Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. You may have thought about and prayed for lost loved ones. You may have even thought about your own eventual death. What will happen to you? Will you have a vigil service? A funeral liturgy? Rite of Committal? You may fully intend to have a traditional Catholic funeral and burial. But will it happen? Well it really isn’t up to you.
When I am reporting on or making presentations about Catholic sacramental and practice data, one of the most common concerns I hear from priests is not related to baptisms or marriages. It is funerals. I hear a similar story over and over. An elderly member of the parish has passed and their kids decide to forgo the Catholic funeral and burial against the deceased parent’s wishes. They don’t feel comfortable at a funeral Mass. They think everything about the funeral and burial is too costly. They don’t see the point and their parent has passed. “They’ll never know” …and then mom gets cremated and takes her place on the mantle at home. At least at Christmas time the Elf on a Shelf is nearby.
Statistically speaking, if you go by the Church’s numbers, death is becoming less common among Catholics in the United States. If the trends in funerals and deaths recorded in Catholic parishes from the 21st century continue, no deaths of Catholics will be recorded after 2087. That doesn’t mean the Church will have found the fountain of youth in the Diocese of Orlando. Catholics still die at the same rate as non-Catholics, they just aren’t getting a Catholic funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery like they used to.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s Vital Statistics reports, in 2013, there were 2,596,993 deaths in the United States. If one applies the very stable adult Catholic affiliation percentage to that total (assuming Catholics are no less or more likely to die then the overall population), we would expect there to have been approximately 610,293 Catholic deaths in that year. In 2013, U.S. Catholic pastors reported 402,963 deaths in The Official Catholic Directory. Thus, we can assume about 66% of Catholics who died in that year were likely to have received a Catholic wake, liturgy, and/or burial in a Catholic cemetery (i.e., Rite of Committal).
What happened to the other third of Catholics who passed away? Some are on the mantle. Others have their ashes scattered at a favorite beach or golf course. Maybe some are among those rumored to have their ashes scattered on the Haunted House ride at Disneyland?
The decline in funerals is not limited to the Catholic Church. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reports that the number of funeral homes in the United States has declined by 10% since 2004 (-2,137 sites). Some of this decline may be related to the economy. The median cost of an adult funeral and burial has increased by 29% since 2004 to a total of $8,508. The median costs for cremation is less, $6,078. More Americans are choosing cremation over burial and this trend is expected to continue and become more frequent.
According to the NFDA, in 2005, 61% of deceased in the U.S. were buried and 32% were cremated. By 2030, the NFDA expects those numbers to flip in the other direction with more than 7 in 10 deceased being cremated.
I searched the polling archives for questions about burial and cremation to see if I could isolate Catholic preferences. Oddly, pollsters appear to shy away from asking respondents what they want to happen to their body when they die. There is one CBS/Vanity Fair national poll from 2012 which asks, “If you had the chance to peek in on your own funeral, what would you be most curious about? How many people show up, if there are any surprise visitors, how you look in the casket, or what people say about you?” Catholics, like most others, said they would want to hear what people say about them (53%) followed by wanting to see how many people show up (24%). Only 2% would want to see themselves in the casket.
According to Church law, “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176). If Catholics choose cremation, they are required to have their ashes buried or have an urn placed in a crypt, niche, or other approved above-ground option at the cemetery. You can’t have your ashes blasted into space or made into jewelry. Mom or dad probably didn’t want that anyway.
Mantle photo courtesy of Aime Fedora.
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