Cremation has been a hot topic in the funeral profession for years. As more and more families choose cremation over burial as their preferred method of disposition, funeral directors must adapt to changes in consumer behavior.
About the Research
For this analysis, we reviewed NFDA’s 2015 Report on Cremation, and studied how cremation rates for each state changed over time.
The article continues below this map.
For both 2010 and 2015, we can see higher cremation rates in the West Coast compared to the rest of the country. This trend continues fade in popularity with the exception of the Northeast and Florida. The average percentage of cremations across all states was 42% in 2010. In 2015, the cremation rate hit 50% and surpassed the burial rate for the first time.
In the next five years, NFDA projections estimate that we will see cremation rates continue to increase, reaching an average of 57% cremation in 2020.
What Does this Mean?
We often think about cremation as the low-cost alternative for burial. However, there are many options people can choose between a direct cremation and a traditional full burial.
John Fowler, former President of the Australian Funeral Directors Association, is no stranger to adapting to cremation in his funeral home business. By 2008, the cremation rates for Australia and New Zealand were already at 65% and 70%. In a way, Australian and Kiwi funeral directors are experiencing trends years ahead of the United States.
Fowler suggests that funeral directors in the U.S. should think about the choices families have as a spectrum between direct cremation and a full burial. It’s not an all or nothing even though American consumers and funeral directors alike often fall into that myth. For him, the cremation aspect of the arrangement is “simply a decision that the family makes in regards to disposing of the deceased person.” To better serve families, he says, American funeral directors need to explore how to make cremation more meaningful to families.
Joseph J. Earthman, a fourth-generation funeral director from Texas, agrees with Fowler. To Earthman, it doesn’t matter if a family wants a burial or a cremation. His priority is serving the family and providing them with the services they want regardless of disposition.
“Funeral directors have created unnecessary shortcomings for both themselves and the families they serve because they failed to adequately understand and articulate cremation’s actual role in the funeral process,” he said.
In the past two years, Earthman decided to share this philosophy with his families.
“Funerals and cremations are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “I changed my entire marketing strategy to make funerals followed by cremation meaningful for families and have had much success.”
Buddy Phaneuf, founder and owner of Phaneuf Funeral Homes & Crematorium, has been working under the assumption of a high cremation rate for 10 years. New Hampshire, where Phaneuf operates his funeral homes, hit the 70% cremation mark in 2015.
“We’ve seen the trends. If you’re not creating value-added packates and offerings then you will lose that cremation volume to more progressive forms,” Phaneuf said. “I think a lot of the industry is trying to penalize the consumer for choosing cremation at the expense of their own future.”
He often has conversations with funeral directors looking for advice surrounding cremation and always recommends using the state cremation rate as a baseline to gauge how the funeral home is doing.
“If your funeral home’s cremation rate is not at least what the state’s rate is, then you’re losing those calls to someone else,” Phaneuf said.
For funeral directors who are looking to make changes, he has a simple suggestion: start talking about cremation online. Phaneuf has a section of his website dedicated to cremation and often blogs about cremation topics, sharing them on social media. Communicating and being more forthright with the consumer also helps him and his staff serve them better. In his experience, cremation families actually take more time than traditional arrangers because people are more open to memorialization and personalization options in conjunction with a cremation.
“It requires much more creativity on the end of the funeral home to come up with ways to help them memorialize,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
To help his staff better serve these families and to set his funeral homes apart from the competition, Phaneuf started putting aside money toward a fund for personalization and memorialization expenses. He recalls a woman whose dream in life was to visit Hawaii but passed away before she was able to go. Because of his fund, his staff was able to decorate the chapel with a Hawaiian theme for the family at no cost to them.
“It’s just stuff like that – empowering our staff to spend company money to go outside the box for whatever makes sense for the family,” he said. “Cremation is not going away, and we want to capture that volume whatever it takes.”
How is your funeral home doing? Compare your funeral home’s cremation rate with your state’s rate to gauge your progress with cremation. Download a printable PDF with the maps and projected cremation rates broken out by state.
Interested in other funeral trends? Read about the rise of Celebration of Life services in the U.S.