The Death of Funerals

Yesterday, my husband’s sister Marina died at the ripe of old age of 96, peacefully, without suffering. I fretted that we would not be able to attend the funeral, as she died in Mexico, and my husband was unable to travel for medical reasons. 


By now I should be aware that one cannot assume there will be a funeral. In a case like hers – extremely old, a small family, very few friends left – a private cremation was the far more likely choice. And so it proved. Our nephew told us it had been her wish to keep things simple with a no-fuss, no-service cremation. So tomorrow her two children and a grandson will be present for her cremation and that will be that.


The funeral is a dying rite.  In 2020, 56 percent of Americans who died were cremated, more than double the figure of 27 percent two decades earlier, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). By 2040, 4 out of 5 Americans are projected to choose cremation over casket burial, according to both CANA and the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Last year, 4,500 bodies entered the five chambers at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, a 35 percent increase over 2019. 


The funeral home business may be said to be three feet under, with cremation now America’s leading form of final “disposition,” as it is known by funeral directors. If Japan is any indication – the rate of cremation is 100% - it won’t be long before the funeral biz is six feet under. Speaking of which, Six Feet Under was a fantastic TV series. I can’t imagine anything remotely so wonderful that draws on the premise of a crematorium business.


What’s not to like about cremation? It’s fast, it’s cheaper than casket burial (about a third the price, unless you make it into a funeral, with no annual landscaping fees), it’s a solace for those with a phobia about buried alive (I don’t know the Greek term, but there must be one: I can’t be the only buried-alive phobic). You can even arrange cremations online. How pleased Jessica Mitford would be. In her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, muckraking journalist Mitford was advocating for cremation way back when the U.S. cremation rate was at five percent.


What’s not to like about cremation is that it is not, as many people believe, eco-friendly. It’s estimated about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide are released during an average cremation, even with a filtering system that gets rid of mercury emissions from dental fillings. In other words, a single cremation uses about the same energy as you use at home for a month, and most of it is derived from fossil fuels. I have heard there is a greener alternative, but I balked at reading further about  about cremationit once I saw the word “composting.”


But it doesn’t seem that environmental concerns are driving the trend. Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood cemetery, says, “This generation just doesn’t want to do the three-day-long funeral home thing.” They want it over and done with. It’s sometimes referred to as “drive-through death.” Thomas Lynch, a Michigan funeral director of 50 years, told the Washington Post, “[T]his is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without actually dealing with the dead.”


Some of us have no choice. The sanctity of the body in death is a tenet for Jews and Muslims. It used to be for Catholics, but the Church lifted the prohibition against it in 1963. My sister-in-law was nominally Jewish, so I guess that is why I naturally assumed there would be a funeral. By Jewish law, a rabbi can’t officiate at a cremation, and ashes can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but obviously as someone for whom Judaism was a tangential fact of life, that would not have troubled her. In fact, another Jewish woman I knew, a good friend’s sister, was also recently cremated, and I had the same slightly jolted reaction to it. 


For Jews, it isn’t “three days” of concentration on the death of the loved one, but a full week of mourning – shiva – that plays out by strict rules. The mourners must sit at home for seven days receiving visitors, and recite prayers each day in the company of family and friends. Visitors sit for a while and talk about the departed family member. It’s considered to be very therapeutic and a helpful transition back to normal life, but as parents live to be older and older, and as their loss becomes more and more predictable, the week-long ritual seems pointless to modern Jews. More and more I see it shortened to three days. 


To be honest, I can fully understand why mourners are a little embarrassed to be receiving consolation visits when their parent has died so very old, or after years of Alzheimers distress, or so many other pitfalls that come with longevity. I won’t know how long my shiva will be, but I would prefer a meaningful intensive three-day event(did you see what I did there?) to a seven-day affair with everyone yawning and checking their watch every ten minutes. 


And once in confessional mode, I will admit that I never visit my own parents’ graves in Toronto. Staring down at a gravestone has no emotional benefit for me. Maybe if, as in the old days when generations stayed put in their home towns, I had to walk past their graveyard every day on my way to the shops, I would feel the pull of family history their gravestones represent. I think of my parents very often, but I don’t need such ritual visits to remind me to reflect on them or what they were to me.


Orthodox Jews are unlikely to contemplate any changes to burial customs, but liberal Jews are pushing for change. We’ll see. As for myself, although not an observant Jew, I don’t see any advantage in defying 3,000 years of death rites on principle or to save money. In any case, I am sure that in Israel, burial of the body will stay the rule. “Gathered unto my people” is a comforting thought, and I would not allow an irrational fear to upset that ancient applecart (but please kids, make sure I am dead.). Let’s face it. Burning bodies still has horrific associations for my tribe. Do I have to spell it out?