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Is the cemetery dead? Sloane examines new trends in ‘planning for death’

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

At a recent USC Price book talk in New York, Professor David Sloane discussed the evolution of mourning spaces in America

By Eliza Gallo

Death is a topic many people shy away from — but not USC Price School of Public Policy Professor David Sloane, who has made a deep study of the subject.

Inspired by his forthcoming book Is the Cemetery Dead?, Sloane was the featured speaker for the March 12 USC Price Conversation in New York, addressing Price alumni and current students, as well as SEO Scholars from local high schools. He gave a poignant, personal talk that encompassed changing American attitudes about cremation to how to support friends who are grieving.

Sloane began the discussion by addressing why a policy and planning scholar would be interested in cemeteries. Firstly, it’s the family business — he comes from a long line of cemetery superintendents. But he added a second reason: “It turns out that planning for death is planning. How do we handle the people who are dying in our lives? How do we want to remember them, and where do we want to remember them, and how are we allowed to remember them?”

USC Price Professor David Sloane speaking to attendees at the USC Price Conversation in New York. (Photo by Documentation Photography Services) See more photos on Flickr »

Burials on the decline

Sloane explained that the way we think about death has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. “Today, we’re in a very extraordinary moment,” he said. “For over a hundred of years Americans have taken care of their dead in very specific ways, and each of these is being challenged, each of these is being a little pushed by what’s happening in our world.”

One trend, partly driven by cost, is that cremation is starting to be preferred over burial. Sloane said that while in 1960 only four percent of Americans who died were cremated, sometime in the last year the number of Americans being cremated surpassed the number of new burials. By 2030, forecasters believe the cremation rate will be 70 percent.

There has also been a shift away from traditional institutions like cemeteries and funeral homes and funerals, with families of the deceased gaining more control over the process. “If everyone can scatter their ashes or have them in their home, then you don’t need a cemetery,” Sloane said.

The social media effect

Another trend is a shift from private emotion to public emotion. Sloane said that from the 1830s through the middle of the 20th century, “grief was something that was supposed to be very private,” but now death is everywhere.

We can experience mourning on social media, he noted. Sloane pointed out that nowadays, unless we are very intimate with the person who dies, we usually find out about a friend’s death on social media. Many people today don’t visit cemeteries, but they gather around sidewalk memorials, RIP murals, or “ghost bikes” for fallen cyclists. Some get tattoos memorializing loved ones.

Environmentally friendly approaches

Lastly, Sloane identified a trend in death practices driven by sustainability and environmental concerns.

Many cemeteries are running out of space, and many suburban communities are designed without cemeteries. Ecologically conscious people may choose to be cremated or to be placed in natural burial grounds that eschew embalming and pesticides, in some cases with the promise that that land will remain a public conservation area.

Sloane noted that some traditional cemeteries, feeling the threat, are adding areas devoted to scattering or natural burials.

According to Sloane, it’s important for society to adapt to the new, more personal and public attitudes toward dying. “Most planners don’t want to think about death, so they don’t. Most people don’t want to think about death, so they don’t,” he said. “We are going to have to deal with these things.”

Bedrosian Center