I recently gave a Toastmasters talk about cremation trends titled The Crème de la “Crem.” You can watch the YouTube video (would love to get your feedback!) or read the written version of the talk below.
In the film, Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, there’s a scene set in London. Ten-year-old Marcus is attending the funeral of his twin brother, Jason, who was killed in a car accident. Marcus, his mother, and five other people have gathered in a gray church-like chapel. It has wooden pews and tall stained glass windows. This chapel is actually a crematory, or “crem” as the Brits call it.
A minister comes out and says a few quick words about Jason being in heaven and his remains being committed to dust. At a nod of the minister’s head, the coffin sinks down through the floor to the crematorium below. Even before Marcus and his mother leave the chapel, a huge East Indian family hustles in for the next funeral.
Now, the film Hereafter is a crashing bore, yet this scene intrigued me. Do the English really treat their living and dead in this way? I posed the question to the Good Funeral Guide Coffee House, an online discussion group of celebrants in the U.K. In fact, Clint Eastwood got it right.
The U.K. has a cremation rate of 72%, almost three-quarters of the population. Some say it’s because they live on a tiny island and burial space is scarce. These “crems” are used frequently. Funerals in these chapels are almost always rushed affairs. The more families moved through, the more money can be made. It’s hard to slow down the proceedings to allow for a meaningful, healing farewell ceremony.
Thank goodness it hasn’t come to this in the United States. However, more and more people here are choosing cremation. A recent report by CANA, the Cremation Association of North America, noted that the average national rate of those opting for cremation has jumped. It was 15% in 1985, 34% in 2007 and almost 41% in 2010. CANA projects a 50% cremation rate will be achieved by 2018.
In some parts of the U.S., that rate has already been exceeded. The Pacific and Mountain regions, including New Mexico, have already reached a 59% rate of cremation.
According to a recent New York Times story, a big reason for this boom in cremations is cost cutting. In these tough economic times, people are looking for ways to save money any way they can, including final disposition.
The story focused on a woman named Toni Kelly who battled lymphoma for four years. She worried that her costly chemotherapy treatments would destroy the family’s finances. In fact, she died on September 29 leaving her family with two hundred thousand dollars in medical debt. Before she died, though, she planned and saved money on her funeral expenses by being cremated.
Ms. Kelly’s disposition cost about sixteen hundred dollars, including a death notice, a death certificate and an urn. This is a fraction of the ten to sixteen thousand dollars typically spent on a traditional funeral and burial. The cheapest direct cremation you can get in Albuquerque today is about nine hundred dollars. The Social Security death benefit is two hundred and fifty five dollars, which paid the costs of a funeral in 1937. Today it might get you a decent sized obituary in the Albuquerque Journal.
And this was the first cremation in Toni Kelly’s family. Chances are, it won’t be that family’s last one. According to CANA, once a family has done a cremation, that family will likely cremate again. Ironically, the cremation rate is higher for individuals with more education and higher family income. Asian populations and those in urban communities also cremate at a higher rate. African-Americans have a lower cremation rate, preferring the traditions related to funerals.
When I did my 30 Funerals in 30 Days back in October, many of the creative memorial services were made possible by cremation.
Sidney Stone’s remains were front and center at the jazz-themed celebration of his life at the German American Club. The memorial service, complete with a New Orleans second line parade with participants holding umbrellas, was held three months after he died. You can’t wait three months to hold a party with a body.
At Erika Langholf’s celebration of life, her cremated remains were part of a Southwest-themed display festooned with the red chile ristras she loved to make. Her ashes were presented in a beautiful urn of Himalayan rock salt. It wouldn’t have been the same with a casket plunked into the middle of this display.
Sam Houston’s ashes were there at Balloon Fiesta Park early on the Saturday morning his family and friends held a mini-balloon fiesta in his honor. His remains were later scattered from a balloon over the red rocks near Gallup. Try doing that with a body.
These three creative examples were probably not dictated by economics. Yet, just the other day, I saw an obituary in the newspaper that read, “In lieu of flowers, please make donations to William’s memorial at Wells Fargo Bank.”
It has come to the point where families are asking for donations to pay for memorial services. One insurance executive I interviewed said he has seen collection jars at funerals.
The rate of cremation will continue to grow in the United States. People choose this disposition method for different reasons. What’s the right choice for you and your family? The only way to answer that question is to get educated about funeral and cremation costs, make some plans about what would be meaningful, and figure out how you will pay those expenses.
Whether you are concerned about cost, convenience, or creativity, think ahead to make your final exit the crème de la “crem.”