Inside Edition Digital Chatted with Lily Sage Weinrieb and Joél Simone Anthony, funeral directors and experts on the subject.
Whether we like it or not, death comes for us all. But the way we process death — and how the dead are preserved and cared for — has evolved.
“We're finding new ways of adapting our rituals,” Lily Sage Weinrieb told Inside Edition Digital. “You see a lot of really creative ways of memorializing folks.”
“Funeral service itself is going to become more personalized as opposed to traditionalized," Joél Simone Anthony said.
Both new-generation funeral directors recently chatted with Inside Edition Digital about the trends and changes currently happening in the death care industry.
To understand the industry fully, it’s best to revisit the American Civil War. This, according to Weinrieb, is where embalming began.
“We started embalming people to preserve their bodies once they died in the war and bring their bodies back North from the South," she said.
Anthony added that it was a way to send soldiers back to their families safely.
“Embalming is the scientific disinfection and preservation of the human body, and it allows us to hold onto the deceased for a little bit longer.”
Weinrieb said that eventually, the trend caught on and became more and more popular. “Families were spreading out. They weren't all living in the same state. And so, for everybody to come together for a funeral, the family would often have to wait longer. And so, embalming became a way to preserve the body long enough for everyone to be able to say goodbye."
The American Civil War also gave rise to a new kind of industry: funeral homes.
“Funeral homes started opening up as places where the embalming could take place, but also as locations where a body could be stored until the family could get together for the funeral,” Weinrieb said. “And eventually, funeral homes became these one-stop shops for every single aspect of the most popular versions of death care in America. But these were being shaped by needs that were actually slowly becoming less and less necessary.”
Weinrieb added that embalming is falling out of fashion, as there is much more access to refrigeration, so funeral directors don't need to embalm as many bodies.
The United States is one of the few countries where embalming remains a main method of disposition, Anthony said, but noted fewer people want it. Now, like most places in the world, cremation is preferred.
“What you can do with cremated remains is just completely endless," Anthony said. "One thing that comes to mind is a space burial where they took a small amount of cremated human remains and strapped it onto a spaceship and sent it out into space.”
Overall, people are becoming more creative and some are choosing to dispose of the dead in non-traditional ways.
“Alkaline hydrolysis is one of them,” Weinrieb said. “Sometimes you hear it referred to as water cremation, or aquamation, or even resomation.”
In Seattle and in Washington, they are composting with human remains.
“It's called natural organic reduction, and they have a really, really wonderful space, where the body can be placed among natural organic materials,” Weinrieb said. “And with nothing but your birthday suit, in about 30 days, everything that you came with will be returned to soil. And that soil can go on to nourish local forests, or even be returned to your family so that you can truly be that tree that you wanted to be.”
Not only are trends surrounding the disposing of the dead seeing change, but Weinrieb said the rituals people use to say goodbye to their loved ones are changing as well.
“One of the reasons why we have funerals is to culturally adjust to somebody being biologically dead, into somebody being socially dead," Weinrieb said. "We're finding new ways of adapting our rituals that bring us from biological death to social death.”
And one trend catching on is home funerals.
“Bringing funerals back into the home with the guidance of a funeral director as somebody who you can turn to as we transition 130 years backward into taking care of our own family members again,” Weinrieb explained.
And as home funerals become more and more popular, Anthony said, families caring for the deceased themselves are becoming more popular.
“I think that funeral service itself is going to become more personalized as opposed to traditionalized,” she said. “I think we've seen that happen with COVID in the last year. Funeral homes and families have had to find ways to commemorate the lives of their loved ones. I also think that there's going to be more technology integrated into death care.”
Also becoming more popular, according to Weinrieb, is loved ones getting more creative about memorializing those that have passed.
“If they weren't a person that wore a suit and liked stiff metal caskets, it doesn't really make much sense for us to put them in a suit and lay them in a stiff metal casket,” she said. “If they were somebody that loved Earth and maybe they knew how to weave, why not weave them something that reminds us of them and shroud them in that, and make sure that their sendoff is just as unique as they were?”
She added that funerals at a traditional funeral home aren’t always the best fit. “Even if they were Christian, they might not want to go to church because they might feel as if they're closer to God, in whatever way that might mean, by the ocean," she said.
And if all this death talk makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
“Death and grief are very sacred journeys that we all have to embark on as individuals,” Anthony said. “I think people avoid conversations about death because it puts a timestamp on how much time we have left here.”
But even so, that’s all the more reason to think about and talk about death. And to do that, both experts give sound advice.
“One thing I would suggest for families who want to start having conversations about death and dying is to go through old photo albums,” Anthony said.
“For some reason, the conversation always goes to someone's family, and that's the excellent opportunity to grab little details such as what one might want to wear to their funeral," she continued. "Do they want a funeral at all? Do they want to be cremated? Do they want to be buried? Just the little things that maybe you wouldn't be comfortable talking about on an everyday basis, the photo album is a great place to start.”
Weinrieb's approach is different but also effective. She recommends that people, especially Americans, slow down, take a moment and breathe.
“And spend a little bit of time with somebody who is dying or who has died before the funeral home gets involved. Before all of the ceremony and celebration and ritual begins, just to think about what it means to be with that person and be with their body," Weinrieb said. "And I can almost guarantee you that once somebody has done that, they will not be as scared of death as they were before because they'll know a little bit more about what that means.
“I certainly hope that we will see a lot more folks thinking about what they would like to do once they die. Or what they would like to have done, once they die,” she continued. “The more we can talk about it, the better off we'll all be.”
Every quarter, the award-winning journalists at Inside Edition Digital dig into a specific topic, going deeper than daily news cycles allow to bring you The Issue, a series of articles and videos on a specific subject. For more of The Issue 3, where we're diving into generational change, click here.