Published in the May 2022 Issue of Memento Mori
By Kilian Rempen
Every year, the data comes in and every year things move in the same direction. Cremation has spread its roots and planted itself securely as the most popular choice for final disposition in America. Roughly half of those who choose cremation scatter the remains. By 2040, it has been estimated that nearly 80% of all funerals will be cremations. That number is driven by cost, perceived environmental impact, and cultural shifts.
This has major implications for our industry; and no matter where you look, someone is writing an educational piece on how to adapt to the change in cremation rates. Most articles, though, forget or gloss over a major insight from the data: The number of people who want eco-friendlier and more personalized funeral options is skyrocketing.
The most recent data released by KB Publications reports that an astonishing 91% of people consider the environmental impact of a funeral to be important, while 84% would consider a green funeral if it was offered to them, and 85% would contact a funeral home in their area if they were planning a green funeral. Over 92% of people also said that personalization is at least somewhat important.
Public demand for greener funeral options has exploded over the past 10 years, and it makes perfect sense when you think about it. The generations that first popularized eco-friendliness and greener living are getting older and thinking more about their funeral plans. The younger generations (who might be planning their parents’ funerals) have continued and built upon the green movement that their parents started.
So what makes a funeral “green?” There are many answers, and people who strongly believe in one green funeral path over another will argue that their method is “best.” It’s important to understand that eco-friendliest comes in many shades of green, so to speak, and there are environmental benefits and drawbacks to all eco-friendly funeral options.
All the green options today, from scattering to a full green burial, will leave a substantially smaller environmental footprint than a traditional burial. The best green funeral option is the one that speaks to the family—the option that best represents the deceased, and helps the healing process for friends and family.
Green, Greener, Greenest Options
There are many green options available today, but they still fall into the two major funeral categories: burial and cremation. There are shades of green for both avenues. When conducting a greener burial, a family may choose to use a traditional (perhaps pre-purchased) plot and vault, but opt for eco-friendly embalming and use a biodegradable casket. They may select a fully green burial with no embalming and a simple burial shroud in a fully green cemetery, or any combination of green options.
Some families may pick cremation as the greener option, but still purchase a traditional marble urn and a cemetery niche. Others may want to choose a different form of cremation, such as Aquamation, which is touted as a more eco-friendly form of cremation. Still, others may seek out a cemetery with modern filtration equipment.
The majority of cremations lead to scattering, but the temporary container provided is anything but green (we’ll talk more about the temporary container soon). Families can select a biodegradable urn, or an urn made for scattering, and avoid being left with the ugly plastic box as a memento of the funeral—soon to end up in a landfill.
There is a lot more to a greener funeral than just eco-friendliness. One of the most important aspects of greener funeral options is that they cater to the individual. Unlike traditional burials, modern funeral options have a lot more variety. The eco-friendliness is a draw, but the biggest draw is that the memorial more properly represents the deceased.
People today want to focus on the experiential aspect of a funeral, not necessarily the matter-of-fact aspects of it. It’s not the water-biodegradable urn, but the farewell memorial at sea that will aid the healing process and become a fond memory. Biodegradable urns and other green options simply open the door to these types of experiences.
None of this should threaten your traditional burial business. People seeking green options aren’t an issue for your traditional business because they were never customers to begin with. By including greener options in your funeral selection, you simply position yourself to take on the additional business from those seeking non-traditional options.
People seeking traditional options will still be there, and will still seek those services. But traditional burials have dropped below 50% of all funerals, and offering non-traditional options helps you stay relevant today.
What the Customer Wants
The green funeral customer today is, to be blunt, underserved. It’s hard to think of another industry where such blatant customer demand has been overlooked; and everyone suffers from the result. Families aren’t offered options in which they see value; and funeral homes are having trouble selling the higher-priced options that families don’t want. Because families don’t want traditional options, they’re opting for cremation in higher numbers for the freedom. Funeral homes have been pigeonholed into a race to the lowest price simple cremation because families aren’t interested in what is offered to them so they choose the bare minimum. Offering green options helps you capture this massive market segment, without sacrificing your traditional business.
Pros and Cons
Cremation is often chosen for its environmental benefits, but are we being transparent with the options for cremation? Cremation brings a host of its own environmental concerns, specifically the noxious gases released during the process. Cremation releases carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings.
These downsides can be countered by a proper crematory filtration system, or more easily by using ecofriendly cremation containers as your base-level option. Independent testing found that cremation containers created from natural materials like bamboo emit far fewer toxins into the air when burned.
As opposed to cardboard, pressboard, and other materials used in traditional cremation containers, the bamboo containers released a clean, white smoke and emitted mostly harmless gases. Carcinogens such as styrene, which are emitted when burning traditional containers, were not released when burning a bamboo cremation container.
It’s up to funeral professionals to take a close look at cremation and take the necessary steps to green the process. The easiest way to do this is to replace undignified cardboard containers with a sustainable option like bamboo, and replace plastic and cardboard temporary containers with an eco-friendly and biodegradable option. Funeral homes cannot afford to wait on these issues, as cremation in many cases represents over 50% of the customer base.
A Lasting Impression
The other aspect of this is that the container provided to the family is their lasting memento of the work of the funeral home. When such a large percentage of your business is cremation and the only tangible piece of your work is a black, plastic container, there’s a fundamental disconnect in the service you provide and the tangible evidence of that service. Your basic container should represent the work, thought, and expense that you put into every cremation.
Another easy way to offer eco-friendly products to families is to seek out fair-trade certified products. Fair-trade certification removes the guesswork required when finding eco-friendly options. This certification is only available for products that are truly sustainable and have proven ethical business practices.
By offering a product that is certified fair-trade, families know that their purchase is supporting eco-friendliness and fair working conditions, as certified by an unbiased third party. Offering fair-trade products also introduces a story for people to get behind, and offers intrinsic value that families are ready to put their dollars behind.
People want their last decision to be a meaningful one and one that represents the life that they lived. Many of these families lived eco-friendly lives, and it’s only right that they have an eco-friendly option in death.
Sustainability has become a major consideration for all businesses today. While older generations popularized green ideals, younger generations are taking the foundations laid by their parents and are bringing sustainability to new levels.
Sustainability is no longer seen as just a bonus, it’s now a requirement. People aren’t just enticed by sustainability; they won’t put their dollars behind non-sustaintable products in the same way as just a few decades ago.
The funeral industry has been able to avoid change longer than most industries, but the generations that made hybrid cars and recycled paper are getting older, and they want the same sustainability in their end-of-life options as their cars, solar panels, shoes, and everything else.
There has never been such high demand for ecofriendly funeral options, and there are no signs of traditional burial re-taking the top spot for funerals. Now is a great time to take advantage of the data and options available, and position your funeral business as an industry leader for the future.
Kilian Rempen was born and raised in Albuquerque, NM, studied Advertising and International Business at Loyola Marymount University, and worked in Boulder, Colorado, and Bangkok, Thailand before moving back to Albuquerque, where he joined Passages International as a Marketing Manager.