Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cremation, politics, and religiosity

A month ago, Agnostic looked at the burying of the burial as conventional postmortem send off in the Great Britain and the US. Cremations were rare on this side of the Atlantic through the sixties, and only began increasing after 1970 (when about 4% of the deceased were incinerated). The popularity of cremation grew steadily from that point on, though, and today for every two corpses lowered into the ground, one is lowered into the flames. He noted:
Since the UK has been secularizing for much longer and at a much greater intensity than North America has, it's no surprise that they've already reached about saturation level, while we still have a ways to go, especially in America. See this map of US states by cremation rates, which looks very much like a map of traditional vs. progressive values.
Indeed it does.

Admittedly I hadn't given it much thought, but I've never had the sense that the question of whether to bury or to cremate was influenced much by political orientation. For the most part, though, the map seems to suggest it, though a geographic divide mitigates that somewhat, with the nation's newest states tending to embrace cremation the most.

Fortunately, a writer for the Scripps Howard News Service has provided state-level rates for 2006. A state's cremation rate and the percentage of its electorate that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 is a moderate but non-negligible .41 (p = .00).

Many Christians believe the deceased will rise again at the Christ's second coming. The gospel of John (5:28-29) explicitly says as much:
Marvel not at this, for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
Consequently, I wondered if religiosity might be a bigger influence on the question than political orientation is. I doubt most sincere believers have consciously thought about the state of their physical bodies at resurrection, to the extent that they think actual flesh and bone will be resurrected at all, but the general tendency for believers to think of life as sacred presumably has spillover effects into areas like the question of how to put family members to rest when they die.

Comparing the percentage of a state's residents who say religion is "very important" in their lives with its cremation percentage yields a strong correlation of .70 (p = 0):

As structured religiosity is pretty close to being an antipode of progressive values, it looks like Agnostic nailed it.

Parenthetically, if you're worried about spending the afterlife in the inferno, it might be wise to instruct those close to you to burn your remains when you're pushed off mortal coil so Mephistopheles won't be able to have at you down the road.


Jokah Macpherson said...

Another factor that might play a role along with religion is migration patterns. I thought of this because both of my parents grew up in small towns in light green states. The towns both have a church where half the gravestones contain the same family surname. When your parents, grandparents, and siblings are all buried in the same graveyard in the town where you live, it's really a no-brainer as to how you want your remains to be handled. On the other hand, if you went to college and took a job in the city where no one from your family lives, the choice is more wide open, and you're less likely to have an attachment to a particular burial location.

I explored this theory a little using MOBILE16 and REGION from the GSS (since they don't have a state variable) and the four regions with the highest percentage who grew up in a different state are, in order, "Mountain", "Pacific", "South Atlantic" (I think this is Florida but I'm not certain) and "New England", which is pretty suggestive.

agnostic said...

Yeah, it's probably not thinking that the body will be resurrected, since this same trend shows up in the burial of pets.

That's what started me thinking about it -- how these days people just torch their pets once they're gone, when we used to bury them in the backyard and even drive some kind of marker into the earth, out of respect. (Or maybe my family was weird.)

The trend of spending lavishly on pets has gone the other way -- more mini-sweaters, organic squirrel butts in a can, shampoo with tea tree oil, etc.

Meanwhile they saw off their cat's toes ("de-clawing") and toss its body in the furnace after death.

It just goes to show how little the money spent on someone signals how much the spender cares about them.

Anonymous said...

Mormon leadership explicitly discourages cremation:
(scroll down)

Audacious Epigone said...


That sounds plausible to me. And yes, Florida is counted as South Atlantic.


Yeah, unless religious folks think the same about their pets. My family did the same with pets that died at home, but not with the last dog they had to put down. Did it used to be standard to take the body home from the vet and bury it?


Do any other Christian denominations?

bgc said...

Real, orthodox Roman Catholics are against cremations:

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

I don't know how correct he is, but Jean Raspail states that burial of the dead is a Western custom. If he's correct, increasing cremation may be corellated with the post-1965 influx of Third World peoples, and possibly a shift in sensibilities by native Westerners toward Third World mores.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The first wave of cremation becoming common in Western culture was with the Indo-Europeans ca. 2000 BCE.

Jews buried their dead, apparently via Egyptian influence which extended to corpse orientation in the burial process, e.g. The burial tradition apparently ended European norms from Judaism to Christianity and from there to the rest of Christendom's domain.

The return to cremation arguably reflects the diminishing importance of early Christian burial traditions in favor of other considerations.

In addition to religion, an important factor may be farming. I've heard described to me by those in the funeral industry the view that burial rates are closely tied to the extent that the decedent and his or her family feel a personal and enduring connection to the land. Farmers overwhelmingly favor burial, urbanites are much more likely to favor cremation. Some of this overlaps the migration issues Jokah identifies.

Also, there may be a cost factor. A big cemetary full of burial plots is a trivial expense in the middle of broad expanses of farmland and open space. But, cemetary space is quite dear in the city where it is competing with high density urban development opportunties.

Audacious Epigone said...


There doesn't appear to be data on South or Central American cremation rates, but the Southwest is leading the way in the US, with Nevada on top. So that seems like pretty reasonable speculation.


Fascinating, thanks. Razib has argued that humans are returning in many ways back towards hunter and gatherer norms, away from the agricultural norms that have prevailed for as long as 10k years in some places. This is another data point supporting that assertion.

Anonymous said...

I have noted that recently some loved ones who chose cremation. It seems their family found great emotional relief in seeing the remains of a deceased family member "become one with the earth" through spreading of the ashes. Moldering in a grave does not seem to provide the same effect.

In addition I think the transient nature of society makes people recoil at the thought of family graves being paved over or dug up in the future.

Anonymous said...

I predict funeral pyres and sea burials may also gain favor (but it will not be very much related to the absorption of non-Western ideas), but simply will have to do w/ the theological arguments for burial going away.

In addition with a burial at sea we can say that our loved one's remains are at "home" whereas in an increasingly "diverse" and ever more crowded world, cemeteries will lose their sacred nature.

ironrailsironweights said...

Facilities managers at baseball and football stadiums do not like cremation. They frequently get requests to scatter the ashes of deceased fans on the fields, and needless to say have to turn down the requests.


Audacious Epigone said...

Great comments. I'm realizing how little I've thought about these posthumous questions before now.

CJ said...

Of course it's religious, or at least long-forgotten religious values simply accepted as tradition. When I told a priest my first husband, born Catholic, had insisted on cremation the old guy recoiled in shock. He regained his composure because it's no use hectoring the heathens now.

Until then I had no idea, having grown up in a modern, broken, secular family.

Anonymous said...

Could be land prices.