Cremation Issues

My friend Bill says he can’t believe that funerals are so expensive.  In fact, he thinks funerals have gotten so expensive that he doesn’t know how even upper middle class people afford them.  “Who can afford a ten thousand dollar funeral?” he asks me.

Then he grins, like he’s got the secret.  He says, “that’s why I’m being cremated.”

Bill is, by no means, in bad financial shape.  He can afford a high-class burial.  Heck, he might even own cemetery property already.

Bill’s comments don’t convince me that cremation is taking over just because he can afford an expensive burial but doesn’t want one.  And Bill’s insistence that funerals cost too much doesn’t trigger my belief that cremation is taking over.

The biggest reason I see Bill’s comments as a gigantic, blinking “Welcome to Your Cremation Future!” sign is because of his age and his family.

Bill is 80 years old. 

Okay, you say, but Bill probably doesn’t have children who live nearby, making cremation easier.

Not true:  Bill lives with his wife in a house he bought in the 1950’s.  It’s just down the street from the high school he graduated from.  And a block away from the elementary school where his kids learned basic math.  His daughter and her son live two doors down from him.  His son, while in another state for employment reasons, visits often with his family.

Yes, some seniors who have moved to the Sunbelt from Chicago might opt for cremation because of the money or the miles.  But Bill is not one of the older folks who choose cremation for financial or geographic reasons.  Bill has chosen cremation because it’s what he wants and as a reaction to specific choices made by the funeral industry.

Now, I’m not faulting funeral directors here; the increase in funeral prices during the last 20 years can be traced to many factors outside of a director’s control.  The truth is that those of us who provide frontline services to families have done little to stem the rising costs of traditional funeral services.

But do we even know what can be done?  Are storefront funeral homes the answer?  Maybe not.  True, some funeral directors have started to return to the “chapel-less funeral home” model, which asks customers to find another location for the services in exchange for a funeral provider that can offer lower prices because of less overhead. 

Others have eschewed the cost-conscious consumer and built even more elaborate funeral homes targeted at the clients who want and can afford a more expensive and elaborate service.  I think this type of specialization is important for a diversifying marketplace – while the market once chose a single option, burial, from a singular type of provider, the current trend is toward a wider range of options – and I believe there is room for several funeral providers in each area who don’t compete on price, but on abundance or scarcity of choices.

Unfortunately for the large bulk of funeral homes built on the idea that the traditional burials make up for the cremations, the time when consumers might have been convinced that cremation was a bad idea has passed.  When Bill’s kids, now in their fifties, decided that cremation was okay for them, the writing was on the wall.  But that was years ago.  Now that Bill has told them he’s cool with cremation and that he actively chooses it over burial, the fat lady’s singing.

What, then, should be the reaction of funeral professionals?  First, stop reading some fool like me telling you that cremation is taking over.  You should be figuring out how to benefit from this change.  And stop fighting it, for your own sake.  There’s no changing it.  Not now.

Bill has spoken. 

Wanna know more of my thoughts on cremation?  Read these previous posts:

Minnesota Funeral Director Opens Up About Effects of Cremation
Just Another Celebrity Cremation
Teach Them: Cremation is a Disposition Option, not a Service Option
Eulogies are for the Living
Surprised, She Asked “You can have a viewing with a cremation?”
Creating a “Must-Have” Funeral Experience
A Future Without Funeral Homes?
Could You Survive Without Disposition?


Sometimes, the picture says it all.  Check out the 3-D cremation urns offered by Cremation Solutions.

By the way, I found this on my favorite blog,


Larger view

I just finished reading an interesting article about a funeral home in Minnesota and the effect that cremation is having on their business.  You can read the full article on the Minnesota Public Radio website here.

While the article touches on how many people are choosing cremation because of new economic realities and the way the funeral director they’ve interviewed is weathering the downturn, the article fails to discuss the long-term ramifications for the industry.

I believe that cremation is a game-changer for the traditional funeral industry and that many firms will have to re-think their entire pricing models to make their businesses operate on cremation income.

Traditional burial is called by its name because that’s what drives it:  tradition.  Other than those who fear fire, most people aren’t afraid of cremation as an option; they simply choose burial because “that’s what the family’s always done.”

So what happens when grandma can’t afford a big funeral and there’s a choice to be made?  What happens to the “tradition” when the patriarch or matriarch of a large family decides, for economic reasons, to choose cremation?

In my experience, “grandma’s getting cremated” means everyone else in the family is now free to be cremated.  Cousins start asking the cemetery how many sets of cremated remains can be buried in a space in the family plot.  At the memorial service, family begins discussing how much easier it was to plan a cremation (and cheaper) and, if you’re invited, you’ll hear five people say how much they’d rather have a party than a funeral.

While I don’t advocate battling cremation, I do think we, as an industry, have to realize that consumers are seeing the benefits of cremation, benefits to their wallets and their families, and they’re making the easy, less-expensive choice.

The current economy just gives them another excuse to make the decision sooner.

What are we doing to show our relevance to grieving families?  Does our community know that cremation isn’t just direct?  Do your neighbors and friends know that cremation is just a cheaper disposition than burial, not a completely new thing?  Do they know that you can still provide them with viewing, services and closure?

When word spread that John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s son, Jett Travolta, had died in the Bahamas, I immediately wondered how they’d handle his funeral arrangements.  Would they bring his body back to Ocala, Florida (their current home) for a burial or would they opt for cremation with viewing?

I was mildly surprised to learn that they had him cremated in the Bahamas and brought his cremains home for a private memorial service.

I was saddened to learn that my friends and family didn’t see any problem with this.

My immediate reaction was “how will his friends and family members get closure without his body present?”

Truth is, most Americans are becoming quite comfortable with “no-body” funerals and even more comfortable with the idea that funeral homes just handle the disposition.

And once again, they see a high-profile case where the family (regardless of their wealth) choose to handle services at home or away from a traditional funeral establishment.

This seems to be an important topic, as I’ve covered it on the blog many, many times in the last 2.5 years, so why don’t we spend whole conferences dealing with this issue?

If you own or run a funeral home, how are you planning to deal with the increasing number of people who don’t choose you, but instead opt for direct cremation and private services?

Are you stubbornly sticking with “what you’ve always done” and resenting the choices today’s consumers make?


If we are ready to confront this shift in society, how do we tell consumers that there’s another way (traditional cremation, perhaps?) or that funeral homes are about more than just body disposal?

And if we can’t change the direction, where do we fit into this new reality?

Teach Them: Cremation is a Disposition Option, not a Service Option
Turn News Stories About Cremation into Positive PR
Surprised, She Asked “You can have a viewing with a cremation?”
A Future Without Funeral Homes?
Could You Survive Without Disposition?

I bet you haven’t spoken to anyone about the biggest cremation news story of the past week, the use of heat from a Swedish crematory used to warm nearby homes.

You can read the full news story here.

People in your community are being educated about cremation, which means if you’re not the one offering expert advice about this important disposition option, someone else is.

As an industry, we can’t afford to let the only voice about our industry come from people who consistently advocate no services and complain bitterly about “greedy” funeral directors.

It’s time for the upstanding members of this honorable and important industry to stand up and begin telling our neighbors the truth about funeral services and disposition options.

How do I know this is going to be a huge story?  Here’s a screenshot of a Google Alert I received several days ago.  Usually, there are mutliple entries about many different facets of cremation.  On this day, look how many stories were about the Swedish crematory heating plan:


I don’t have time to write a huge post right now, but I’ve just found a great article about the upcoming cremation services for Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana of Thailand, who died January 2, 2008.  Here’s an excerpt of the funeral arrangements: 

The funeral of the late princess will take place between November 14th and 19th at Sanam Luang Park in Bangkok, with a budget of Bt300 million (about $US8.8 million) being set aside for the ceremony.

The first four days of the ceremony are associated with the cremation, while the latter two with the collection and entombment of the ashes and royal relics.

There will be six grand processions for the four days of the cremation (November 15, 16, 18, and 19) ceremony involving 3,294 soldiers and the three royal chariots.

And we have trouble convincing our clients that there are more memorial options than just direct cremation?

Read the full article here.

Read the official release from the Thai Government Public Relations Department.

What happens when a member of the Bali royal family dies? 

A couple hundred thousand people take time off of work and build huge funeral pyres, like the one seen below, and host a gigantic cremation service for 70 bodies.

The Royal Cremation of Anak Agung Oka Jelantik

Even more amazing is that this 90+ foot tall pyre is mobile!  The pyres were moved to the location by hand.  Along the way, the handlers twisted and spun the pyres to confuse the “spirits” in the bodies from knowing which direction was home.  That way, when the cremation set the “spirits” free from the bodies, they would have to move on to the afterlife rather than return home and, I guess, haunt their families.

Click here to read the full story (also here and here) and here to see some more amazing pictures.

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