Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Religion study and cemeteries

It's been interesting reading to follow news about the new American Religious Identification Survey, put out by Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut.

But what does that have to do with cemeteries? Well, for starters, one of the highlights of the study is that:

One sign of the lack of attachment of Americans to religion is that 27% do not
expect a religious funeral at their death.

It will fall to the non-religious cemeteries to carry a larger load of burials, including those run by governments. And, as I reported last week, cemeteries are suffering in the recession and will struggle to meet the demand, even if the demand falls amid rising interest in cremations. Not everyone will opt for cremation - for cultural or personal reasons - so their remains will have to wind up someplace.

Green burial is another growing option, but until regulators do more to understand and embrace this option, operators/proponents of green cemeteries will have their own battles to fight. I talked with a cemetery colleague last week and commented that Bibb County, Georgia, appears to be Ground Zero for the fight to create a green cemetery, which the rewriting of the codes to exclude a proposed site. But I'm sure Bibb County is not the only place wrestling with this issue. Green burial advocates need to remind people that burials in the United States all were green, until the introduction of the funeral industry in the middle of the 19th century (when arsenic became the embalming substance of choice). Now, let me reiterate: The conventional funeral industry not the enemy, by any means, but nor is the green burial industry (and, yes, while advocates might have idealistic intentions, it is, bottom line, an industry). There is room for both, literally and figuratively.

But here's another interesting point to the religion study. As more people choose to be non-religious, that puts more strain on existing churches to fund their everyday operations and their worship services - pay salaries, teach religious education, build sanctuaries, etc. - let alone their burial grounds. A lot of churches - if not all - already have some fiscal concerns. This economy is hurting everyone. So, fewer people attending church could mean more risk of religious cemeteries falling into disrepair.

As the ARIS reports:

Forestalling of religious rites of passage, such as marriage, and the lowering
expectations on religious funeral services, could have long lasting consequences
for religious institutions.

I'm not advocating any particular religion - nor am I advocating the no-religion option - but the choices Americans make about their religion will have significant impact on American cemeteries.

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