Taking care of the dead is an important part of any society, and the practice reflects the prevailing culture of the living. Social change is therefore reflected in funeral changes and some of the disruptions to its industry.

What’s changing?

The limited space in cemeteries and the economic downturn has meant the much cheaper option of cremation is rising thereby limiting the profits of many funeral homes. In the United States, 10,000 funeral homes have closed in the past decade, and the number of dead bodies remaining unclaimed by relatives or friends has spiked during the recession. Taxpayers have been forced to pay for state administered services thereby diverting funds away from private funeral homes. A scheme in the UK has been suggested that would help both mourners and funeral parlors by offering to pay the funeral expenses of those donors whose organs are used for transplants. This idea could help reduce the number of unclaimed bodies and increase spending with private funeral homes while also increasing the number of organ donors for life sustaining transplants.

In cities where space is at its greatest premium, some cemeteries have reverted to earlier methods and conserved their space by offering burials in communal graves as a cheaper option. Australian authorities are even considering restricting the years a body can be interred in a grave, and the current proposal says 40 years in a grave is long enough before the grave should be recycled to the next occupant. Many countries in Europe including Spain, Greece, and Germany already recycle graves. However, other mortuaries have found new ways to inter remains like the vertical burial which allows a body to stand up straight in the ground thereby multiplying the number of bodies placed in their own individual graves and the number of graves per site.

The real sign of the times in funerals is less about the economy and more about the environment. Green cemeteries have found ways to lessen their environmental footprint and lift their income. A cemetery in Spain has chosen to go green by installing solar panels throughout the cemetery to monetize the empty space above ground. In Sweden and the UK, crematoriums have shared their waste heat with nearby buildings and even heated pools.

Green burials have been practised throughout the ages, but they are seeing a surge in number and variety while offering a more environmentally sustainable option for mourners and those planning their eventual funerals, which may also be more profitable for funeral service providers.  Cryomation and resomation are two greener alternatives to cremation with significantly less pollution and lower energy use. Both use chemicals to reduce the corpse to a powder, but cryomation also allows for the remains and the coffin to turn into compost within 6-12 months. Powdered remains—whether cremated, cryomated, or resomated—can also be added to a plantable urn with a tree seedling and planted or turned into an artificial reef and buried at sea for coral, fish, and divers.

Why is this important?

Much has been written about the notion of living long enough to live forever, but for those who do not make it that far, a number of options have appeared and will continue to appear. These options which represent a change in modern attitudes to death equally represent the changes in attitudes to life. Those concerned about their environmental footprint in life will be just as concerned about the footprint of their own dead body. As modern anxieties continue to develop, so too will new services for taking care of the recently departed, and just like life insurance, such services, when delivered properly, will provide peace of mind and relieve survivors of unnecessary burdens. Other disruptions to the funeral industry and options for memorializing the departed will be discussed in the next trend alert.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.