Inez Szczupak holds an urn filled with the ashes of her son Martin, who died of a drug overdose, outside her home in the Staten Island borough of New York on August 19, 2015.Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NONES-BURIAL, originally transmitted on Dec. 17, 2015.

How secular Americans are reshaping funeral rituals

(RNS) 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.

READ: Green burials reflect a shift to care for the body and soul

Friends and family gather in a wooded area in northeast Wisconsin, to scatter the cremated remains of James Underdown, in 2009. Photo by Jim Underdown

Friends and family gather in a wooded area in northeast Wisconsin to scatter the cremated remains of James Underdown, in 2009. Photo by Jim Underdown

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"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.

READ: Cremation is popular, but is it green?

With the notable exception of Eastern Orthodox churches, most Christian denominations no longer actively oppose cremation. Reform Judaism also permits it. Islam prohibits cremation but mandates burial without a casket. Buddhist and Hindu traditions have long encouraged cremation.

To be sure, burial need not incorporate a religious ceremony. So why is it then that the nonreligious are increasingly drawn to cremation? Barbara Kemmis, executive director of CANA, said that overall, cost is the reason cited most often in that group's consumer surveys.

But there are other considerations, particularly the flexibility to have a memorial ceremony after some time has passed, with practically limitless options for venue -- she even hears the term “destination funerals” being used. Underdown says the month between his father’s death and the memorial service not only gave his family time to plan, but also allowed more notice for other people from all over the country to attend.

Citing the Funeral and Memorial Information Council's data, Kemmis said her sense is that nonreligious people are also more likely to incorporate nontraditional rituals, such as releasing doves or helium-filled balloons, "different things that are unique and personal,” she said.

READ: Canadian archbishop bans eulogies at funeral Masses

Underdown said his father also “had no feeling of belonging in a place where ‘one’s own kind’ would be resting nearby for all time -- like a Catholic or Jewish cemetery. He knew that once he was dead, it didn’t really matter what happened to his body because he would not be able to experience anything anyway.”

Numbers are less definitive on other nontraditional options, such as body donation for medical research; NFDA figures show a slight increase nationwide, from 6.3 percent to 6.9 percent in the past decade. But Kemmis said her research had shown body donation percentages in California and in Arizona, where it's tracked by state agencies, is “well into the double digits.”

The NFDA projects that by 2030, only 23 percent of Americans will be buried, a sharp decline from 61 percent in 2005.

Kemmis believes cremation is “becoming the new tradition in the United States,” for the religious as well as the nonreligious. For the nonreligious, cremation can be a way to create a more individualized memorial service.

But even for religious families, it can be seamlessly incorporated into centuries-old traditions. Kemmis illustrates the point by paraphrasing what a traditional funeral home outside of Boston that serves predominantly Catholic families told her:

“When a family chooses cremation, it’s (just) an extra step. You’ve got the Mass, you’ve got the wake, you go to the cemetery … but first we go to the crematory.”

(Simon Davis is a contributor to RNS) 

This video was produced previously for RNS and is published here.

Religion News Service video by Sally Morrow


  1. In a way, the deceased None focused on at the beginning of the article had his funeral in a kind of “sacred grove.” A good example of how ritual can be adapted, even by the non-religious.

  2. Many Christian burials were done with the body on it’s back, feet facing east. While practices (and reasons) vary widely, a common reason is that Jesus is expected to return from the East, so the faithful, being resurrected, could then sit up to face Jesus. This is similar to the Christian tradition for the churches to often face East for the same reason.

    With more and more people seeing the idea of Jesus second coming as a quaint myth, not a real future event, it makes sense that “proper” Christian burial is becoming less and less common.

  3. We have been training Funeral Celebrants for 15 years, with over 2700 Celebrants in North America who are specifically trained and skilled at creating services for those who do not wish the traditional, religious approach to funerals. I would be happy to visit with anyone from RNS about what we do and the movement toward funerals that fit people. Glenda

  4. What are you talking about ? Insulting tombstones? First I’ve heard of that!

  5. In an Australian context there is no particular connection between cremation and a secular burial. It strikes me as just another particularly American take on the practice.

  6. Is that similar to snarky remarks made by Christians on message boards? I’m a little confused.

  7. I see nothing “un-Christian about cremation. We have a Garden that is both
    beautiful and respectful of all who’s remains are buried there. The service is
    taken from our “Book of Common Prayer” and our Priest are certainly devoted
    and respectful. Frankly it seems for more in line with a respect of the deceased
    then spending considerable money on a tomb stone, a coffin, and all of the
    extras that leave a good number of families in debt that they cannot afford.
    Some how it seems to me that Christ would find it more in line, considering
    what He preached then the “business” that has grown up around death itself.

  8. When religion is but a memory custom and culture will adapt and endure.

  9. All of Christianity’s traditions on burial come from Judaism. Jesus cared nothing for burial. He told Lazarus on the death of his parents to ” let the dead bury the dead.” And for Lazurus to simply walk away and join Jesus and his followers.

  10. And what “insulting hacks and jabs at Christians” would those be? On tombstones??? You go around cemeteries looking for the “insulting hacks and jabs” aimed at “Christians”. What lunacy ! And what on earth does “secularists puffing out – so to speak” mean, anyway? Sure, some … some … of us secularists do get tired of having religion crammed down our throats everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. People can’t sneeze on a bus without someone saying “God bless you” to complete strangers. Someone posts a beautiful picture of a bird winging its way from one tree to another and someone has to post “Oh, God is so wonderful.”, instead of “what a beautiful bird”. I ignore those people as best I can hoping **they** are receiving some benefit from repeating those hackneyed phrases. But “Christians” that complain about being conspired against are just lunatics. You’re a joke, just not a funny one. Just live your lives as you see fit without trying to impress people with your…

  11. Instead of turning this into an anti-religious article why don’t you look at the actual cost of both a burial and that of cremation. I would venture to say that in most cases it comes down to cost.

  12. Well, let’s be honest. Cremation costs about 1/5 of burial when all is said and done. Burials have become affordable, over $13,000 in many places whereas cremation costs between $1500 and $3500. So I think it just is easy to rationalize a cremation. So many people do not want to go into debt to bury their loved one. I don’t think it’s religion. I think it’s economics.

  13. I won’t get into the “stupid Christians versus smart atheists” folderol, but I see these developments as overall positive. 1950s Americans were overwhelmed with affluence in comparison to past epochs and with it came some of the silliness associated with people with too much money and not enough sense in denying death and doing things like not bringing children to funerals to supposedly “protect” them. Cremation puts the kibosh on that nonsense. Likewise I was once shocked, shocked, to hear some secularists speaking of one of their elderly parents funeral in which they “didn’t want anyone like a preacher from a church” presiding. When considering how religion has harmed so many, or perhaps how so much harm is done in the name of religion, such a position is exhilarating.

  14. Christian burial varies a bit by denomination, but a common Christian practice is to bury the dead on their backs, feet facing East, so that when Jesus returns (from the East), the resurrected will be able to sit up facing Jesus. Thus one can often find whole Christian cemeteries with the dead oriented that way (clergy are sometimes buried facing the opposite way, so they can minister to the rising congregation). Churches are also often oriented that way.

    As fewer and fewer people see the idea of Jesus returning as real, and the whole idea that bodies are resurrected as real, these considerations are becoming less important.

    Yes, cost can be a factor, but money has always been tight, and cremation has always been cheaper, so the cheaper cost wouldn’t explain why more people are doing it now, as opposed to, say, during the depression of the 1930s, or such. ….. …. …. ……. ….. ….. …. ..(dots added to avoid cutoff).

  15. I like traditional burials for most people, that way when you find out what a scoundrel they really were, you can visit the grave and leave a little token of your body’s function for the departed. It really feels good!

  16. Hi Glenda – here in Australia we have been leading funerals since the late 1970s as civil funeral celebrants. I led my first one in 1979 and my most recent one yesterday. Over 50% of funerals are led by civil funeral celebrants now. Families choose their own music, tributes, etc. and we help them produce a unique service for the one who was unique. (As we all are).

  17. Urinating, defecating, or ejaculating on someones remains is just sick, wrong, disgusting, and disrespectful, and pretty creepy that you would even think of doing that! EW!!!

  18. I don’t get any of it. When one dies they go,hopefully, where they planned. Heaven,nurvanna,another life or nowhere. Seems the funeral just for the living.
    Make sure you have done your best at letting the person know what they meant to you while they were living. Once dead always dead. Take the money and throw a party,shake out the dust and sprinkle. Parties over “funeral is over”.

  19. Jon, Wow! I never heard of the burial facing East etc. and I come from a long line of religious people, is it a regional type thing? As a Christian, I am choosing cremation because my six children are very scattered and I don’t want them to feel like they have to keep up a grave that would be hundreds of miles away from where one or the other live, because of both the money and time involved.
    I would rather they spend their time and energy on living their lives.
    We, my husband and I, have suggested that they charter a sailing vessel after both our deaths and spend an afternoon on the water to celebrate our lives and scatter our ashes there.

  20. That sounds like a good plan. Though I’m sure it’s more common in some regions than others, it’s not regional because it dates back about as far as Christianity itself. In fact, because it parallels many Pagan traditions (who saw the return of the Sun as evidence of our rebirth, or such), which also had East facing burials for thousands of years before Christianity, some historians think that Christians just copied it (adding their own reasons). That’d be like a lot of other things in Christianity (and all religions), so it makes sense. Have fun looking into it yourself (google, wikipedia “burial”, etc.). : ) . . .. . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  21. So its personal symbolism as opposed to cultural symbolism. Akin to saying, “scatter my ashes over Yankee Stadium”

  22. Depends on the religion and customs of those involved.

    Cremation in some Buddhist cultures gets expensive because there are still memorials involved, even though one is not buried in its location. In places where land is at a premium such as Hong Kong or Japan, one memorial would be for an entire family. Newly deceased members simply get their name carved in the memorial.

    For example, although virtually everyone in Japan is cremated at death, the country is littered with graveyards

  23. Hindu and Buddhists always relied on cremation as the primary form of death rituals but can have very elaborate and expensive funerals. Plus cremation does not preclude the use of a memorial somewhere. It just means one does not need a plot large enough to fit a body to keep one.

  24. Cremation is far less expensive than a traditional casket funeral. It may be less green, — but then the embalming chemicals don’t necessarily make a traditional funeral green.
    I know of several new Catholic Churches that are building columbariums into one wall so that parishioners who have loved their faith and their church can have their ashes in an urn there, in a sacred place.
    The Church by the way requires that cremated remains be placed in sacred ground –or columbarium– and not be scattered or placed in an urn on the mantlepiece. It is disengenuous to suggest that lack of religious feeling and not cost is the reason cremation has overtaken coffin burial.

  25. How sad that the family of the deceased is so obsessed with money that they cannot give the deceased the courtesy of a respectful church funeral and proper burial. It’s all about money even when everyone knows they can definitely afford it. It’s like “Let’s just get this ‘funeral’ over and done with so we can get back to living our lives. We can’t be bothered with all this formality. I’ve got things to do. Besides, if we spend all of this money on mom’s, dad’s, grandma’s, grandpa’s, etc. funeral, that means less for us.” But, by the next week, they are riding around in a new Mercedes Benz or a new boat or flying off on a nice vacation (or whatever) all thanks to grandpa, grandma, etc., and I doubt it had anything to do with a pay raise or a work promotion.

    Stop lying to yourselves and everyone else. It’s all about selfishness and the “me first” mentality. Shame on all of you.

  26. Well said. The idea of having my loved ones burned in an oven makes me cringe.
    The body was the temple of the spirit and should be treated with respect, not baked in the oven until it turns to ashes and thrown out. I’m a Catholic and I blame the Catholic Church for allowing this pagan disrespect for the human body. During the time of Christ only the hardened criminals were burned or left for the vultures to eat. In most cases it’s not the affordability but the selfishness and greed of the relatives. Money is the source of all evil.

  27. Why would you assume greed is the reason cost becomes a factor in selecting cremation? Not every family has a spare $15,000 or solying around to pay for a traditional funeral, nor is everyone able to afford enough life insurance that would pay that much.

    Personally, I have rejected the idea of a traditional funeral for several reasons. First, I can donate the additional money to a charity or scholarship to aid the living, which are more important that my remains. Two, I believe traditional funerals are deliberately overpriced by funeral homes, and I refuse to be a sucker, even after death. Three, the idea of being embalmed and stuck in a box on a cushion like someone’s taxidermied lapdog being preserved is rather creepy. I’d much rather my friends have a party to remember me than a funeral.

  28. I am Catholic and I never liked the idea of cremation, but I am now considering it for myself because of cost. I figure it is better to enjoy the money while living, then to save for burial. I altar serve at funerals in my parish. We are seeing an increase in cremations and sadly a decrease in funerals with a Mass at church, as more and more are holding funerals at the funeral home. Cremation can be done after the funeral Mass and that is the way I would want it done for myself. This is an interesting thread!

  29. I am glad that the folks got dressed up to show their respects during spreading his ashes – white tee shirts and short shorts.

  30. How do you come up with that response based upon my comment? Maybe you were one of the folks standing there? I think that it is typical of people today to worry only about their comfort, even when going to an event which clearly deserves a heightened level of decorum.

  31. White clothes while spreading ashes may not be the most prudent thing to wear.

  32. I didn’t read thru all the comments or the whole article. It may very well be the reason for cremation is a decline in religion, but have you seen what is costs for a full blown funeral? It’s outrageous! I’m a card carrying Catholic. I don’t pick and choose beliefs and I will be cremated and buried in a cemetery (it’s not against religious beliefs). Why add the extra financial burden to your family?

  33. Glenda does this very well with The Insight Institute. I have had the privilege of being in one her seminars.

  34. Exactly my point, as is what Larry’s saying — this is an adaptation of a religious rite for secular purposes and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  35. If money is the source of all evil, please send me all of yours.

    OK, you have a right to your opinion, but cremation gets rid of the body fast, whereas burial means one is eaten slowly by worms and other scavengers. Either way, the person’s dead.

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