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by Kristal Borjas November 06, 2020 12 min read
This year has required shifts and changes from the routines and patterns of daily life, a direct result of the pandemic that hit in mid-March. Nations began shutting down their borders, restaurants closed their doors, and people across the globe began working online rather than in person. The pandemic had taken its roots in China, but quickly expanded across the entire globe, leaving no nation unaffected. The death toll quickly rose in consistency as the months passed, and with it came an increase in cremations.
Although the need for cremations rising isn’t necessarily a surprise, it’s important to understand why that increase exists. This increase can be attributed to a few things, starting with necessity.
The common theme during the pandemic that’s repeated across nations is the “Slow the spread” phrase, focused on taking minor steps like wearing a mask and washing hands to help slow the spread of the virus, which has been proven to be highly contagious. One unfortunate way to slow the spread has been by limiting contact with those who are ill with the virus or who have passed from it.
The CDC allows for two methods following the passing of a deceased one: burial or cremation. However, the allowances for funerals or burial ceremonies vary depending on state. In some states and cities, cremation is preferred over burial in the deaths resulting from the coronavirus, to eliminate potential infection of the living. As a result of the preference to cremate those who have passed from COVID-19, the rise in cremations have increased significantly.
When a family member passes of causes un-related to the coronavirus, the preference is still to opt for a cremation over a burial. Two of the biggest factors contributing to this are the general fear of contracting the virus by being around others, as well as state mandates on allowable group sizes for funerals.
With weddings being pushed back to 2021 in the hopes that larger groups will be allowed next year, some have similar feelings for funerals. By cremating a loved one, they have the option to have a formal funeral when things have normalized, and family members can be together again in larger groups.
There is also increased flexibility with cremations as opposed to traditional funeral and burial processes. Families can choose to disperse the ashes in a special location, store ashes in a meaningful cremation urn and keep it within the home or share the ashes among family members so multiple people are able to keep them close. They can also still have a funeral and burial ceremony if they chose to bury the ashes. Having the option to make the right choice for each family is a significant factor in the overall rise of cremations.
Funerals are often a quicker farewell process, as bodies must be placed into the ground within a week or so of passing. When the pandemic hit, many families found themselves unable to say farewell to loved ones because of isolation. Hospitals required isolation and limited visits, and many assisted living facilities had banned families or visitors. Even if a hospitalization was unrelated to the coronavirus, to limit exposure meant to limit visitors.
For those who lived in nursing homes or had extended hospital stays, their final moments were often without family due to the limitations in hospitals and senior centers. Families have struggled with the lack of contact they’ve had with the more elderly members of their families. The impact of isolation has been tremendously painful for so many people.
Unfortunately, many elderly and sick individuals have died during the pandemic in isolation. This makes finding closure difficult for their families, who wanted to be close and have time to say their farewells. As a result, families are choosing cremation because it allows them to have more time with their loved one’s remains and gives them the time to process and grieve without an immediate burial.
Before the pandemic even hit, the National Funeral Director Association reported that by the year 2040, the cremation rate is expected to hit 78.7% compared to 15.5% for burials. Two key factors contributing to the rise in cremations are the associated costs of cremations as well as a general loosening of religious views regarding cremation.
The cost of a funeral can hit upwards of tens of thousands of dollars, as the embalming process, transportation fees, casket cost, price of a funeral service, and purchase of a burial plot all contribute to significant expenses following the death of a family member. Considering the economic uncertainty resulting from the pandemic, many are choosing to be more cautious with how they spend their money, and this, too, influences the preference for cremations.
Most cremations cost a mere fraction, as the only main expenses include the cremation process itself which is often around a few thousand dollars and the purchase of an urn which can be anywhere from $50 to $500. Many individuals opt for this less expensive option to relieve the financial burden placed on their family members upon their own passing.
Religion used to be one of the biggest factors in restricting the process of cremation upon the death of a loved one, with traditional burials taking precedence. However, more religions have accepted the process of cremation, regardless more individuals are less concerned with following the traditional expectations of their faith when it comes to cremation.
The impact of the rising numbers of cremations during the pandemic has left many funeral homes and cremation facilities scrambling to meet the demand. In states hit particularly hard by the pandemic and facing higher numbers of deaths, this has been especially difficult. The challenges faced by funeral homes included: meeting state regulations, staffing demands, storage availability and capacity limitations.
As the pandemic surged, many funeral homes quickly saw the impact by late March, they faced cremation numbers that were doubling and tripling in size. One of the biggest challenges that led to overcrowding includes state or county regulations that would limit the crematorium operating hours, as well as the number of cremations conducted per day.
For example, in New York City, with only four crematoriums serving the entire city, regulations had to be loosened, now allowing these crematoriums to run 24/7 to help meet the needs of COVID deaths. However, there is still a limit to the number of bodies which can be cremated even with the crematories running 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. As a continued result, many facilities faced overfilled storage spaces as more bodies were continuously brought in while awaiting cremation.
Similarly, in Michigan, during the height of the pandemic, the state issued orders that required hospitals and funeral directors to contact the next of kin of the deceased within 24 hours of passing to make arrangements. If contact couldn’t be obtained, the arrangements and final place of disposition would be decided on by the county medical examiner.
This order was issued to help cope with the increase in bodies filling up space in hospitals and medical centers, both from the pandemic as well as non-coronavirus related deaths. Additionally, the state order encouraged funeral directors to authorize embalming procedures 24 to 48 hours after death to speed up the process.
The changes were made to allow for a quicker retrieval, embalming/cremation, and release following a death since the numbers were rising so quickly. Before the pandemic, many states required holds before cremation of 24-48 hours, but eliminated this requirement due to the health crisis. The stress and demand largely fell upon funeral home directors and crematoriums.
With the rising amount of bodies coming into funeral homes and crematoriums, these facilities have had to adjust their schedules to run their crematoriums more frequently and prepare more bodies at a faster pace. Due to this sudden need for more labor, funeral directors and crematory operators have had to hire more employees or request current employees to work overtime, all while also putting in extra hours themselves.
When it comes to staffing, a major consideration is the emotional impact of processing and transporting the deceased. Funeral directors have opened up about their personal struggles and have shown extreme concern over the emotional toll on their employees, as they are faced with the overwhelming role of transporting an ever increasing amount of bodies between morgues and funeral homes. Funeral workers also have the responsibility of offering comfort and counsel to family members affected by these deaths. And, although this may seem like a small portion of the job, offering compassion and sympathy to the bereaved while overworked and understaffed is not an easy task. To put it simply, facing death directly and daily is difficult for those in the industry during the best of times, much less amid a global pandemic.
Part of the cremation process includes the storage of bodies in refrigerated spaces while awaiting cremation. Typically, a body must be refrigerated within 48 hours after passing and will be cremated or embalmed in about 6 days, give or take. Of course, these time frames vary depending on state requirements and regulations as well as situational factors.
As the demand for cremations rose during the pandemic, many funeral directors were faced with more dead coming through their doors than ever before. Hospitals also began reaching out to funeral directors to inquire about additional storage space as hospitals became overflowed. Since bodies can only be stored in hospitals and funeral homes, the options were limited. Some hospitals and funerals homes even began creating their own makeshift morgues to handle the volume of corpses.
With the increase of dead, many funeral homes simply don’t the time to process bodies in the usual allotted time frame. This has led to significant delays in the cremation and burial process. As a result, some states loosened requirements to allow funeral homes more time. In Minnesota, the Department of Health passed a law allowing funeral homes and mortuaries to store bodies for more than six days as they struggled to meet the demand for storage and processing. They also provided more flexibility in the storage means for bodies to help facilities manage the amount of bodies coming in.
Another primary concern for funeral homes comes specifically with the handling of COVID-19 deaths. Funeral homes face the added challenge of needing to protect their employees from transmission with increased purchases of PPE equipment. Since the transmission of COVID-19 is still being studied, extra precautions are necessary when handling bodies during the pandemic, and many directors work hard to ensure the safety of their staff. The lack of knowledge surrounding the virus has led to many facilities simply taking on a more aware and cautious approach.
Additionally, as some states take on loosened pandemic restrictions, some funeral homes are faced with needing to implement safety precautions for those who want to hold a traditional funeral. These precautions follow the CDC guidelines, including recommending outdoor services, 6-foot spacing between people, the use of masks, frequent disinfection, increased personal hygiene, and limiting the number of interactions with items and doors. However, it must be emphasized that group gatherings of any size can increase the risk of transmission.
As mentioned, even before the pandemic began, cremations were on the steady rise over the last decade. When the pandemic hit, cremation became the preferred method of disposition for families around the nation. The reasons for the abrupt jump in popularity for cremation ranges from its affordability in comparison to burial, the need for closure, and the desire for personalization.
Families are opting for cremation rather than burial because it’s a financially sound decision in a time of economic uncertainty. As mentioned previously, the cost of funerals greatly surpasses the cost of cremation. Cremation is a logical choice for those who have been affected by the recession brought about by COVID-19. Many prefer to make wiser financial decisions given job losses, dipping stock markets, and diminishing personal savings accounts.
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with death during the pandemic is that people have been forced to say farewell to dying loved ones from afar; either behind an iPhone screen, from the opposite side of a plexiglass screen, or without any contact at all. This has taken a tremendous toll on everyone experiencing loss, whether from the pandemic or not.
Before COVID-19, traditional burials were straightforward, bodies were typically processed, embalmed, and laid to rest within a week or two of passing. Since the arrival of the virus, the traditional burial process has been delayed dramatically due to the overflow of bodies, lack of burial/storage space, and above all the health risk involved with caring for the infected deceased. Nowadays, families are discouraged from hosting funerals, celebrations of life, and memorial services as a safety precaution from any accidental transmissions of the virus. When this is coupled with the inability for families to say farewell to a loved one in their final moments, the grieving process has become incredibly complicated.
Those who still choose to hold these events are often required to restrict physical attendance to only the most immediate friends and family. As such, alternatives such as drive thru and virtual funerals have come into fashion so the bereaved can still honor their loved one while being safe in the process.
This is also why so many are opting for cremation. Although cremation can be an overwhelming process, even funeral homes are starting to prefer it to burial, especially now during the ongoing pandemic since cremation does not require the presence of the body. Burial on the other hand, necessitates the body be stored somewhere until the burial space is acquired, and the family is ready to lay their loved one to rest.
When a body is cremated, the cremated remains are returned to the family which provides tremendous solace and comfort to those who were unable to say farewell. The thought of having a loved one placed directly into the ground after passing is too far removed for some to consider. The result of cremation offers leeway in scheduling and storage, the body being reduced to a bag of ashes allows the family to hold onto their loved one at home until a memorial service of some kind can be arranged. Families can then take their time to grieve and process, having been given the control in how they choose to say their final goodbyes.
For some, cremation gives a sense of control in a time when everything feels chaotic and uncertain, leaving people feeling powerless. With cremation, grieving families have more options. While states limit funeral gatherings, families can still conduct small private ceremonies in their own homes.
Another factor contributing to the rise of cremation during the pandemic, is that families are looking to personalize and customize their experience. Death en masse can feel procedural and impersonal so having the ability to personalize the cremation experience means a lot to families.
A common method which families use for personalizing their experience, is the choice in cremation urn. Everything from the urn shape, color, size, and material can be decided on - making their loved one’s final resting place a totally unique and personal piece. The color of the urn can be chosen to match a loved one’s spirit or personality; red for passionate, yellow for joyful, pink for bubbly. The shape of the urn as well could be an indication of their interests or favorite motif; butterfly urn, heart shaped urn, teddy bear urn. Custom text engraving is also an exceedingly popular choice for cremation urns; families can add a favorite scripture, poem, or song onto an urn to encapsulate their loved one.
Families who are sharing in their grief can also share the ashes of their loved one. Keepsake or “mini” cremation urns are miniaturized versions of full-sized urns which can be given to the bereaved as a memento so they can always hold their loved one near. These cremation urns are inexpensive and can make a great sympathy gift to someone dealing with a loss.
Along the same vein is cremation jewelry in the form of pendants, bracelet beads, and earrings. Most cremation jewelry contain a hollow cavity specifically crafted to hold a pinch of something to commemorate someone; cremated remains, small lock of hair, or bit of dried flowers from a funeral wreath. Cremation jewelry serves as a subtle handheld memorial so the bereaved can always carry the memory of their loved one close.
Death affects every person in a deeply personal way, making cremation the ideal choice for its customization options alone. Cremation means you can process and grieve in the way that best suits you and allows your closure and clarity. In contrast, burials are a rather singular approach to death and often do not allow this level of personalization, especially since COVID-19 has come into play.
It can be said without a doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has removed any sense of normalcy from our everyday lives. Months into this pandemic, many are realizing that “normal” may not come for another year, with some estimating a return to normal activity levels in 2022. The uncertainty further continues as numbers rise and states figure out ways to reopen schools and businesses. The increasing numbers of cremation is a trend that is expected to continue long after things have returned to normal.
When faced with mass casualties, our general understanding and ability to process and perceive death also shifts. People are faced with the need to grieve the passing of loved ones in their own way. Cremation allows the opportunity for families to face the passing of a beloved family member and take the needed time to cope with that loss. Cremation can be a more personal and connected experience as it grants greater flexibility and affordability.
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