The American way of death is evolving: Thielen

I've gone to a few funerals this summer and have noticed the American way of death is evolving into something quite different from what most of have known.

People are changing the way they handle death, whether it's choosing cremation over burial, not having a wake or funeral service or changing how these functions are done.

The biggest change is how common and accepted cremation has become. When I was growing up, it was unheard of, at least in this culture. Over the past several decades it has become more common and today cremation is chosen more than burial in the United States.

Research bears this out. According to "What we think about death and funerals is changing" by Eliza Gallo in a June 28, 2019, USC News blog, in 1960 only 4% of the dead in the United States were cremated. By 2017, that percentage ― 51.6 ― had risen to be higher than the number of burials. By 2030, it's predicted 70% of deceased will be cremated.

Other options to burial in addition to cremation have opened up in recent years, thanks to environmental concerns and new forms of spirituality providing different scripts for handling death. Some of the other choices instead of the traditional American funeral are water cremation, green burials (no embalming, biodegradable coffin) and at-home wakes and funerals.

Another reason and a very common one for preferring such options as cremation is the considerably lower cost. According to "How deaths and funerals are changing in the U.S." by Dymond Green in the April 27, 2021, CNBC blog, the median cost of a traditional funeral with a viewing and burial was $9,130 while a direct cremation was about $2,400.

Factor in that many denominations now allow cremation ― for example, the Roman Catholic Church, who at one time forbid cremations, now allows it provided there is a ceremony and that the ashes are buried, not scattered ― and many people are choosing cremation.

But there's other changes in the rituals of grieving and now one hardly knows what to expect wen attending a wake or funeral service.

We forget that for a long time death and preparations for burial were handled in the home. The deceased often died there, the body was prepared for burial there and loved ones gathered there for their final farewells. What many of us knew as a standard wake and funeral began in the 1950s, when the body was removed to a mortuary to prepared for a public viewing at a funeral home, then moved to the site of a funeral service and then moved to a cemetery for burial.

But up until recently, wakes extended over a few days. When my mother died in 1969, the wake was held for the two afternoons and evenings before the day of the funeral and then another hour the day of the funeral, followed by the funeral mass in church and burial in the parish cemetery. This was followed by a funeral dinner in the church basement for those attending.

By the time my father died in 1983, things were beginning to scale down. The wake was held the afternoon and evening before the day of the funeral plus an hour the next day before the church funeral mass. There was still a funeral lunch prepared by the church's women's group with cake and bars provided by members of the deceased's family.

Wakes were taken seriously. The immediate family had to be there, garbed in dark and dressy apparel, and they had to interact with all those attending. They stood in a line next to the casket, usually arranged with the surviving spouse and his or her children lined up from oldest to youngest. Those attending offered their condolences to each member of the family in turn. You were expected to attend a wake of all family members, relatives, neighbors, friends, co-workers and basically anyone you knew, especially if they lived in your immediate area.

Today's wakes no longer follow a set pattern but are as varied as those they commemorate. An innovation of recent years is a huge display featuring every photo in which the deceased has ever appeared. There may still be a forest of floral arrangements, but now more people are making memorial contributions to a group or cause instead. There may be a casket, an urn of ashes or no remains at all. There may or may not be a guest book to sign or envelopes for contributions. There may not even be a wake or church service but a celebration of life in a bar or restaurant.

Sometimes the wake and/or funeral service is closed to all except immediate family and sometimes there's not any kind of funeral rite at all. A few years ago a cousin had left orders that upon his death he be cremated and his ashes scattered over a meadow he loved. There was no church service, no wake, not even a notice in the local newspaper that he had died. It was how he wanted to leave.

— This is the opinion of Times Writers Group member Lois Thielen, a dairy farmer who lives near Grey Eagle. Her column is published the first Sunday of the month.

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: The American way of death is evolving: Thielen