Different views on ecology, religion and the human body help explain a stunning boom in modern men and women choosing to be cremated instead of a traditional burial.
PARIS — Funeral rites have undergone a stunning change in just a generation. Whereas societies have buried their deceased for thousands of years, cremation has suddenly become a mass phenomenon.
Today in France, 32% of the deceased are cremated (specialists deem the word “incinerate” too trivial). The rate is above 50% in large cities. According to a French survey commissioned in October, 53% of French people wish to be cremated while 47% prefer burial.
Most importantly, it is a major anthropological breakthrough. How did such a deep but radical change happen, and so quickly? Though cremation is much more economical, that is only a partial explanation. Flagging Catholic influence — which, unlike Protestantism, is very committed to the permanence of the body after death — is probably a more important factor. The survey, in fact, confirms it. Religious believers widely prefer burial (75%), whereas non-believers and atheists choose cremation (69%). The latter has, however, been tolerated by the Catholic Church since 1963.
Other changes have contributed to the movement too. “Our society glorifies the body that is controlled until death,” says François Michaud-Nérard, funeral services director for the city of Paris. “And then you just let it rot between four pieces of wood?”
Jean-Didier Urbain, anthropologist and professor at the Parisian Descartes University, says fire actually has a sterilizing aspect. “It’s a way to put aside the idea of a corpse and eliminate the image of decomposition. These changes go hand in hand with a death-denying society and its biological reality.”
Even though it is constantly on our screens, real death is less and less tangible. Our bodies are much less exposed to danger, mourning ends more quickly, and language uses more and more euphemisms to describe death (“loss”, “passing,” etc).
Partisans of cremation say they do not want to be a burden for the living. “People live longer and longer, but not necessarily in good health,” Michaud-Nérard says. “They feel they are a burden and don’t want to be one after their death.”
Ashes to ashes
Those partial to cremation often make an ecological argument, which is paradoxical because burning bodies release toxic gases, which is why crematoriums are required to use filters. Today’s spread-out families are also a factor. “We’re no longer in a rural France where all the deceased within the same family were buried in the same cemetery next to each other,” says Patrick Baudry, sociology professor at the Montaigne University of Bordeaux. In other words, how do you take care of a grave that is 1,000 kilometers away from where you live?
For Damien Le Guay, philosopher and vice president of the French National Committee of Funerary Ethics, the cremation movement is a deep sign of the contemporary hyper-individualism. “A funeral used to be a means to pay off a symbolic debt to those who were no longer there,” he explains. “They enabled the deceased to be part of a lineage. This idea is starting to disappear. People are not feeling as grateful towards previous generations and less responsible for the transmission to future ones. They only feel responsible for themselves and untied to any continuity.”
An evolution backs this analysis: The idea that every individual should take care of his or her own funeral is spreading. According to the survey, 44% of people believe it is up to the future deceased to pay for his funeral, while 35% think it is the family’s duty. Of this number, 31% wish to take care of the financing and the detailed procedure, while 33% want to take on only the financing and 8% only the procedure.
Problems may arise from this evolution. Funerals are first of all a way for the living to cope with grief, and the deceased’s wishes do not necessarily correspond to the relatives’. What’s more, cremation is symbolically violent and much more rare for deceased children (about 30% in Paris, where overall cremation is chosen about 48% of the time, according to a study of more than 3,000 funerals).
“With cremation, time is shortened,” explains Marie-Françoise Bacqué, psychologist and president of the Thanatology Society, a group of specialized researchers. “Going from a body to two liters of ashes in just a few hours is hard to bear. It used to be more progressive.” Le Guay adds, “The decay of the deceased and the mourning process used to go together.”
And then what?
For a time, cremation raised the question of what to do with the ashes. Families used to be able to bring them back home, therefore running the risk of destroying the separation between the living and the deceased that the tomb and cemetery represent. Keeping ashes at home is now forbidden in France, and their scatterings are regulated.
Being able to locate the deceased is still important, though, to the extent that ashes are starting to follow the same path as bodies. According to a 2013 study at the Champigny-sur-Marne crematorium, in the southeast of Paris, 55% of ashes were then buried (in a vault or in a columbarium), whereas 16% were scattered in a memorial garden, and 22% elsewhere.
The question of funeral services is now also being raised. “Some cremations have extremely poor ceremonies,” Le Guay says. And what should be done when the service is not paid for by the Church? A majority of French people are still in favor of ceremonies (75% for themselves and 77% for their relatives). According to the researchers, important progress has been made by funeral home companies during cremations. But the ceremonies remain fairly impersonal and the organization depends a lot on the family’s participation. “Inventing rites is not easy,” Urbain says.
“Companies must take care of rites because they have an effect on psychological health,” Baudry warns. “A botched ceremony can be the source of complicated mournings.” He says local authorities are the most concerned by the matter, but they’re not the only ones. “Architects, landscapers and artists should also be involved.”
Le Guay calls upon elected representatives, not to legislate but to establish an ethics code. “The matter concerns 500,000 people per year and three million relatives,” he says. “It’s too important to be left up to the funeral services and to the competitive market.”