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Cremation funerals exceed burials as rates hit ‘all-time high’

A mourner pays their respects at a funeral

More than half of people in the United States are opting for cremation when a loved one dies, with younger generations influencing changing funeral service trends.

That’s according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), which says the shift towards cremation is “at an all-time high”. The organization’s Cremation and Burial Report 2017 reveals that 50.2 per cent of people chose a cremation over traditional burial last year. It predicts that almost four out of five of us will be choosing to honor a loved one with a cremation funeral by 2035.

However we choose to say goodbye to our loved ones, the funeral is an occasion that still has deep significance in our lives. With cremation finding favor with an increasing number of Americans, meaningful memorials and funeral rituals are still an important part of that goodbye.

The NFDA’s Cremation and Burial Report 2017 highlights the influence of younger generations on changing attitudes towards final dispositions. America’s aging baby boomers are among those becoming more open to the idea of cremation, while their parents in the 80-plus age bracket still favor a traditional burial.

The joint funeral service of actresses Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds reflected these changing outlooks in January this year. Star Wars icon Carrie, 60, was cremated according to her wishes, while Singin’ in the Rain star Debbie, who was 84 when she died, wanted to be buried.

At their private funeral ceremony at Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn Memorial Park some of Carrie’s cremation ashes were interred with her mother’s casket, while Todd Fisher cradled his sister’s Prozac pill-shaped cremation urn. A public memorial service for the stars, attended by hundreds of fans, was held in March. More still watched the ceremony with music and dance tributes live-streamed from the memorial park.

While not everyone’s funeral is quite so high-profile, the NFDA says that many consumers are unaware that cremation can always be accompanied by meaningful services or ceremonies – and they don’t necessarily have to be religious.

In fact, since 2012, says the NFDA, the percentage of those who feel it is “very important” to have religion as part of a funeral has decreased from 49.5 per cent to 39.5 per cent. Increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to say goodbye in more secular, yet in no less significant ways, with personalized funerals on the increase. For some, the funeral service has become a celebration of life, giving mourners the chance to reflect on the joys and happiness their loved one brought into their lives.

At some funerals, beautiful poems, rather than religious texts, have special meaning, while instead of hymns, people are choosing favorite Billboard hits or country songs for funerals. Sinatra’s My Way is the most-requested funeral song in the UK, where contemporary funeral songs have become the most popular choice of funeral music. In Britain, cremation services overtook burials in 1968 and account for three quarters of the nation’s funerals today, with traditional rites and a rising number of personalized ceremonies respectfully overseen by experienced funeral directors.

While burial is an important end of life ritual in faiths including Judaism and Islam, cremation can be a part of many religious funeral services. The singer Prince, who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, was cremated ahead of a private memorial held at his estate, Paisley Park, in April 2016. A memorial service was later held at his regular place of worship, the Kingdom Hall in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

Cremation funerals can offer people the opportunity to combine their own beliefs and traditions they hold dear, with the support of an experienced funeral director. The NFDA is working to make more people aware of the full spectrum of choices available as part of a funeral with cremation, including a traditional viewing. It says it’s still possible to arrange for a visitation when a loved one has been prepared for their cremation funeral, but is not embalmed, for instance.

According to the NFDA, almost a third of the United States’ 10,000 funeral homes already provide bereaved families with their own funeral home cremation facilities, while many more have the close connections necessary to arrange for a truly personal funeral service with cremation, held at a local crematory. A further 9.4 per cent of plan to open and operate their own funeral home-based crematories within the next five years.

Many of these funeral homes and crematoria are located in beautiful settings, with memorial gardens or woodland settings where loved ones can be scattered, or interred in a columbarium or burial plot. The United States’ first crematory opened in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876, with many beautiful historic crematoria over 100 years old.

For some families who choose a cremation service, it’s important to memorialize their loved one’s resting place with a plaque or headstone and have a special place to visit. For others, a loved one’s cremation is an opportunity to keep them close. They may ask their funeral director to place their loved one’s ashes in a beautiful cremation urn (Prince’s ashes were placed in a 3-D printed urn created to resemble Paisley Park), or to arrange for a breathtaking piece of memorial jewelry to be made from their cremation remains.

A cremation funeral can provide the opportunity for a further element of remembrance, with funeral homes able to liaise with a specialist companies to fill fireworks or helium balloons with a loved one’s ashes as the focal point for meaningful memorial ceremonies.

Ultimately, choosing between a cremation service and burial will be a personal decision down to your loved ones, if you have not already expressed a preference in your funeral wishes or funeral plan when you die.

The NFDA’s president W. Ashley Cozine says the funeral director’s role is to support bereaved families and fulfill their wishes, adding: “Our role is to help make sure families understand all of the available options and commemorate the life of their loved one in a meaningful way regardless of whether they choose burial or cremation.”