Friday, August 29, 2008

Japanese Cemeteries Fill Up While American Cemeteries Become Irrelevant

In Japan, space is at a premium, and funeral and cemetery costs are many times those in North America. Families who cannot afford to purchase graves lease out lockers for the respectful repose of their cremated remains. These costs are not easy to bear, but there is a clear value to funerals and final resting places, and so, a way is found to pay them. This contrasts sharply with many of the families I see, who may even have a family plot where cremated remains could be buried, or certainly have the means to find a permanent resting place for them, but prefer to scatter or choose to decide later what to do with their loved one's cremated remains.

The reasons why an increasing number of Americans have an aversion to burying in a cemetery have little to do with cost. Many families today move all over the country and the world, and their children are often scattered in different places. When this is the case, who will visit the grave? Sometimes it seems easier to bring the cremated remains with you to your next place of residence. And how many people today even visit the graves of their loved ones when they live close by the cemetery?
I believe that the biggest reason that many Americans prefer not to bury in a cemetery, though, is that, just like a funeral in a chapel, that's not where they want to be- that's not where they feel comfortable. The cemetery and the funeral chapel in our society are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as restrictive and gloomy places. People just don't want to remember or bury their loved ones in a place like that. They want to celebrate and bury their loved one's remains in a beautiful, peaceful place that's full of life and good memories that reminds the survivors of what that person was like when they were living.
I have heard so many people tell me that when they die, they don't want a sad funeral, that when they die, they don't want to be buried in the cemetery, that when they die, they just want a big party, and instead of spending money on a cemetery plot, just scatter them in the lake. They don't see a value in the funeral, it's just something they have to do.
This type of comment has been countered by funeral professionals who explain why the funeral service is essential to working through grief in a healthy way. The funeral is for the survivors, we tried to explain. You need to consider the needs of those left behind to say their goodbyes to you, to lay you to rest with the love and dignity that you would want to treat them with, we said. And as far as a big party goes, yes that is desirable, and it's important to laugh, share stories and remember the good times, but it's also important to cry, to make a public expression of respect and sadness at the passing of your loved one, to have an opportunity to get the support of friends and to be comforted by familiar rituals. The value of the cemetery was explained, "People need a permanent place for the remains that they can return to when they want to feel close to a person. You've only to ask a person whose loved one is missing in action, or whose remains were not recoverable after 911, how difficult it is not to have such a place, how difficult it is not to have the return of those remains."
As important as these points are, we weren't hearing their point- they don't want a funeral, they don't want the cemetery. People appreciate the fact that they must cry as well as laugh, that they need to have a ceremony, a ritual, a public expression of loss and an opportunity for friends to support the family and share their sadness and stories, that they need a place to return to. In my experience, even if people don't realize this when they come in to the funeral home, once presented, these ideas make sense to them.
What they don't see the value in is what we've been offering them; the traditional wake, funeral and burial. We need to stop trying to meet their needs with the old formula and find new ways for them to gain the benefits of funeral and burial in a place and style that they feel good about.
How is this done? Funeral homes need to listen to their families and offer them the type of gatherings they want, create the type of rituals they want, and hold the services in the settings that are meaningful to them. Cemeteries need to create places designed to appeal to families, not to the groundskeeper. In future posts I will highlight funeral homes and cemeteries that are offering families what they want, while still giving them what they need.

Update: Please visit these posts highlighting innovation in funerals and cemeteries:

1 comment:

Poe Forward said...

Intriguing editorial, I'm looking forward to your future posts on the subject.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


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