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Untraditional Funerals

Coloring outside the lines of convention

By Frances Donington-Ayad

The voice of recently late Stephen Hawking was sent into space by the Cebrero’s antenna in Spain, aimed at 1A-0620-00: a black hole 3,500 light years away. This symbolic, final act seems odd for Hawking who was not only a well-known atheist, but who understood, perhaps more than anyone on earth, how mass was created and destroyed. He proved that even black holes eventually fizzle out and die. If there was any candidate to accept mortality, Hawking comes to mind. Why then would his family, his government and the scientific community carry out a remembrance that seems to oppose Hawking’s own scientific discoveries and worldly views? Why commemorate his life with this figurative act?

Hawking’s untraditional memorial is not an anomaly. More and more people of his generation—the Baby Boomers— are choosing not to use funeral homes, or have their loved ones embalmed and buried, and are gravitating instead towards a variety of other services.

Baby Boomers want to add something unique to their final remembrance that not only sets it apart from other funerals, but celebrates the lives they lived rather than mourns them.

In America, the amount of people choosing cremations has gone up from 25 percent in 1999 to 55 percent in 2018, according to the Center for North American Cremations. The number of cemeteries dedicated to eco-friendly “green” burials has risen from one site in 1996 to 120 sites across the United States.

But besides people changing how they lay to rest their own, or their loved ones’, remains, it seems that people everywhere are aiming to make funerals more personal. Much like Hawking’s voice being shot into a black hole, Baby Boomers want to add something unique to their final remembrance that not only sets it apart from other funerals, but celebrates the lives they lived rather than mourns them.

When Virginia Brooks’ brother-in-law, Scott Brooks, died at the age of 77 her family chose to avoid a traditional burial and instead spread his ashes on Martha’s Vineyard, in a beach day celebration. They didn’t want to say goodbye to their loved one in a way that felt scripted, like a mold that had been done a million times before. Brooks says, “religious ceremonies don’t know the person who died. It could be me, you or anybody else.” In addition, she says her brother-in-law wasn’t very religious. He was part of a wider trend in America: the decline of faith among Baby Boomers.

Although a belief in a higher power is still widely held by Baby Boomers, there has been proof of a steady decline. Time Magazine took a look at American’s belief in God over the past 70 years. Reviewing information from Gallop Polls, Time found that American’s belief in God, or another higher deity, has been on a steady decline. The percentage of Americans who believe in a God or a higher power dropped from 94 percent in 1976 to 86 percent in 2014.  The Pew Research Center reports that specifically, Baby Boomers’ belief in a higher power dropped 4 percent in recent years, jumping from 73 percent in 2007 to 69 percent in 2014. The old, religious narrative isn’t as comforting to all members of the Baby Boomer generation.

Brooks says this is partially a result of the era the Boomers grew up in. “Stuff got rejected in the 60s! People stopped going to church. They stopped relying on a religious framework.”

The greatest advantage Brooks saw in having a beach day at Martha’s Vineyard for her brother-in-law’s funeral was how it allowed everyone to feel both joyful and mournful. The family got to process a range of emotions, which felt more true to the process of grief. The death of a loved one is a complicated event to work through, and often more layered than experiencing purely sadness or loss. Brooks says traditionally religious funerals are stifling, encouraging people to only work through their sadness. “Growing up, no one taught me we can feel multiple emotions at one time,” she says. “But we can. We’re capable of experiencing a lot at once.” Her family’s beach remembrance encouraged this. Sprinkling ashes along the surf, Brooks and her family celebrated their loved one’s spirit while also grieving its absence.

When people go over to spread the ashes we’re practically holding on to their belt loops,” Cuoco says. “If people want to sit for five more minutes, if they want to circle the ashes again, we do that.”

The ocean has become a popular choice as a final resting place, especially in terms of scattering your ashes. For those of us who grew up going to the beach, it’s easy to see the appeal. “The wind. The birds. Being out in nature on the ocean- it’s all calming, more so than being in a box surrounded by dirt,” says Paul Cuoco, captain of the Swan Song in Cape Cod, a ship that offers services spreading cremated remains in the ocean. Cuoco says most of the funeral parties he takes out on his ship aren’t full of experienced boaters and fisherman. “ A lot of them are just trying to carry out the final wishes of their loved ones.” But after people go down to Cape Cod and head into the Atlantic on Cuoco’s boat, they find the experience of saying goodbye at sea comforting, so much so he has had families come back for multiple services.

The reviews on his website have one overwhelming through line: the funeral is extremely intimate. “We’re more hands-on,” he says. “People look to us and say ‘how do I do this’ and we try and help them through the process.” He thinks one reason for the decline in Baby Boomers choosing traditional burials is that funeral homes and their directors can feel impersonal. They are large, sometimes corporate, busy and leave services feeling rushed. Burials at sea— on a small boat, with a small crew— have a different feel. “When people go over to spread the ashes we’re practically holding on to their belt loops,” Cuoco says. “If people want to sit for five more minutes, if they want to circle the ashes again, we do that.” He even buys the flowers himself.

Cuoco and his crew, which consists entirely of his son, are part of a trend popping up along the coasts of America. Small businesses, made of small crews who love the ocean, have begun offering memorial services at sea, competing with funeral homes. Baby Boomers and their families, who have chosen this style of funeral, now have multiple outlets to pick from. And the best part: it’s infinitely cheaper than a casket burial. The average cost of a traditional funeral is around $11,000, according to the Huffington Post. Cuoco’s services range from $300- $700. He admits he runs on the cheaper side, and it doesn’t include the cost of the cremation, but overall it is less than a third of the price of traditional burials. “I just don’t think it’s right to nickel and dime people,” Cuoco says.

In addition to the comforts of religion waning, and traditional burials being too expensive and feeling impersonal, many people feel that conventional funerals just don’t reflect the person who died. Families want to capture the essence of their loved one’s personality and don’t feel that funeral homes and cemeteries properly do that.

Her husband’s eccentric life is reflected in his burial site, capturing his essence in a way that a large, nameless cemetery just wouldn’t.

Kathy Quinn felt this exact sentiment when planning the services for her late husband Anthony Quinn, the Oscar-winning, old-movie star. Anthony had an exciting life. He was a Mexican immigrant, starred in movies like Lawrence of Arabia, was a painter and sculptor, and married Kathy Quinn who was almost 40 years younger than him.

“He was a very untraditional man,” Kathy says. “I wanted to honor that by not doing a traditional wake.” Kathy buried her husband in their backyard in Rhode Island, and built a memorial garden around the site. She says it’s perfect that way. “His spirit is always here.” Her husband’s eccentric life is reflected in his burial site, capturing his essence in a way that a large, nameless cemetery just wouldn’t.

This desire to make a loved one’s final resting place more in tune with their personalities is not new. Even in cemeteries, little trinkets and keepsakes that have a personal connection to the deceased surround gravestones. Older generations, however, are taking it one step further. More and more people are choosing to reject the conventional funeral and plan a ceremony that allows them to capture their loved one’s essence as much as possible.

Kathy Quinn says that for all the intimate planning that went into her husband’s memorial, when it came down to talking about it with him the conversation was difficult. “He had a hubris,” she says. “Like a lot of people, he didn’t like to talk about dying, about the idea of himself not being here.” She remembers when she spoke to Anthony about his funeral he said not to have one, and to instead, “simply take his dead body to a mountain in Mexico and let the birds scatter him along the Mexican landscape,” she says.

Although talking about your own death is hard, and perhaps always will be, older generations —especially Baby Boomers— are having those tough conversations for the first time. Baby Boomers could, like those before them, sweep the thought of dying under the rug and let the living deal with the rest, but they are instead becoming more involved in their funerals, planning them out before they pass. By doing this, Boomers seem to have fostered a new relationship to the idea of death, an attitude that for the first time in a long time paints it a bit more positively, or at the very least, bringing themselves that much closer to conceptualizing their absence. The very act of talking about your own disposal seems to be a subservient way of saying: yes, I understand I am going to die.

About the Writer

Franny Donington-Ayad is a freelance journalist who wants to create a body of writing that resonates with people. That, and stop being a waitress, feel comfortable in her own body, take her mother to Kenya (to see giraffes),  own a beach house, fill that beach house with a family, live in another country for a few years,  meet Keanu Reeves (maybe get a cup of coffee with him), and feel more comfortable not knowing what the future holds.

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4 years ago

this gives me a lot of ideas!

4 years ago

Missing from this well-written article is the concept of “natural funerals.” A natural funeral is based on the idea of simply washing the body, clothing it and, as an option, wrapping it in a shroud of some sort and then burying it. Natural funerals are also called “home funerals.” For more information on natural, home funerals see: