Dead But Not Necessarily Buried

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Expect more rock ‘n’ roll funerals in the future.

The only certainties in this world, as Benjamin Franklin famously observed, are death and taxes. But this tax season it seems fitting to acknowledge that the adage probably needs updating to reflect only one guarantee in life: dealing with the IRS. While everyone will eventually die, of course, there's no consistency in what Americans want done with their remains. From rock ’n’ roll funerals to cryogenics, people's preferences for final arrangements now vary according to demographics, geography, and personal style.

The latest word on last rites comes with evidence of a growing trend toward cremation. Some 37 percent of Americans say they would like to be cremated after they die, according to an NFO Research survey, and the number of cremations is rising 4 percent annually, to nearly 600,000 in 1999. Analysis by Claritas shows that people who would prefer cremation tend to be well-educated, earn higher-than-average incomes, and reside in Western boomtowns and Sunbelt retirement communities far from their birthplace. Psychographic surveys show that they share a socially progressive agenda, supporting issues like doctor-assisted suicide and the legalization of marijuana. Most choose cremation for the convenience, the lower cost, or to help preserve land.

“So many people now live away from their family that they feel it's easier to be cremated and have their remains sent to another part of the country,� says Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) in Chicago. “With people living longer, they have more time to direct their children as to what they want to do. And they consider that cremation involves fewer decisions for their family.�

For that reason, cremation is very popular in markets across Arizona and Florida, home to many snowbirds and transplanted retirees, as shown in the above map. In 1997, Nevada became the first state in the contiguous U.S. with a cremation rate topping 60 percent. In Alaska, on the other hand, cremation has become widespread out of climactic necessity. Like other Northern environs where the ground is frozen much of the year, cremation is seen as a hygienic alternative to keeping a body unburied until the spring thaw.

Mobility — or, rather, the lack of it — appears to be a big factor for 57 percent of Americans who still want a conventional burial. The highest concentration of those who prefer burials over cremations live in small towns and rural communities throughout the South, Upper Midwest, and northern Maine, where migration rates are lowest. Demographic research shows that people who opt for traditional burials are disproportionately downscale, have modest educations, and profess old-fashioned values. They often have strong ties to the community, observes John Carmon, president of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), in Windsor, Connecticut. “Burials are a big part of a small community where people have lived for a long time,� he says. “Having a grave at the local cemetery is an integral part of the social structure.�

Ashes to Ashes

Americans who prefer cremations…
Bury Me Deep

Americans who prefer burials…
Support gay rights Support school prayer
Listen to New Age music Listen to country music
Watch The History Channel Watch TNN
Read airline magazines Read fishing/hunting magazines
Own Apple computers Own satellite dishes
Go golfing Enjoy doing woodwork
Take vitamins Take pain relievers
Drink domestic white wine Drink domestic beer
Buy casual shoes Buy work boots
Advocate doctor-assisted suicide Advocate traditional family values
Sources: NFO Research Inc., Mediamark Research Inc., Claritas Inc.

NFO Research found that only 2 percent of Americans would prefer unconventional disposition methods such as having their bodies frozen or their ashes shot into outer space. The tiny 0.4 percent of Americans who prefer cryogenics are twice as likely to live in Southern college towns like Meridian, Mississippi, Gainesville, Florida, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, than the average American community. (There's no reasonable explanation for this correlation. Perhaps college students estimate that freezing oneself is cool and progressive.)

Having your remains launched into outer space, a relatively new disposition option chosen by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and LSD guru Timothy Leary, also attracts only a fringe group of upscale exurbanites, “Trekkies,� sums up one industry expert. However, spending the hereafter in orbit has gained followers since 1997 when Houston-based Celestis Inc., began rocketing portions of cremated remains into space. The company offers customers a choice of having capsuled remains shot into Earth's orbit, lunar orbit, or deep space. The cost of spending eternity in orbit, about $5,300, is close to the industry-wide average for an adult funeral.

With Baby Boomers moving closer to their final reward, the figures for such New Age disposal methods are expected to rise. A recent survey of Boomers by the Batesville Casket Co., in Indiana, found that just 14 percent wanted the bereaved to “visit their grave.� But a startling 41 percent wanted friends and relatives to “throw a huge party.� As a result, Batesville now helps undertakers offer theme services, such as the “Cool Jazz� funeral (the coffin rests atop two loudspeakers playing the deceased's favorite swing tunes), or the “Outdoorsman� package (which includes a coffin outfitted like a hunting lodge, complete with gun rack, bearskin rug, and elk antlers). Batesville spokesman Joe Weigel tells of one funeral where exotic dancers performed because the deceased was “that kind of a guy.�

The changing nature of religion in America has also resulted in an increase in unconventional funerals. With organized religion facing declining membership, many denominations are becoming more accepting of practices such as cremating one's remains. (The Roman Catholic Church began to condone cremation in the 1960s and has since added more appropriate prayers to the liturgy). Denominations that are growing in numbers, particularly evangelical Christians, tend to be more accommodating of personal approaches to religious practice.

NFDA's John Carmon, who's operated funeral homes for 33 years, observes that services increasingly leave religious terminology behind in favor of informal remembrances by family and friends. “The most successful clergy,� he says, “are the ones who bend to the personal wishes of the family.� At one boxing-themed service on the West Coast, the funeral parlor was decked out like a boxing ring, with mourners delivering eulogies at a drop-down microphone. At a recent service by Carmon's involving a 52-year-old man who loved fishing, the widow draped a chair near the coffin with fishing rods, lures, and pictures from bass tournaments. Mourners then offered fishing tales about the deceased while country music played in the background. “I expect more rock ’n’ roll funerals in the future,� says Carmon.

At the same time, the increasing popularity of cremation should make it the most common disposition method by 2021, according to CANA. Springer notes that the portability of the ashes can help mourners customize their tributes to loved ones. Although a majority of families still scatter the cremated remains of the departed over water, there's no limit to the unusual ways that people can dispose of ashes. Already, one fireworks company has begun to offer a unique service, adding ashes to its pyrotechnic rockets for an aerial farewell. At a recent CANA conference, an artist advertised her talents — mixing the remains of the deceased with paint used to create a portrait of the individual — an idea that Springer regards as both constructive and tasteful.

“It's important to give families a lot of options today,� he says, before pausing. “But what's meaningful to one may be repugnant to another.� Then again, the same could be said for taxes.

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