The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 2.4 million people across the world over the last year. Lockdowns, social distancing, and mask rules have transformed society as we know it and have impacted virtually every aspect of daily life. This includes the way families are putting their loved ones to rest.
Over the last few decades, the trend has been moving towards cremation, but the pandemic has accelerated this trend. Restrictions on gatherings and concerns about spreading the virus have caused many families to choose cremation over burials.
One of the biggest advantages is that families can place their loved one’s remains in cremation urns and keep them at home until a memorial service can be held at a later date. This is just one of the many reasons why families are choosing cremation during the pandemic.
Why More Families Are Choosing Cremation Amid a Global Pandemic
In many areas of the country, particularly in COVID-19 hotspots, the number of cremations has more than tripled. The trend towards cremation is caused by a number of things, including:
Many families are choosing cremation for financial reasons. The cost of cremation is significantly lower than the cost of burials.
According to the NFDA, the median costs of burials and cremations are as follows:
- Funeral with a viewing and burial: $7,640 (2019)
- Funeral with viewing and cremation: $5,150 (2019)
- Direct cremation (without viewings and other services): $2,495 (2019)
Note: These costs do not include flowers, obituaries, and other related costs, such as urns for human ashes.
Families may also incur other costs associated with burials, including graveside service, burial casket, a burial vault, transportation to the burial site, and a headstone. Cremations eliminate virtually all of these costs, which can translate to thousands of dollars in savings.
You cannot put a price on your loved one’s life or memorial, but in times of financial difficulties, funeral costs are a valid concern.
A simple cremation is a practical and economical choice for many families, especially during a global pandemic when many deaths came suddenly and unexpectedly. For those living in low-income communities, cremation may be the only viable option.
Inability to Hold Funeral Services
Restrictions on large gatherings and traveling have made cremation a practical and viable choice for many families. Many municipalities have restricted gatherings to no more than 10 people, which has made it difficult to hold regular funeral services.
Even prior to the pandemic, many families were opting for cremation simply because it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get families together for services.
Cremation allows for memorials and other private services to be held when gatherings are once again safe to hold. Families can take their loved one’s remains home and keep them safe until that time. Alternatively, their loved one’s ashes can be buried or scattered in a place of their choosing or according to the decedent’s wishes.
Burials have a relatively stringent process that must be followed, but cremation allows for some flexibility and freedom in how families choose to remember and celebrate their loved ones. They can take as much time as they need to plan the memorial or celebration of life.
There’s no question that this last year has been a very trying time for many families. The stress of having to plan a memorial or service for a deceased loved one may be too much to bear.
Families can choose to host a small viewing before the cremation and hold a bigger memorial service later on. Or, they can simply choose to cremate their loved one without a viewing to make the process less emotionally straining.
Limited Storage Space
As the coronavirus continues to ravage much of the United States, space is becoming an increasing concern in area hospitals and the coroner’s office. Quite frankly, many cities are running out of storage space for those who have died from the coronavirus.
In Los Angeles County, California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District used an emergency order to temporarily lift restrictions on the number of cremations permitted due to a backlog of bodies. New York State also lifted cremation restrictions when the state was being ravaged by the virus.
Many crematoriums are working well into the night to handle the influx.
When storage space is limited, cremation is a practical choice, particularly if cities or states impose restrictions on the timing of funerals or cremations. For example, Louisiana requires all cremations and funerals to occur within three days of the death, if possible.
California alone has deployed more than 70 mobile morgues and has also leased refrigerated semi-trailers to deal with the surge in COVID-19 deaths.
Cremation is a relatively quick process, and depending on the family’s preferences for viewing services; embalming may not be required. When storage is limited, cremation allows families and funeral homes to better handle the increased number of bodies associated with the pandemic.
Fear of Contracting COVID-19 from a Deceased Loved One
Many families are concerned about contracting COVID-19 from their deceased loved ones. This is a valid concern, as one case report found the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in one man’s lungs 27 days after death.
The CDC also advises against touching the decedent’s body or personal belongings to ensure everyone’s safety.
The loss of a loved one is difficult enough. Cremation puts the family’s mind at ease and eliminates concerns about their deceased loved one spreading the virus postmortem.
Cremations take place in crematoriums, where bodies are placed in cremation chambers. Some crematoriums allow families to view the cremation process from a safe distance. The closed-off nature of cremation eliminates the risk of spreading the virus after death, although viewing services may counteract this effect.
For families with concerns about COVID transmission after death, cremation is a viable solution, particularly if the family forgoes viewing services.
COVID-19 Left Funeral Homes Unprepared
In the U.S., cases have climbed to over 28.1 million, with a staggering 497,000 deaths as of mid-February 2021. In hot spots, like Southern California, funeral homes are having to turn families away because they simply do not have the capacity to store any more bodies. Some funeral homes have resorted to renting additional refrigerators to deal with the influx of bodies.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a mass casualty event, and funeral homes across the country were unprepared for such an unprecedented number of deaths. Funeral homes are primarily very small, family-run operations with a small service area. Most are not equipped to handle such a surge in body intakes, nor do they have the resources to invest in refrigerated facilities or other equipment needed to store more bodies.
According to the NFDA, there are only 19,136 funeral homes across the entire nation. Many are having to handle nearly double the number of services compared to a typical year. In addition to storage concerns, funeral homes are dealing with staffing issues. In some cases, the staff is working 20-hour shifts at a time to handle the surge of body intakes.
While funeral directors have certainly seen their fair share of challenges and restrictions that have made service more difficult, funeral homes have risen to the occasion and are finding ways to meet the unique needs of families.
For family members that are unable to attend a viewing or funeral service, many funeral homes are offering live streaming options. Arrangements are being made via video conference calls. Many funeral homes are listing their prices on their websites and taking payments over the phone. These trends are expected to continue long after the pandemic.
Contributing to the problem is the fact that families are not receiving any assistance from the government. Families are being forced to care for their own dead simply because there is a lack of storage space. There is no coordinated effort to deal with the mass casualties associated with this pandemic.
The Growing Trend Towards Cremation
Over the last few decades, there has been a growing trend towards cremation in the United States. For the first time ever, cremation exceeded burials in 2015. There are many factors that have driven this trend, including acceptance among religious faiths, financial concerns, convenience, and flexibility in memorial services.
These are the same factors that are driving the cremation surge during the pandemic. The cost will continue to be the predominant factor in why people are choosing cremation.
According to the NFDA, in 2010, burials accounted for 53.3% of funeral services, while cremation accounted for just 40.4%. By 2035, cremation is expected to be the “norm,” accounting for 74.5% of funerals. Burials are projected to account for 19.8% of funerals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already well underway in the funeral industry. Cremation will continue to be a popular choice for families even after the pandemic simply due to the way society has changed. Families are scattered across the country, making it more difficult to hold a traditional burial. Increased acceptance of the practice in religious communities and shifting attitudes towards cremation will continue to drive more Americans to choose cremation over burials.
Contact: Cameron Allahverdi
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