Final farewells are always a difficult time for all families, regardless of ethnicity, religious bias or cultural customs. First, there is the mourning and, perhaps, a celebration of the dead person’s life. Then there is the intervention of whatever religious institution pertains to the person’s beliefs. Ultimately, it is the final farewells, which involve determination of the final resting place and the ceremonies of getting the body there. Those ceremonies vary widely, from the funeral pyres of the Vikings to the pyramids in Egypt and Latin America, and everything in-between.
In the modern era, at least in the West, burial with religious rights in a consecrated cemetery, usually associated with a church, has been the norm for several hundreds of years. However, and particularly in urban environments, the space taken up by cemeteries started to become an issue in the twentieth century.
The enormous growth in human population has exacerbated this problem to the point where methods other than traditional burial, have become essential. Cremations were a solution to this space problem. In many ways, this was an updated version of the Viking practice, and certainly took up far less space than pyramids and gravestones in cemeteries.
People have adapted to this new method of “burial” with some surprising innovations: scattering ashes at sea, or over a favorite stretch of land; burying a pot of the ashes in a cemetery; or even keeping great aunt Emma’s ashes in a pot on the mantelpiece, over the fireplace, are all in current use. Mausoleums and large monuments are still being built, as well as elaborate gravestones in cemeteries, but the cost for the average person, or family, has become exorbitant.
A British study in 2020 looked at funeral costs across the world, and they vary significantly; examples are, starting with the highest, Japan, and ending with the lowest, India:
Japan $27,780 Germany $7,774 USA $7,291
Netherlands $6,770 UK $5,497 China $5,282
Australia $3,870 Italy $2,089 Denmark $1,211
Brazil $445 Russia $293 India $119
Even cremation costs are rising, particularly with all the add-ons that funeral parlor offer. They prey on our raw emotions at a difficult time. Those rising costs have spawned new alternatives. The latest appears to be “Direct Cremation”.
The ferry rounded Eel Pie Island in the River Thames Estuary, “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones was playing from a tinny speaker. Celia Chasey shared memories of her brother, Colin, and then cast his ashes into the river. There was no cremation service, and the gathered family and friends never saw a coffin. Other fuss-free funerals are involving family dinners and party as a way of celebrating the dead person’s life. Families are taking the final farewells of their loved-ones into their own hands. In the case of the “ferry funeral” cited above, a company called “Farewill” simply delivered the ashes of Colin (we hope) to the ferry dock.
In Britain, similar “fuss-free funerals” made up one fifth of all funerals in 2022. The Government has even become involved. In 2021, a new law was introduced by the Britain’s Competition Regulator, which requires funeral providers to make prices clear, thus helping customers compare services.
Religion is in decline in many parts of the world and, with it, demand for ritualized burial ceremonies. “Simplicity Cremations” by Dignity, the name of Britain’s only listed funeral provider, are becoming much more the norm.
Some may worry that this trend will trivialize final farewells, and that is certainly a risk. Perhaps the Vikings had the right idea, after all. You would certainly never forget such a ceremony, or the person at the center of it.