Today?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Funeral practices are among our most ancient, and whether it is the mausoleums in the pyramids, the potter's fields of New York City, or the 20,000-year-old cremated remains on Lake Mungo, we have been processing our dead as long as they have been dying. Plenty is changing these days - population, climate, technology, geography - and the changes the funeral industry are experiencing are directly related to those planetary changes. Perhaps those changes can be understood with more fullness by looking into the past. It was this Atlas Obscura article on the first modern cremation that got me thinking about cremation.

Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, PA for a public demonstration on December 6th, 1876 - and it was not something that immediately caught on. Dr. LeMoyne believed that in-ground burials contributed to the spread of disease, and presented cremation as a way to "sterilize human remains and bypass the altogether slow and icky process of decomposition," as well as a particular "solution to an urban problem. As cities expanded, they surrounded burial grounds that had once been miles away from town—and rested on prime real estate." Cremation came back, in a way, to address two real and pressing issues facing a society undergoing some demographic and geographic shifts. A decade later several more crematories had popped up around the country, but the onset of cremation as a staple of the funerary industry has been gradual. With cremation approaching 50% nationwide, we are where we are for reasons both old and new.

Cremation is faster and cheaper than a traditional funeral. It does not, usually, have a viewing, or a burial/internment (though it can have both) It is straightforward to arrange and requires less choices from start to finish. If the family does not live nearby, it is significantly easier. The major decision that has to be made is what to do with the remains, and those are a few: scatter, take home, or inter. We are seeing niche space and columbariums increase, which offer a nice balance between simplicity and tradition for families that choose cremation. One aspect of the rise of cremation actually fits with consumer trends we can see elsewhere - control and customization. Cremation is about personalization just as much as picking a mausoleum or a plot or a marker. It replaces older traditions with new ones, and also allows for a space to form ones entirely unique. It is flexible, personal, intimate. 

Despite the demand, it seems there is a lot of resistance and uncertainty around cremation, at least in the U.S. There is a wide range of prices for cremation services that vary from state to state, city to city, and provider to provider. But around the world, attitudes are changing, in part because places like China, where concerns around population, space, and aging are more intense. In 2015, the Chinese government held a state-sponsored cremation competition, which essentially served as a countrywide celebration and promotion of the cremation and funeral industry. There is a lot at play in something like this - recognizing the rise of the industry, responding to the changes it indicates, understanding its appeal, promoting the human element involved and also educating the consumers.

There was a passage from an online Fortune article that was discussing the 2016 ICCFA Convention in New Orleans that stood out to me:
"In the funeral industry...the innovators focused on expanding the funeral home's function beyond simply supplying caskets and accoutrements. A modern-day funeral, they realized, should memorialize the deceased loved one's entire ethos and existence." Unless it is an unexpected death, one can expect to encounter a decision is pretty close to being made up when they walk through the door, whether its the deceased's wishes or the family's. The one thing you can control is how you respond - to families, to cremation, to change.