6 Things You Didn't Know About Cremation

In a new video by TIME, filmmaker Shaul Schwarz highlights an unusual trend that’s been rising dramatically in popularity in recent years — cremation. 

In 1999, the cremation rate in America was 25%. By 2017 that number will double, as one in two families will soon choose cremation over traditional, in-ground burials. And for a death industry that tops $13.4 billion a year, that means either adapt to the changing times, or …

Well.

Below are a few of the best macabre facts you may not have known about the trendy new way to deal with the remains of those loved ones after they pass on:

1. It’s Cheap

Many contribute the rise in popularity of cremation to the Great Recession, as strapped older Americans are faced with the staggering costs associated with end-of-life care. The average cremation costs just $2,570, a fraction of the $7,750 that many will pay for body burial. 

2. It’s Green

The eco-friendly elderly are opting for the ashes, when considering that traditional burial — in addition to requiring a sizable plot — involves taking a body full of embalming chemicals and sticking it in the ground, which will then need to be properly maintained. Forever. 

Cremation, which reduces the body to biodegradable mineral ash, is friendlier for the environment. And some specialized crematoriums have begun offering what’s known in the industry as “green cremation,” or “water-based cremation.” This new process, offered by only two crematoriums in the country, uses a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, in a process known as alkaline hydrolysis, to dissolve human remains — producing the same familiar ash that flames do. Four out of five families, when given the choice, have opted for green cremation.

3. It doesn't stop at the flames

Bodies still cremated traditionally, using fire, require an extra step before being handed back to the family. While flames can do most of the work, the ashes must then be pulverized in a special machine, to prevent any potentially alarming chunks of bone or tooth from making an unwelcome appearance at a scattering ceremony.

4. It's Portable

Some point to portability as a reason for the procedure’s growing popularity. Traditionally, many families would purchase expensive plots decades in advance — you would be buried with your spouse alongside your parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. And you’d probably buy a couple extra plots for your progeny as well, just in case.

But we’re a mobile society, in all ways imaginable, and that includes death. As more millennials are traveling far from home for education, work and family, the notion of a single set of plots for the everyone is becoming nostalgic. Tucking grandma’s urn in the back of the moving van is a whole lot easier than transporting her casket — and much more subtle.

5. It’s fairly secular

Christianity, for a host of reasons, has long favored body burial to cremation. But as more and more Americans identify as secular, or the millennial favorite, spiritual but not really religious, the importance of the Church-preferred option is diminishing. 

6. It’s all about choice

So you’re hip and trendy and you’ve opted for cremation, and BAM. You’re handed an urn.

About 1/3 of families opt to scatter the ashes, 1/3 choose to bury them, and the rest store them in urns (in addition to a few creative new options for the more adventurous). Though scatterers beware — many public areas require advanced permits before sprinkling Aunt Sally in those dunes. The Environmental Protection (EPA) requires that boats or planes travel at least three nautical miles from shore before scattering. No urns in the ocean, of course, and pet ashes are a no-no. California officially prohibits beachside scattering, though will usually look the other way.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t have any specific restrictions on flight scattering, though it’s been proven to be trickier than it sounds (including a few horror stories of unexpected gusts blowing a whole lot back into the cockpit). Many national parks allow scattering, with advance permits and permission from the park ranger, but often require wide-spread dispersal to prevent alarming clumps. 

Or, if you’re trying to preserve a loved one’s wild spirit, you could opt to be a “wildcat scatterer” — which is exactly what it sounds like. Disney World reports that the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean are the most common spots for covert scattering operations. Prohibited, of course, but what better gift to the deceased than one final, earthly thrill?

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T. Chase Meacham

Student at Georgetown University studying theater and government. Writer, director, and Secretary of the Arts for the Georgetown University Student Association.

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