Trends in direct cremation

words: Michael Fern

Most people would agree that direct cremation is a growing trend in the UK, but it’s surprising how little we still know about it…

According to the University of Bath, whose Centre for Death and Society is the focal point for most UK research into death and dying, “no independent British research has been conducted into who chooses direct cremation and what kind of ceremony does, or does not, follow”.

Academia doesn’t know why people choose direct cremation, nor can it accurately define what the process looks like for a family. It is generally understood as a cremation without mourners present, a viewing or a funeral service prior to the cremation, but beyond that opinions can vary.

So what do we know?

We know that a steady increase in direct cremations has been observed in many studies. The Co-op has claimed a 5% increase following David Bowie’s death, and Royal London likewise highlighted an unspecified “increase”. It seems likely that the proportion of direct cremations is in the low single digit percentages but its progress has seemed pretty remorseless over recent years. Dignity is predicting that 10% of funerals will be direct cremation as early as 2023. The figures and reasoning behind these statements can be commercially driven, so it is helpful that we can turn to public surveys to get a more direct feel for families’ expectations.

A YouGov Omnibus survey by the NAFD recently revealed that 38% of British adults would be likely to consider a direct cremation for themselves, and 28% would for a loved one. SunLife, meanwhile, found that less than half of the people they spoke to were even aware of direct cremations, while 44% of those who did organise one also held a separate memorial service.

If direct cremation is still in its infancy and views remain jumbled and somewhat contradictory, what we really need to understand are the motives behind people who do take up direct cremation.

Families’ motives

There is one source of academic evidence: a submission by Dr Pocklington to the Journal of Law & Religion, which looks in-depth at families’ motives. He found that while affordability was one main factor, another was “lifestyle choice”.

He illustrated this with the story of “Andrew and Anne”:

“When Andrew passed away, his wife Anne knew that he would want to avoid the ‘pomp of glass-sided hearses and a ceremony in the crematorium’. The couple met at university, both had long, distinguished careers in academia before taking early retirement. They were financially comfortable and had a happy life together, full of friends and travels.

“Keen to celebrate his life and his achievements, rather than focus on his death, the family opted for a direct cremation. By holding a direct cremation, the family had more time to prepare a meaningful memorial, which took place some weeks later. Without the complication of the body, his wife Anne felt confident to organise the memorial service herself, without professional assistance. Family and friends held a picnic in the park. They ate together, shared memories and then scattered Andrew’s ashes in his favourite spot.”

Similarly, Golden Charter has found that consumers on “middling to high incomes” have purchased almost four in every 10 of the direct cremation plans taken out with the company. Given the NAFD’s findings that a wide range of the UK population would consider direct cremation, it is clear that families are making an active choice to view the ‘disposal’ and ‘memorial’ separately, and not simply making this decision as the result of modest income.

Shifting language

Competitors to Independents are increasingly talking about direct cremation, but the way they do so is changing.

Phrases such as “funerals without the fuss”, the Co-op’s “cremation without a service”, and Simplicity Cremations’ “I find all those pallbearers a bit of a carry on” might start to conflate direct cremation with a more stripped down funera l service that is nevertheless a service.

It remains to be seen if this development reflects families’ changing needs, or if instead families are expecting more than a direct cremation when this language is used.

The risk is that families choose a direct cremation but add a service and other extras, potentially costing themselves more effort and money than a more typical funeral demands.

This new language mustn’t drift too close to implying that a direct cremation is a funeral: if direct cremation is to be a legitimate option in future, there has to be a clear distinction between it and a funeral service, to ensure the right family gets the right option.

Families are clearly interested in making a personal choice. With funeral directors still seen as the experts and first port of call, Independents have the chance to make sure those families are fully informed.

As we continue to understand what direct cremation means to families, and what the options are in the wider marketplace, Independents will be better equipped to ensure families can make the best decision for them.

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