Gabriela Castaneda was only 12 years old when, held in her mother’s embrace, she stared at her grandpa’s face one last time as she stood by his casket.
She cried quietly a few minutes later when the casket was closed and her grandfather was lowered into the concrete burial vault.
Decades later, she vividly remembers the details of her grandfather’s funeral. “It was shocking for me to see him go into the ground,” Castaneda said.
In the 33 years since her grandfather’s death, Castaneda said she has spent considerable time thinking about her own end-of-life rites. “I’d like to be cremated,” said Castaneda, an Athens resident. “It’s not so shocking.”
Her strong emotional reaction as a child is not the sole reason why Castaneda wants to be cremated. But her choice reflects a shifting preference in the death industry, both nationwide and in Athens.
According to the Cremation and Burial Report released by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) in 2019, the cremation rate in the United States is projected to rise to 78.7 percent by 2040. The last available data on NFDS website showed that 47.9 percent of the people chose cremation in 2015 compared to the 45.2 percent who chose to be buried.
The two funeral homes in Athens, Hughes-Moquin Funeral Home and Jagers & Sons Funeral Home, also reflect this trend with around half their customers choosing cremation.
“People’s attitudes are changing about funerals,” noted Tim Jagers, funeral director at Jagers & Sons. “They don’t think it’s quite as important as it was.”
Cost and perceived impact on the environment are widely stated reasons for this shift, added Jack Moquin, funeral director at Hughes-Moquin.
Moquin said that the cost of cremation is significantly lower than the cost of burial, which makes it a more appealing option for many.
According to NFDA, the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial in 2016 was $7,360 compared to $6,260, the median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation. However, if a vault is included with the burial, which many cemeteries require, the median cost of burial rises to $8,508.
“I’m leaning toward cremation because it’s cheaper,” said Pennie Hawk, another Athens resident. “I’d rather not have any of my body left here.”
Hawk is not the first to choose cremation in her family. Her grandmother was cremated in 2018. Following an intimate graveside service with the immediate family, the urn containing her grandmother’s ashes was buried beside her husband.
“People are concerned about space,” Moquin said. “But then they bury the ashes not realizing that it still occupies space.”
Even those who don’t want to bury the ashes can purchase cemetery spaces. Those who choose to either scatter the ashes or have them kept with the family can have a public marker in a cemetery to visit, Moquin said.
But with the rising cremation rates, non-burial options for the cremated remains are also expected to gain popularity, according to a news release issued by the NFDA.
More and more traditional faiths’ favorable outlook toward cremation has contributed to this shift.
Castaneda’s mother, a devout Catholic, chose to be cremated after the Catholic Church allowed cremation. The Holy Office in the Vatican issued a statement in July 1963 stating that cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion.”
“For someone from my mother’s generation, that is pretty progressive,” Castaneda said.
However, the Catholic Church still holds that the ashes should be preserved sacredly and not be divided or scattered in the sea or nature.
The urn containing the ashes of Castaneda’s mother is preserved in the basement of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Aguascalientes, Mexico, where Castaneda grew up.
“Baby Boomers have been a significant factor in this shift, and their preferences will inform decisions made by the funeral profession for years to come,” Mike Nicodemus, licensed funeral director and NFDA vice president of cremation services, said in a news release.
The changing preference is also affecting the business models of the death industry.
Although the cost of cremation is lower than burial, the overhead costs of funeral homes to undertake end-of-life rituals remain the same, Moquin said. Higher costs with lower income may affect the future of the death industry.
“Some funeral homes may cease to exist,” Moquin said. Some may group up with other funeral homes and diversify their services to supplement the income, he said.
Moquin said that he personally prefers burial over cremation.
“I’d rather be directly buried into the ground than be put in an oven and my bones through a pulverizer,” he said. “And I do believe in people having time to gather and say goodbye.”
He said that already has chosen burial plots for both himself and his wife.