Every year in America, 2.5 million people die. In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, 42 percent were cremated, according to the Funeral Directors Association. That’s double the rate of just 15 years ago. In some states, largely in the West, the cremation rate tops 70 percent. In Washington it’s 72 percent, in Nevada almost 74 percent. (The lowest rate of cremation, in case you need a great pick-up line, is Mississippi’s, at 15.7 percent.)
Why Rates are Rising
Religion, Family and Cost So why the big jump in cremations? There are lots of reasons. One is the softening of the Catholic church’s views of the practice. For centuries, until 1963 in fact, the church outlawed it. The church’s laws still express a preference for burial, but the outright ban is a thing of the past. Now, under some circumstances, Bishops can permit a funeral mass with cremated remains present.
Another reason for the rise in cremations is the decline in nuclear families. As more Americans live far from hometowns and parents, and as family burial plots have waned in popularity and accessibility, millions have turned to cremation as a practical and cost-effective way to care for a loved one’s remains.
But the main reason, as you might expect, is cost. Cremation is cheaper than burial. The average cost of a funeral today is about $6,500, including the typical $2,000 or more cost of a casket. Add a burial vault, and the average jumps to around $7,700. A cremation, by contrast, typically costs a third of those amounts or less. In a tough economy like the current one, cost counts – a lot.
Money matters, even in death, what you pay depends in part on where you live and which additional products or services you buy from the funeral home or crematory. Prices tend to be higher in densely populated urban areas. And you will pay more – in some cases almost as much as a full burial with casket – if you contract with a funeral home for such ancillary services as hearses, visitations and viewings or memorial services prior to cremation.
In that case, you will be charged a few hundred dollars for – yes, I’m serious – a rental casket with removable liner. In most states, whether you have a viewing or not, you will have to buy a cremation container, usually wood fiber or cardboard, for $100 or so. It is burned with the body.
If you keep it simple, though, the average cost of a cremation, including a basic memorial service, runs about $1,600. If you go for a so-called direct cremation without a memorial service the cost can drop well below $1,000. Go online and you can find prices as low as $600 or so.
In the End, What to Do With the Ashes
Of course, the total cost doesn’t stop with the cremation itself. You have got to do something with the 4 to 6 pounds of mostly carbon ash that remain after the body has been incinerated for several hours at 1,600 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, that means buying an urn. Cost: from under $100 to well over $1,000. Was your beloved Uncle Pete a golfer? You can get The Masters Golf Cremation urn online for $218. It won’t improve your putting, or his.
Then there’s the cost of interring the cremation urn. You don’t have to buy a burial space for the remains. You can keep them in an urn on your mantel (Bad idea if you have cats or ball-throwing small children). Or you can scatter the ashes or have them mixed with concrete and dropped into the ocean to form a memorial reef. One vendor in Florida, Eternal Reefs, charges $3,000 to $7,000 for that. Says owner George Frankel, without a trace of irony: “I think a sea change is what we’re seeing” in the funeral business.
If you decide to place your loved one’s urn and ashes in a burial space, vault or columbarium, figure on spending $1,000 or so — maybe more, depending on how fancy the cemetery or memorial garden is. You may pay extra, too, if you choose to have a niche with a view. But who’s counting? Or looking, for that matter?