Alternatives to Traditional Funerals and Burials
Why not do your Funeral Different - New Funeral Ideas
Funeral consumer advocates, along with common sense, tell us that there is really no such thing as a “traditional funeral” in this day and age. In fact, the alternatives to tradition are almost limitless for any family who cares to explore the possibilities. Ideas – and people who offer profitable services to help with those ideas – abound on the scores of emerging new trends in the world of death care. As just a start, families who have lost a loved one will find dozens and dozens of ideas for how to dispose of (or not) cremation remains of their descendant. The huge selection of cremation urns available online in seconds is just the start. Some “funeral consultants” even now encourage their client’s find their cremation urns in unexpected places – such as a stylish handbag stumbled upon in a garage sale. Cremation jewelry, keepsake urns, and multi-chamber urns are all readily available on today's market, offering families with many, many options for sharing remains in a wide variety of ways.
And the options expand exponentially from there. Families whose loved one's body has been donated to medical science have an unlimited array of options for displaying remains (or not) at a memorial service; burial can be conducted in a wide variety of manners – using any number of different containers (or no container at all). And the variety goes on and on.
Yet, it's interesting: the idea of a “traditional” funeral remains as popular as ever and, in fact, many funeral directors in the United States make nice livelihoods arranging nothing except traditional funerals. So, before we dive into more detail on the most popular alternatives to the traditional funeral currently sold – by default – at most funeral home, it's instructive to begin with a brief overview of what, exactly, is a traditional funeral.
Critics of the funeral home industry, with some cynicism, will note that the traditional funeral is the one that is most expensive (and therefore most profitable for your funeral home and funeral director). It features a stylishly dress, skillfully embalmed body on display in elegant and serene surroundings a day or two before the actual funeral service itself. And, of course, the body will be displayed in a meticulously designed casket made of study metal or finely crafted hardwood and lined with elegant pillows and other cushioning embroidered with bible verses or uplifting sayings intended to create a sense of peace and comfort in all who view the body.
And then there's the funeral itself: an elaborate affair, often staged in an ornate chapel owned and maintained by the funeral home itself, featuring a wide variety of amenities such as elegant guest books, ushers dressed to the nine's, professionally designed video montages of the deceased, and, of course, flowers galore – including a elaborate “spray” draped over the casket (and often buried with the deceased).
And this is followed by the burial at, yet another, elaborate ceremony staged at the cemetery itself. Mourners, of course, ride in style and comfort to this second ceremony in a convoy of limousines outfitted with the latest technological comforts. This convoy is, of course, led by the specially designed hearse (now known, “traditionally as a “burial coach”) that carries the body and it is accompanied by a police escort of up to 10 officers – all often earning specially arranged overtime pay – and, in many municipalities a special “parade license” is required to be approved (and paid for) as well.
The traditional burial takes place in a meticulously landscaped cemetery noted for its serene and luxurious surroundings. The traditional “memorial park” features elaborate headstones and memorial statues and even “memorial benches” that have, obviously, been carefully carved with great care using the finest materials and by artists who are true craftsmen. The grave itself is almost always lined with some sort of “burial vault.” Most traditional cemeteries require, at a minimum, that this vault be a sturdy concrete piece that will give the casket protection on all four sites, but many families choose more elaborate and ornate vaults, many of these are carefully crafted pieces designed to give archaeologists of the future a sense of just how important the deceased was to his or her friends and loved one.
And, finally, there's the reception to end the day. This part of the traditional funeral is, perhaps, the one that is most open to individual interpretation by families – as opposed to the funeral director and funeral home staff. Traditionally speaking, the reception is held either at some public venue (perhaps even a reception hall at the funeral home or cemetery itself) or at the residence of a family member. It is typically a very informal, come-and-go affair that usually involves a selection of “finger foods” or other light snacks that mourners may grab as they share light-hearted memories and stories about the deceased. The reception often serves as an outlet for the graciousness that friends of the deceased's often feel towards the family members, affording these people an opportunity to provide food or other comforts that help demonstrate love and support. And cynics sometimes note that funeral homes may have allowed this aspect of the traditional reception to evolve as it has as a means of keeping tendencies toward volunteerism away from other parts of the traditional funeral. (It might cut into funeral home revenues, frankly, if volunteering to, say, usher the ceremony itself became as common to the traditional funeral as offering to bring snacks to a reception. Funeral homes, after all, don't typically charge for reception food, but they often bill families for dozens of dollars per hour to provide ushers.)
This is all of what many people in today's modern world have come to expect from a traditional funeral and, as we will begin to explore, there is significant evidence to suggest that these traditions developed throughout the 20th century in the United States, not necessarily as a response to overwhelming public demand but, rather, as a response to the desire of funeral homes and funeral directors to maximize their revenues and profits. Alternatives to these traditional parts of a funeral are typically far less expensive and, as such, the typical funeral director may be reluctant to steer a family toward them.
Why You Might Not Want a Traditional Funeral and Burial
In today's modern age, many (if not most) families who have lost a loved one turn immediately to a local funeral home (often the very funeral home that the family has been working with for decades) to make arrangements. In many cases, a local funeral director is the very first call that a family member makes at a death (often, in fact, this call comes even before other family members are notified of the passing). It is important to know that, by virtue of this initial contact, the assumption will likely be made that the family is requesting a “traditional” funeral and burial. And, as we say, this assumption may not be accurate.
There are many valid reasons why a family who has lost a loved one might not want what's commonly thought of as a “traditional” memorial. The most glaring of these reasons is simply price: traditional funerals can easily cost $10,000 or much more, and the price tag on many of the alternatives, meanwhile, can be $1,000 or less.
But price is not the only consideration. The foremost reason that a family might want something other than the traditional funeral or burial can be simply that the deceased himself (or herself) has requested something non-traditional. Above all, it's important that family members honor these desires as expressed by the deceased – especially if they are less expensive than tradition would have it.
In still other cases, family members themselves may want to honor their memories of their family member in some way other than what tradition allows for. One such family member has, rather famously, spawned an entire cottage industry that serves others who have such desires. Caitlin Doughty's 2011 book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory makes the point numerous times that family involvement needs to be encouraged, and in many cases even simply allowed, much more thoroughly than it currently is when traditional methods are employed. Funerals are for the living family members, Doughty (and many others) argue, and, as such, the living family's need to be heavily involved in the planning.
But, Doughty bemoans from the very first page of her book, families are often specifically discouraged (or even formally disallowed) from being involved. Her introduction, in fact, quotes a California law that seems to specifically forbid crematories from allowing family members to view a cremation as it is taking place. And Doughty assures her readers that, wanting to be present for such a thing is, indeed okay, perhaps even very healthy, though it may not be part of funeral and burial tradition.
Advocates for families who have suffered the loss of a loved one are often very adamant about reminding their clients that the psychological needs of survivors are of utmost importance when considering plans for a funeral or burial, and those needs may often directly conflict with what's called for in a traditional funeral or burial. And it is for that reason that Doughty has formed a popular blog/website that offers very specific support and advice in this realm. Readers of The Order of The Good Death will find a plethora of essays and other forms of encouragement that offer many ideas for getting exactly the kind of funeral or burial you and/or your family members want and need – regardless of tradition.
Common Alternatives to Funerals and Burials
Many who follow the death care industry from the perspective of finding alternatives to traditional funerals and burials will note that, in many ways, “non-traditional” is rapidly becoming the new “traditional.” One commonly cited topic in such discussions is emergence of cremation as the most popular means of body disposal. When many of today's “traditions” were becoming set in the industry (during the early 20th century, many historians will note), cremation was an afterthought in the industry. In fact, it was considered taboo by many religious groups (including many mainstream Christian denominations), and it was often not available in even big cities across the country.
But, gradually, cremation grew and, today, it is so routinely offered by funeral homes that it is, ironically, considered to be a part of a “traditional” funeral. This development is simply a death care industry response to market forces that has led cremation to account for – some studies say – more than 70 percent of the death care industry market. Cynics will argue that, rather than being devoted to tradition for the sake of sentimentality, funeral homes reluctantly came to adopt cremation as part of their “traditional” offerings only because, to do otherwise, would have risked sending their customers to competitors who did offer cremation.
So, we begin our list of the most popular alternatives to traditional funerals and burials with cremation, but we note, with some irony, that cremation today is often considered traditional. Cremation is an alternative to both funerals and burials because, often, a cremated body leads itself to funerals that do not fit the standard mold. Many families whose loved ones who have been cremated will, very specifically, decide not to host a traditional funeral in a traditional church (or funeral home chapel). Rather, these families can invite a gathering of friends to practically place they can fit a cremation urn (usually not much larger than a three liter soda bottle): a private home, any sort of outdoor setting, or perhaps even in a restaurant's meeting room. A funeral director who fields a family's first call may very likely discourage a “cremation” ceremony such as this (because, of course, the funeral home makes plenty of money on hosting funerals in their chapels), and so a family may hear an argument that such a practice is simply not in keeping with tradition. But the family should remember such arguments are likely borne of the funeral home's profit motive rather than to any real sense of tradition. Further, they should remember that cremation is, in fact, traditional – in the sense that nearly every funeral home in the United States now offers it – these days even if there is no traditionally agreed-upon method for memorializing the loved one whose remains have been cremated.
This same stipulation, of course, applies to how the remains may be disposed of: there is no “traditional” way of doing this even though, of course, funeral homes and cemeteries may be known for encouraging burial of a cremation urn. Urns, simply put, do not have to buried. Nor must they be displayed in an expensive and ornate columbarium. Cremation remains can, of course, be buried (and, when that is the choice, it should be noted that multiple cremation urns will typically fit into a single burial plot. There is no such tradition that requires that urns be buried in a full-length grave, though funeral directors do often have a vested interest in convincing their clients to do such a thing). But there are plenty of other options for disposing of (or not) cremation remains. Ashes may, of course, be stored permanently in a residence (and they may even be stored, long-term, in the “temporary” container in which they arrive from the crematory). They may also be scattered in a place of the family's choosing (or even in multiple places, as the family and or deceased, desires). And they may be shared among far-flung friends and families with the use of smaller-than-usual “keepsake” cremation urns that are typically available from funeral homes and specialty retailers alike. Additionally, cremation jewelry – in which tiny portions of cremation remains are incorporated into the piece itself in a wide variety of ways – is also become and more and more popular “non-traditional” tradition with each passing year.
Popular “Non-traditional” Options: Home Burials and Green Burials
As prominent funeral consumer activists Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson point out at length in their definitive 2011 book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, there is much irony in the idea that “home burials” and “green burials” are today considered an important part of any discussion of “non-traditional” funerals. These two broadly defined methods of burial are, in many ways, about as traditional as a family can get; the practices typically can trace their roots back centuries, and, in many of the cultures of the world (outside of the United States) there has never been any question of other types of burials.
Simply put, with home burials, families take full responsibility for of all parts of the funeral process described above: the prepare the body for the “viewing” in a family home – possibly on a treasured dining room table – and the memorial ceremony itself is conducted according to the family's own time-honored traditions (as opposed to traditions imposed by a funeral home staff) in a family home or possibly a church that is of great importance to a family (or, frankly, any location that a family finds meaningful and appropriate). The burial, then, is often done in a family cemetery and, while it may involve a “store bought” casket delivered to the home by an independent casket retailer that is not necessarily required. Home burials in days-gone-by, often concluded with a burial in a coffin that was made by the loving hand of a family members a day or so before the burial. These coffins were typically made of inexpensive materials and not designed with the intention that they will hold-up for long periods of time underground. This is in stark contrast with the “traditional” caskets of today which are typically made of materials – such as hard, heavily stained, wood or metal that is specifically designed to last, perhaps decades, underground. (And interesting side note: careful readers will notice that we use the word “coffin” above to describe the old-style burial containers of yesteryear. In fact, the term “casket” came into popular “traditional” use in the middle 20th century when funeral directors across the United States and Western Europe made strong attempts to sell the idea that a “casket” held remains that were t he precious jewels of any family. The funeral industry purposely borrowed the word casket from the jewelry industry, in which a “casket” is a piece in which precious family jewels are stored.) While all of these parts of the typical home burial were once commonly taken care of by family members, today, in which the home burial is considered “non-traditional,” many families will hire a funeral director to take care of some elements of the burial, while choosing to do others themselves. An ethical, reputable funeral director will honor such requests without pressure, and many funeral homes are now in the general practice of offering such limited services when requested by families. Perhaps the most important of these services that are no longer “traditionally” done by families themselves is the body preparation and burial. But transporting a body from the place of death to the place where a funeral ceremony or viewing will happen (and then transporting to the grave site) is often problematic for families choosing home burials. In some cases, the law works against families wanting to do this. Many American states require that funeral directors be involved in such process “for sanitation purposes,” and funeral consumer activists have made it a significant priority in the past 15 years to push for new state laws that strike such requirements from the official record. In some cases, those efforts have been met with great success – admittedly, it's often in the smaller states where funeral home industry lobby interests are not as organized as they are in the more populous states – but laws change regularly, and keeping up with changes is an ever-present challenge.
In lieu of “traditional” funeral directors, many families wishing to conduct home burials of their loved ones hire (or at least solicit the services of) home burial consultants who are familiar with laws and traditions and provide families with knowledgeable, compassionate advice. The problem is that, in many states and municipalities, these types of consultants are required to be formally trained and licensed as funeral directors, schooled in such “traditions” as embalming and burial in heavily lined graves of “traditional” cemeteries. Since this type of skills and knowledge are not relevant to “non-traditional” home burials, many home burial consultants see no need to go through with the training and licensing and, accordingly, may be operating illegally subjecting both themselves and their clients to fines or, worse, even jail time. In some cases the home burial consultants do go through with the expense and training to become a “traditional” funeral director – in some cases these professionals are even required by law to maintain a full-service embalming facility on their business premises even though such facility will not be used – but this extra expense is, of course, passed along to the families in the prices they must charge. And this unfortunate circumstance means that home burial families, unjustly, end up paying – at least in one form or another – for services that do not use. It is important to note that some home burial consultants live in states in which they can operate without a license so long as they do not charge (or accept) a fee. Consumer activists lament in many a blog article that these folks must practice their gift without compensation, but nevertheless, a number more volunteers add themselves to these ranks each year, and their popularity, not to mention their incident-free service to their clients, helps pave the way for legislation that will allow them to practice in exchange reasonable professional rates and/or donations.
Funeral consumers who are interested in a home burial are encouraged to check with their state's branch of the national group called Funeral Consumers Alliance before they proceed, and, especially before they seek the services of a home burial consultant. The FCA is probably the best source for up-to-date information on the constantly changing state laws and they can even be a great source for referrals to a home burial consultant. It is unfortunate to consider that hiring a home burial consultant (or conducting a home burial with no consultant whatsoever) brings an inherent risk of legal action from either a government or a funeral home concerned that it may be unfairly losing business, but that, nevertheless, is the current state of affairs in the United States. Many outspoken critics of today's funeral home industry are eager to take on the role of maverick and to accept the legal risk of – or perhaps even openly volunteer for -- a fine or jail time in order provide a loving, inexpensive traditional home burial for their loved ones. And, while this renegade spirit can be commendable and may even lead to much needed social change, those who would engage in such a move should be careful to remember that the results can be stressful and difficult for others in the family who might not be so politically idealistic. Care should be taken, for the sake of respecting the difficult emotional circumstances that accompany the death of any loved one, to assure that all who are involved in the home burial ceremony are comfortable with the legal risks of taking on such an act of civil disobedience. Faced with such considerations, many who have lost a loved one have decided against pursuing a full-fledged home burial and, rather, devoting themselves to funeral consumer activism, in the weeks and months afterward in hopes of changing laws so that families such as theirs may be able to carry out their wishes legally in the future. Funeral consumer activists across the nation say this sort of self-sacrifice is helpful to the long-term viability of their cause, even if it means having to compromise some values in the present.
The final important “non-traditional” funeral element is known as “green burials.” This element relates to home burials in that many laws, and even public opinion, can sometimes work against this choice. (Carlson and Slocum discuss a case in their book in which the famed TV commentator Keith Olbermann once named Slocum “The Worst Person in the World” after she publicly advocated for a memorial park that would include a special place in which families could sensibly bury their own dead in the environmentally beneficial manner of their choosing. “That's right,” Olbermann said. “Families could go dig their own graves, for their own loved one. No fuss, no muss, no caskets, no embalming. Just bring your own shovels and filler up.”) Thanks to years of what some critics might call “public brainwashing” by modern day funeral directors, the idea that burials must be carefully regulated seems to be common sense these days despite the fact that, in years past, families regularly disposed of their loved one's bodies on their own private property without any sort of oversight by government (or heavily compensated funeral directors).
As with home funerals, green burials require careful attention to current state and municipal laws if families care to avoid unfortunate legal battles associated with their loved one's burial. That, that said, green burials are indeed possible. Many specially designed cemeteries allow – at least in special sections – for bodies to be buried without caskets. Simple shrouds will usually suffice in such cases. Still others allow for the simple, handmade caskets of yesteryear. And, generally speaking, families may establish private cemeteries on their own property in which they may bury their dead in any manner they see fit. (Though care should be taken, of course, to check with state and municipal laws. In most cases, there are at least a few rules families must follow – they must bury bodies at a certain depth, for example, and they are typically required to keep good record of who is buried where in the cemetery. Marked graves are required in most cases, for example.)
In many cases, cremation itself is also considered a “green burial,” since this method allows families to dispose of their loved ones remains without the use of caskets, grave liners, headstones, and other elements that will remain indestructible for decades or even centuries. But, experts in the death care industry warn that the pollution emitted by industrial crematories can be more substantial than may meet the eye. To meet these concerns and establish cremations that are as “green” as possible, the death care industry does have a few cremation alternatives such as “alkaline hydrolysis” which, basically, involved placing a body in an acid where it dissolves into ashes. But, perhaps understandably, such practices raise the eyebrows of both the public and lawmakers for a variety of, potentially legitimate, reasons. So these services are not universally available (though they are generally more available outside of the United States than they are domestically), and they may be prohibitively expensive in many cases as well (particularly in cases in which “traditional” funeral homes offer them for their rates that are marked up as much as their other services). Alas, these options do exist for families that are determined, for whatever reason, to seek them out.
In general, while these alternatives to “traditional” burial are available for families who seek them out, they are not nearly as accessible to families as the services typically provided, often without much question, by funeral homes. But those families who insist on practicing non-traditional funerals report that the spiritual, and sometimes even financial, benefits of carrying out simple, inexpensive funerals and burials without the expensive, artificial support of a funeral director who has no other connection to a family, often report that an alternative to tradition is the best way to go – without a doubt.