Cremation is a relatively new trend in American history. In 1960, only 3.5% of Americans chose cremation. Today, nearly half of Americans choose cremation and almost 70% of Baby Boomers will choose to be cremated.
In the lifetime of a single generation, cremation went from something almost no one did to by far the most popular choice. What changed to make cremation so popular, so quickly?
The changes can be tied to three major factors: increasing environmentalism, religious acceptance of cremation, and the changing role of cemeteries in family life.
The popularity of cremation has grown alongside the environmental movement and greater awareness for the need to protect and appreciate nature.
Part of this has been a move away from traditional burial practices because they are seen as damaging to the environment, with more more than 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid and 1.6 million tons of concrete being buried each year.
The second factor is the increasing desire to be a part of nature. As Americans have become more focused on nature and the importance of protecting the environment, more and more Americans want their ashes to be a part of nature and the ongoing cycle of life.
While more traditional burial options focused on the preservation and protection of the body separate from the Earth, today more people want their ashes or body to return to nature and the Earth.
Changing Religious Acceptance
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and earth to earth” is a commonly used [phrasing] in many religion’s funeral rites and cremation is central practice of many religions. In Christian doctrine, Ecclesiastes 12:7 refers includes the passage, “and the dust shall return to the Earth as it was, and the soul shall return to God who gave it.”
Up until 1963, however, cremation was banned by the Catholic church and very uncommon in other Christian denominations. Once the ban was lifted, many denominations quickly began to approve and in some cases promote cremation as a simpler alternative to traditional burial.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a popular backlash began against the American funeral industry, fueled the publication of the The American Way of Death. Many churches and religious figures joined in criticizing the funeral industry for promoting ornate and expensive funerals as a way for them to generate more revenue. Many of those critics endorsed and encouraged cremation and simple funerals where the family could focus more importance on the memory and legacy of the person who died rather than on their body and the service itself.
The Changing Role of Cemeteries in Family Life
Many families in the 19th and 20th centuries lived in the same towns and cities for generations. Because cemetery land, unlike today, was inexpensive, families owned large family plots where generations of the family could be buried together. Later generations could visit and connect with their family’s permanent place in the world knowing there would always be a place for them to join their family.
Over the 20th century, these family places became less common because many of the family plots ran out of burial space and the land around those plots had either been sold or become too expensive to purchase. Today, family cemetery plots for 10 or more people in larger cities like San Francisco, Toronto and New York often cost $1 million or more.
As family members spread to new cities throughout the country, it also became harder for the children to visit their family burial plots. Parents often struggle to decide if they should be buried near their own parents or their children. When multiple children have moved across the country, it becomes even more difficult to find a family place.
As the role of the family cemetery declined, many families began to focus on spreading the ashes of their loved ones in a place of significance to the family or to them personally.
If you would like to continue reading more on the history of cremation, Wikipedia’s entry on cremation is an excellent place to start.