Cremation rates up, Montana rates beat national average

‘Reasons are as varied as the families’

By: - September 9, 2021 5:23 pm

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More and more people in the United States are choosing to be cremated, and Montanans are making the choice way more frequently than the national average, according to Montana State University Extension.

In 2020, 79 percent of people who died in Montana were cremated, compared to 56 percent of people who died in the country overall, according to MSU Extension, citing data from the National Funeral Directors Association. MSU Extension has a mission to strengthen the social, economic and environmental well-being of families and communities.

Marsha Goetting, MSU Extension family economics specialist, said the reason more Montanans choose cremation, and by a significant number, remains a mystery to her, on one hand.

“On the other hand, I think about Montana and the beauty and people valuing land and that connection,” Goetting said in a phone call Thursday. “And particularly when you look at some of the farm and ranch families, there’s just a real connection to the land. You want to preserve the land, and you don’t want to take up all the land with burials. (But) the reasons are as varied as the families.”

MSU Extension shared the statistics in an announcement about a new fact sheet, or MontGuide, it released this month about cremation. The office offers MontGuides on a variety of topics, including freezing fruit, making financial decisions in remarried families, and water rights in Montana.

“The Extension is there to help families with whatever kinds of issues that are out there,” Goetting said.

Goetting, also a professor, said the reason MSU Extension created a guide about cremation goes back to an extension agent based in Great Falls. A number of years ago, the late Claire DelGuerra had been asked about cremation by a number of homemakers, and Goetting put information together that DelGuerra could hand out to the homemaker clubs.

“The interest was so high that we went ahead and developed a MontGuide on the topic,” Goetting said.

Professionals and lay people both reviewed the guide to be sure it didn’t get too detailed, she said. (“I had some stuff in there that was too much about the bones. You don’t need to know that right now,” Goetting said.)

The guide answers common questions, such as whether a body needs to be embalmed before cremation. The short answer is embalming is not a requirement in Montana, but it may be necessary depending on the circumstances.

Projected cremation rates provided by the National Funeral Directors Association.

The guide also talks about where people can have their ashes scattered, and it offers a snapshot of the different rules for different lands, such as national parks or tribal trust lands. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, you can scatter a loved one’s ashes in an undeveloped area, but not in a thermal pool, and you need to first call the park, according to the MontGuide.

Goetting said a related MontGuide that discusses the Montana Right of Disposition Act is also important. She said the law means a person can put their wishes in writing about what happens to their body after death, and their wishes must be honored.

In the announcement about the cremation guide, MSU Extension also noted that cremation rates have risen across the country during the last decade, again citing data from the National Funeral Directors Association. In the previous decade, the cremation rate was 40 percent compared to 56 percent today.

“There are many factors contributing to the rising popularity of cremation among consumers, including cost considerations, environmental concerns, an increasingly transient population, fewer religious prohibitions against the practice, and changing consumer preferences, such as the desire for simpler, less-ritualized funeral ceremonies,” said James Brown, director of the Montana Funeral Directors Association, in a statement.

In a phone call, Brown said the cremation trend in Montana already was ticking up, but he believes the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated it. He doesn’t have data, but he said coronavirus orders in 2020 that limited gatherings influenced families to postpone disposition proceedings until they felt comfortable getting together.

“What that led to was folks choosing to do cremation so they could come back later in time and have the proper funeral,” he said.

At the same time, Brown said some research shows that having a body present can help people with closure in a way that cremation does not allow. He said that’s because people can see their loved ones in their presence.

In its July 2021 report, the National Funeral Directors Association noted that 60.9 percent of its members experienced an increase in cremation rates due to COVID-19. The report also said that life expectancy in the country has declined by one year due primarily to COVID-19; expectancy is 75.1 years for men and 80.5 years for women.

In the industry, Brown said one concern from families is that they are not always on the same page about what to do with a loved one who has passed if the loved one hasn’t articulated a desire. So he said it’s important to have those conversations.

“This is a conversation that needs to be had immediately, regardless of what age anybody is because we don’t know when our final moments on Earth may be”, Brown said. “It’s better for those who are the survivors to have clear direction from those who have passed on as to what they want done with their remains after their deaths to avoid confusion among the family, conflict among the family, (and) possible legal issues. It’s a tough conversation to have. There’s no doubt about it. Nobody likes to talk about death, but it’s an important conversation to have, and it’s a conversation to have now.”

Sometimes, the conversations aren’t easy ones. Goetting remembers talking with her dad about wanting to be cremated, and him being upset at her choice. But they kept talking about it.

“So we visited further,” she said. “When he was in World War II, there was a plane that landed in the Philippines, and it crash landed, and it caught on fire. He said you never forget the smell of burning bodies.”

The experience affected him, but Goetting also said he understood there were reasons people wanted to be cremated. And she understood her generation might be more interested in the option than the oldest generation.

2021 nfda cremation and burial report

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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