By Marilyn Lewis

Environmental and financial worries are just two of the many forces reshaping funeral practices

Jay Castaño, who works at a Washington, D.C. public charter school, spoke for a growing number of Americans as he explained his funeral plans to The Washington Post:

“I want to be wrapped in a shroud like a little burrito … They can call it a Chipotle funeral. They can wrap me up and throw me there and cover me up with some grass and soil.”


Winds of Change

Until recently, religion and tradition had a strong hand in funerals. A cemetery funeral, an embalmed body and an elegant sealed casket and cement burial vault were, and still are, common elements of American funerals. Embalming grew familiar during the Civil War when it was used to send the bodies of soldiers who’d died far from home back to their families for burial. Embalmers then used arsenic as a preservative. (It was banned from embalming fluid in the early 1900s and today embalmers rely on gluteraldehyde and formaldehyde instead.)

“Embalmers flocked to (Civil War) battlefields to embalm whoever could afford it and send them home,” University of Minnesota mortuary scientist Mike Mathews tells Smithsonian Magazine.

New forces, however, are shaking up of American funeral customs. Among them are the weakening of religion’s power, the scattering of families from their hometowns and the popularity of the do-it-yourself approach. The most-powerful change agents, though, may be concerns about money and the environment.


Rising Costs of Burial

Burial costs have been steadily growing. Here’s how the median (mid-priced) cost of a burial and funeral service for an adult has grown, according to the National Funeral Directors’ Association:

  • 2014: $7,181*
  • 2004: $5,582*

*Costs include transferring remains to a funeral home, embalming, viewing, a cemetery service with hearse and a car, printed memorial programs, a casket and the burial (but not a vault, which adds about $1,300).


Environmental Concerns

The environmental movement has sharpened many consumers’ desires to bury only biodegradable materials in the earth. No statistics are available on the number of green or “natural” burials. A 2008 survey by funeral-industry publishers Kates-Boylston Publications, however, found that 43 percent of respondents would consider an eco-friendly burial, The Post says.

The Green Burial Council, a frequent critic of the funeral industry, says that, annually, U.S funeral homes bury about:

  • 3 million gallons of embalming fluid (including 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde).
  • 64,500 tons of steel.
  • 20 million board feet of hardwood for caskets.
  • 6 million tons of concrete.

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