Cremation: The New American Way of Death

3 minute read

Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk has documented frenzied consumerism, the soul-deadening effects of office life and the strange theatrics of U.S. politics, always displaying a sense of humor and a grasp of the absurd that would not be out of place in a George Saunders short story. For our feature on the increasing popularity of cremation around the country, TIME sent Tunbjörk deep into the American heartland to chronicle the goings-on at three separate crematories.

For decades, burial has been by far the most common form of disposition in the United States. Most Americans never gave it a second thought: their grandparents were buried; their great-grandparents were buried—it just made sense that they’d get buried, too, in the family plot, beside their closest relatives.

(Click here to read TIME’s special report on cremation and find out why our changing attitude toward this final rite of passage says everything about the way we live now.)

But today we’re a far different society than we were just a few decades ago. Within the next few years it’s projected that, for the first time, more Americans will get cremated than buried.

Much of the recent rise of cremation’s popularity can be credited to the Great Recession. Cremations can cost as little as a quarter as much as traditional burials. But it’s not just the price tag that makes cremation a popular alternative.

For one, we’re a much more mobile society today. We don’t buy family plots the way we used to because more of us get an education, start a family, get a job and retire far from our birthplaces. When it comes time to find a final resting place, transporting an urn is much easier than dealing with a casket.

Historically, the U.S. has been a majority Christian nation, and Christianity favors burial for a number of reasons. But Americans are becoming increasingly secular and many of us now identify as atheist, agnostic or, even if we consider ourselves religious, aren’t affiliated with a particular faith. That separation from a religion with ties to traditional burial has led to more Americans exploring other options of disposition.

Cremation has also appealed to those looking for a more eco-friendly solution than burial, which involves placing a body filled with embalming fluids on a plot of land that will need to be maintained in perpetuity. And while flame-based cremation is a more environmentally sensitive solution than traditional burial, a new breed of eco-friendly cremations is just starting to become popular. “Green cremations,” which use a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, are available in a handful of states and are outpacing flame-based cremations in the areas where they’re offered.

The practice of cremation will in all likelihood only grow as we become more mobile, secular and eco-conscious as a society. In fact, in the not too distant future, burial might well be seen as a peculiar option in light of the eminently reasonable, less expensive and environmentally sound method now so widely available—and increasingly embraced.

Click here to read TIME’s special report on cremation and find out why our changing attitude toward this final rite of passage says everything about the way we live now.

Lars Tunbjörk is a photographer based in Stockholm. He previously photographed the 2012 Iowa Caucuses for TIME.

Josh Sanburn is a writer/reporter for TIME in New York. Follow him on Twitter @joshsanburn.

A dead body ready for cremation has just been inserted into an eco-friendly Resomator machine. Instead of flames, this stainless steel chamber owned by Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services uses a combination of water, potassium hydroxide and heat to break down bodies into peptides, soaps, salts and sugars.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Jim Bradshaw prepares a body at Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Jason Bradshaw and employee Cameron Black place a body in the Resomator.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Jason Bradshaw poses next to barrels of chemicals used in the green cremation process, while holding a bag of human remains that have undergone this process.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Roy Quinn, crematory operator at Forest Lawn Memorial, places a body into their fire-based cremation oven.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
A body in the fire-based crematory oven of Lakewood Cemetery.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Fire-based cremation leaves behind ash but also substantial bone fragments, like those shown in this pan. These remains will be pulverized by the machine seen here beneath the pan before being returned to the family.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Roy Quinn, crematory operator at Forest Lawn Memorial, pours remains into a bag after pulverization.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
The ashes of a woman who passed away at 94 years of age rest on a car seat on the way from the crematory to the cemetery.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Pastor Joel Martin of Christ Lutheran Church presides over the burial of the woman's ashes next to the remains of her husband in Oakland Cemetery.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Cathy Stenson, an accountant at Lakewood Cemetery.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
A variety of urns appear on sale at Bradshaw Crematory.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Bradshaw Crematory offers a chapel for memorial services.Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME
Roughly a third of ashes get scattered, a third get buried and a third get stored in urns. Lakewood Cemetery offers niches in which families can permanently store their urns. Lars Tunbjörk—Agence Vu for TIME

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