Photo by Lara Heard
By Sadie Brown
The American way of death is big business—and getting bigger.
The national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and cremation was close to $7,000 in 2021, a number that increased to $7,800 when consumers opted for a burial over cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
A funeral may seem straightforward: Friends and family gather together to grieve and remember those who have died.
But funeral homes offer a wide range of services—each with a price tag.
Some are basic, like cremation or burial. Some are required, such as filing official death certificates. Others are based on choices loved ones can make: having the body prepared for a viewing, buying different levels of caskets or urns, paying for death notices, arranging for pall bearers and for clergy to preside.
Take the offerings of one funeral home in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It charges $350 for a hearse to drive a casket for a distance less than 50 miles, $1,395 for basic funeral planning like getting needed permits, $775 for embalming, $50 for removing a pacemaker and $25 for a crucifix.
THE RISE OF CREMATION
Cremation is more popular than ever, a substantial shift from just a decade ago. In 2006, around 34% of Americans were cremated. Today, that figure is over 57%, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
The median cost for a funeral that includes cremation is more than $1,000 less than for funerals in which the deceased is buried.
While more families are turning to cremation, this may change. The National Funeral Directors Association reported recently that over 60% of consumers are interested in “green burial” options, which leave a smaller carbon footprint and eschew chemicals.
Evolving consumer demands, increasing cost pressures and an impending succession problem for funeral home operators have created an opportunity for change, according to Victoria J. Haneman, who teaches trust and estate law at Creighton University in Nebraska.
“Ultimately the funeral industry makes the most money with the open-casket funeral,” she told the NYCity News Service. “Anything that removes a casket from a funeral—or anything that makes it less likely for something to be open casket—they have an incentive to drive business away from that.”
She’s been keeping an eye out for change in a sector that traditionally has resisted it.
“Investment in this space needs to be focused on innovative death technology,” Haneman said, “because this is an industry that has not been subject to a disruption for more than a century.”
Many American families will need to cover the full costs themselves. For some, the price of a funeral is partly covered by the federal government. Social Security can provide a small payment to surviving spouses. The Department of Veterans Affairs helps cover fees for those who served in the military. For Americans who die in disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover many costs.
“In each stage of life, Baby Boomers have set new trends, transformed society, and redefined norms, and we anticipate the impact will be the same for our industry.”
– Service Corporation International, the largest publicly traded funeral service company, in a message to investors
Photos by Michael Matteo
A RELIABLE JOB PROVIDER
The billions U.S. consumers spend each year on funerals also supports jobs that are relatively insulated from the whims of the economy.
But industry experts and professional organizations like the funeral directors association worry there aren’t enough incoming workers to keep up with demand.
The industry has historically been centered on family businesses, with more than 80% of funeral homes owned independently, according to the funeral directors association. But family-owned homes have a succession problem. An association survey showed that 34% of its members planned to retire in the next five years. More than 70% percent of prospective retirees do not know who will take over their business.
Since the pandemic, enrollment in accredited college mortuary education programs has increased steadily, according to recent annual reports by the American Board of Funeral Service Educators over the past three years. The number of new enrollees increased 32 percent from 2020 to 2021, and total enrollment—including those in multi-year programs—rose 11 percent.
“The reality is that capable people are going to find jobs without a doubt,” Robert Smith III, executive director of the board, told the News Service. “And, many of them probably have jobs before they leave [school].”
Funeral workers like morticians or funeral directors typically need to have an associate’s degree and pass a national board exam. Individual states have additional requirements—most require one to two years of apprenticeship to get a license.
The funeral service workers of the future are increasingly more female and more racially diverse.
New enrollees are increasingly Black. In 2019, 18 percent were Black. In 2022, the figure rose to 23 percent. Slightly more than half of all new students—51 percent—were in their 20s, a percentage that has remained steady in recent years.
Funeral homes also employ administrative staff, sales people and cleaning staff. Cemeteries have groundskeepers and security personnel. Casket manufacturers employ production workers.
Service Corporation International, the largest publicly traded funeral service company, envisions a growing business. It operates close to 1,500 funeral homes and 500 cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada.
“Our industry will be largely shaped by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation in the deathcare space and [is] poised to benefit from the aging of the North American population,” the company recently told investors. “In each stage of life, Baby Boomers have set new trends, transformed society, and redefined norms, and we anticipate the impact will be the same for our industry.”
Demographic patterns seem to favor the industry in the years ahead. By 2030, the Census Bureau predicts that more than 20 percent of the American population will be over 65. By 2060, that number jumps to 25 percent.
Photo by Joe Caffrey
By Lara Heard
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the safety and environmental damage that may be caused by a key ingredient for many burials: formaldehyde.
A draft review published last year found the chemical, used for preserving bodies, poses elevated risks for cancer and likely worsened asthma symptoms and decreased pulmonary function. The EPA’s research could lead to tightened federal regulations in several years.
The National Funeral Directors Association has criticized the study, arguing the work is flawed, and has not properly considered industry-funded research on its safety. Funeral workers, it said, are skilled at handling the chemical to ensure proper embalming while keeping safe. Other industries that use formaldehyde have also raised concerns about the EPA’s work.
However, the Environmental Defense Fund and others counter that the EPA study does not go far enough. The National Resources Defense Council contends “occupational exposures and risks will be understated due to flaws” in the EPA’s work, including limits on risks it is evaluating.
This is not the first time environmental concerns about the funeral industry have emerged.
In 2016, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey set out to test the impact of a Michigan cemetery on water in the vicinity.
Mount Hope Cemetery spans 82 acres in Lansing. Burials date back to the 19th century when embalming included using arsenic and mercury, which are toxic.
The team tested the groundwater periodically for about half a year, using three wells in the area and contrasting the results with a control well that hadn’t been affected by the cemetery.
The report found the cemetery was likely leaking contaminants into groundwater. The findings echo research done overseas, according to the researchers, whose study was relatively new for the United States.
The results were concerning: As the international studies had found, contaminants included metals—especially arsenic—and bacteria, including E. coli, staphylococci and salmonella.
Meanwhile, local and state governments have been involved in multiple legal disputes with funeral homes or crematoriums regarding emissions.
Courtroom arguments against crematorium operations have included their environmental impact. In Roseville, Minnesota, in 2004, for instance, a court ruled such concerns valid, allowing the city to block a crematorium from operating.
According to one study, a single cremation emits 160 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Emissions also include other gases and toxins such as mercury and even radioactive materials.
A 2019 study in JAMA tested a crematorium and an employee following the cremation of an individual who had used a radiopharmaceutical, lutetium 177 dotatate, used for treating cancer.
A month later, the equipment still had traces of radioactive lutetium 177, and the employee on site’s urine sample had a different radioactive substance, technetium 99m, potentially from a previous cremation.
In response, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine stated that the “risk of harm to the crematorium operator is so small that it cannot be measured.”
According to a Chemosphere review, other potential emissions include substances, such as mercury, from dental work. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, cremation released about 1.8 tons of mercury in 2017.
When the EPA released its 2005 guidelines for “other solid waste incinerators,” crematories were not subject to the restrictions.
“EPA has determined that the human body should not be labeled or considered ‘solid waste,’” the agency said at the time. A representative of the EPA confirmed in a recent email that the agency does not intend to extend its oversight to crematories.
“Cremation actually causes its own pollution and release of greenhouse gasses and carbon production.”
– Caitlyn Hauke, past president, Green Burial Council International
Photo by Michael Matteo
There are alternatives to burials and cremations that many say are better for the environment.
“Sometimes people have this misconception that cremation is more environmentally friendly when you’re comparing it to the traditional burial,” said Caitlyn Hauke, past president of the Green Burial Council International. The organization is one of two nonprofits that form the Green Burial Council, which establishes environmental standards for burial practices and educates the public about green burials.
But, she added, “cremation actually causes its own pollution and release of greenhouse gasses and carbon production.”
Hauke added that cremation could have less of an environmental toll than a traditional burial that involves factors like concrete vaults and embalming. But she told the NYCity News Service that one of the best green burial options is a simple burial, without a coffin.
“There are some cemeteries that will allow for that,” said Hauke. “They will allow you to just place the body in the earth and cover it without having any sort of outer anything.”
Other alternatives are also considered greener.
Choices marketed as green funerals include forgoing traditional embalming and wrapping in a body in a cloth shroud or other biodegradable encasements.
In alkaline hydrolysis, also called aquamation or water cremation, a body is placed in a tank with alkalis mixed with water and heated. The formulation is designed to promote rapid decay in a process that allows the resulting liquid to be safely sent to a water-treatment plant. A powder is made from the bones.
Human composting was legalized in January in New York, joining California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Scientific research into the environmental side of the funeral industry is still incomplete.
“Research in the area of green burial is super limited, and there’s not a lot of recent research on it, so we’re going off of what limited research is already available,” said Hauke.
She added that the council intends to establish its own research panel to conduct studies.
The nonprofit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy recently counted 386 cemeteries across the U.S. and Canada that offer green burials, although this list may not be complete. The service may rise with demand: A growing number of respondents to an National Funeral Directors Association survey—more than 60 percent—express interest in green funerals.
One issue for consumers may be cost.
According to the Green Burial Council, cemetery pricing for green burials tends to be cheaper or equivalent to traditional services.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance says that green burials can save money: Customers skip the price of embalming. Meanwhile, biodegradable containers and cloths tend to be cheaper than vaults.
Still, not all green options are cheaper.
Pisces Deathcare, which operates in California and Colorado, charges $3,850 for aquamation. Nevada-based Kraft-Sussman Funeral & Cremation Services offers both traditional cremation and aquamation, charging a rate of $2,805 for aquamation and $2,775 for traditional cremation, plus an additional casket charge.
In contrast, one recent study found direct cremations—performed without a funeral service—cost an average of about $2,200 in the United States.
Photo by Michael Matteo
By Thomas Hughes
When an American dies in a disaster, the federal government helps pay for the funeral—but not every disaster is treated equally.
That inequality is sparking criticism from government auditors, who contend the Federal Emergency Management Agency is wasting money, unnecessarily covering some additional costs just for those who die from COVID, while denying the same level of funding for those who perish in other disasters.
FEMA has spent more than $2.8 billion alone for funerals since the pandemic began. The agency’s disaster aid is one of several government programs that help Americans pay for funerals, including the small stipend Social Security can provide and Veterans Affairs’ assistance for families of those who served in the armed forces.
FEMA now pays more to cover funeral-related costs—up to $9,000—for individuals who die from COVID. That’s more than, for example, the $7,500 available to those in the Surfside condominium collapse in Florida.
For those who die from the virus, the agency cover costs it hasn’t in the past, including flowers, remembrance cards, paid death notices in local newspapers, hotel bills, catering, memorial T-shirts and even boat rentals to scatter ashes over water.
More than half of those seeking FEMA reimbursement for pandemic funeral costs have sought some of these added expenses.
Yet loved ones of those who have died during other disasters—such as the condominium collapse or California wildfires—get less, covering only basic funeral expenses like caskets, burials and cremation.
“When you have these control failures, it is very hard once that money goes out to get it back.”
– Rebecca Shea, director of the Forensic Audits and Investigative Service Team for the congressional Government Accountability Office
Photo by Michael Matteo
The Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office said the federal government should not be covering any additional services for COVID victims.
“FEMA must take action to curb reimbursement of ineligible expenses to avoid further waste and abuse,” the DHS watchdog office wrote in a management alert in April 2022, warning that millions of taxpayer dollars could be misspent.
Almost 60 percent of applicants for funeral reimbursements during the pandemic received money for costs that the federal government previously deemed ineligible.
“FEMA is putting millions of taxpayer dollars at an elevated risk of waste and abuse by reimbursing funeral expenses identified as ineligible by its own policies,” the report said.
FEMA contends it is not misspending federal dollars, telling the inspector general’s office that when Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it intended to be more generous than it had been for other disasters.
The agency contended Congress wanted FEMA “to be flexible and expedient in providing funeral expenses for applicants.”
The agency also argued that changing its policies now “would be unfair to future applicants and violate the intent for Congress,” adding that revisions would also disproportionately affect communities of color.
“COVID-19-related deaths rates have been higher among many underserved populations, such as Tribal Nations,” FEMA said.
The DHS inspector general is not the only entity questioning FEMA spending for funerals.
Separately, the congressional Government Accountability Office reported that FEMA has been sloppy in tracking payments—opening the door for possible fraud.
FEMA has spent hundreds of millions hiring additional staff to process funeral applications. But specific recommendations from the DHS and the GAO on improving data collection and limiting what gets covered have not been implemented.
A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment on the agency’s response to the inspector general and GAO reports.
In reviewing 235,000 applications, the GAO pointed to the risk of duplicate payments as a troubling issue that could worsen in future disasters.
“We wanted to make sure they were paying attention so they could correct mistakes in the future,” Rebecca Shea, director of the office’s forensic audits and investigative service team, told the NYCity News Service.
“When you have these control failures, it is very hard once that money goes out to get it back,” Shea said.
Photo by Brianna Poulous