A new dawn, a new day, a new year, and it promises to be a stunning one for the funeral industry and all its related markets.
We are in a moment of epic change in the industry. The way people pass unto death is changing. The way people grieve is changing. The way people bury the dead is changing. And the way people remember the dead is changing. Perhaps most importantly, technology is changing all aspects of the process. As the new year clicks into action, Justin Nobel of Digital Dying offers some perspective on trends he anticipates to blossom further in the new year, as well as new ones that may emerge.
1. More Bone Jewelry & Bone Art – If you’ve walked into a hip coffee shop of late you might have noticed that bones are back in style. I am talking about animal bones sculpted into artwork, or necklaces and even lamps, such as this coyote skull lamp being sold on Etsy, the popular e-commerce website focused on handmade and vintage items and supplies. According to the object’s online listing, the lamp “is made from a clean natural real coyote skull that has had a light bulb inserted into the cranium so that the entire skull lights up.”
It used to be that bone décor belonged to the realm of the hunter or backwoods person, but now it seems to have become urban chic. When Digital Dying interviewed Columbine Phoenix in 2009 she appeared to be one of the only online retailers selling bone jewelry. “This is something solid that you can hold in your hand or wear in your ear,” Phoenix told us at the time. “It makes death a little less scary.” Well, for many people death is still very scary, and bone jewelry will probably continue to trend, online and at a hip coffee shop near you.
2. Cremains in Your Coffee – While we are on the topic of art let’s talk about ashes. Cremation jewelry is another interesting trend that appears to have come of age. Funeralwise.com, the home of the Digital Dying blog, offers some pretty exceptional items on their site. The number of providers of cremation jewelry appears to have grown rapidly over the past couple of years. A search under “cremation jewelry” on Etsy brings up more than 18,000 hits. Digital Dying actually first wrote about this unique trend back in 2009, under a post titled: “Michael Jackson and many grandmas will spend eternity as diamonds.” Back then, it truly seemed unique and amazing that one could even find a company willing to do such a thing as embed human cremated remains into a diamond ring. But now transforming cremains into jewelry is a booming business. Cremation jewelry is definitely a trend that is not going to wither and die quickly.
And then, just the other day I found this interesting listing on Amazon, for a “Cremation Permanent Urn Spoon.” The tiny spoon looks like something you would stir your coffee with and dangles from a necklace right beside a silver vile intended to contain the ashes of a loved one.
So, cremation jewelry—yes. A coffee stirring spoon that dangles beside a cremation locket—yes. Who knows what the future will hold on this part of the funeral front, but it certainly will be interesting.
3. Cemeteries Go Vertical – Digital Dying has written a number of blogs that discuss the issue of how cemeteries are running out of space. A blog we posted in August of last year discussed the “looming death of the small town American cemetery” and looked at small rural cemeteries in the Northeast that were attached to churches. Membership at the churches had dropped and as a result, the cemeteries were in disrepair. In some cemeteries, bones were even sticking up out of the ground.
Way back in 2009 Digital Dying wrote about the futuristic funeral towers that were being constructed in certain cities in Southeast Asia. “From the outside it looks like a downed spacecraft and on the inside, a Las Vegas casino,” I wrote of a luxurious columbarium being constructed in the land-starved city-state of Singapore. “There are red carpeted VIP rooms, curved hallways lined with lavender and neon-yellow psychedelic swirls and several statues of Buddha.” The columbarium, called Nirvana, was to have a café and 40,000 niches.
Well, Nirvana has now been built, and it indeed looks pretty spectacular. The trend of building upwards does not look like it is going anywhere soon. And this trend will likely be spreading beyond the megacities of Southeast Asia. “What happens when all our cemeteries are full?” asked a 2015 article in the British newspaper, the Guardian. The article pointed out that space was running out for cemeteries in major cities around the world, and one logical conclusion would be to be build up. “London’s cemeteries will be completely full within the next 20-30 years,” reported the Guardian article. Expect to hear more about cemetery skyscrapers in the coming year ahead.
4. Welcome to the World of Green Death – With talk of a Green New Deal ramping up in Congress, and Americans these days focusing more thought on just how their lifestyles affect the environment, it should be no surprise that certain American rituals of death have come under an ecologically-tuned microscope too. As the New York Times reported last year, “Interest in these pared-down, eco-friendly options has grown as people look for ways to cut their carbon footprint.” This is a trend I expect to continue.
A lengthy article published last July on green burials in the Hartford Courant noted the results of a 2017 survey of the National Funeral Directors Association. The survey revealed that 54 percent of those polled were interested in exploring green burial options in order to “reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals.” A group called Connecticut Green Burial Grounds is actively investigating several possible locations in Connecticut for a green cemetery and has already raised nearly $20,000 to pay for the project. The two green cemeteries that already exist in the state, the Wooster Cemetery in Danbury and the Fountain Hills Cemetery in Deep River, have both opened green burial sections of their cemeteries just within the past ten years.
But as the Hartford Courant article wisely pointed out, green burials aren’t necessarily something new, they are actually a return to something old. “Not all that long ago, historically speaking,” stated the article, “virtually everyone who died in Connecticut was given what is now being called a ‘green burial.’”
5. More Burial Pods – Italian designers shook up the boutique funerary scene last year with their Capsula Mundi project. These organic, biodegradable burial pods “literally turns a person’s remains into nutrients for a beautiful tree growing directly up above,” reported the site EarthPorm.com in an enthusiastic 2018 review of the product. “In fact, these awesome burial pods make for the perfect burial ritual in so many ways.”
Many mainstream media sites seemed to agree. Capsula Mundi received favorable spreads last year in CNN and elsewhere—although Funeralwise first covered the pods back in 2015! Still, with green funerals and green thinking on the mind and on the rise, we probably have not seen the last of the burial pod. And Capsula Mundi will surely not be the last outfit who attempts to create one. Look for more ideas along these lines in 2019.
6. Clothing for the Grave, Coming to a Boutique Near You – Back in 2013 Digital Dying ran a two-part interview with the Australian death designer Pia Interlandii. The Aussie designer is pretty unique. Aside from having a death-savvy funeral-forward perspective, Interlandii earned a Ph.D. at Melbourne’s RMIT University by experimenting with dissolvable fabrics. Or, as her present fashion website cleverly calls the items, Garments for the Grave. “In almost every human culture,” notes her site, “when an individual is prepared for burial or cremation, their body is dressed in a garment that will literally and symbolically become part of the body as it returns to the earth.” The statement sounds nice but doesn’t seem to apply to funerary practices in countries like the US and Australia. And this is exactly what Interlandii has intended to change with her work.
As Interlandii explained when I first interviewed her: “I began to focus on things like shoes, why are we putting him in shoes? He isn’t going to be walking. And they were leather, which is basically a synthetic material by the time it goes through the process of tanning. I knew it was going to take 1,000 years for these shoes to decompose. Jackets are designed for keeping you warm but he didn’t need to be kept warm anymore. And his shirt was probably a polyester cotton blend. Polyester cotton is something we use for durability, we wear it lots and lots of times but does that really apply in something like death?”
Interlandii certainly is the trendsetter and ahead of her time, but she need not be alone for long. It is my belief that as the boom in green funerals fans out to other aspects of the industry clothing for the grave will become a flourishing new field too, and 2019 may be the year this happens.
7. Cremation Curtailed? – Statistics show cremation to be more popular than ever. In 2016, the percentage of Americans choosing cremation famously surpassed 50 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Meanwhile, in their 2018 Annual Statistics Report, the Cremation Association of North America reported that “cremation rates continue to grow, confirming that cremation is the new tradition.” But there are some reasons to believe that this trend may not be poised for eternal growth.
A large attraction to cremation appears to lie in a reaction against the costly chemical-infused process of embalming. Yet one major caveat for cremation is that it may not be as environmentally sound as previously thought. In 2009 Reuters reported that, “each cremation guzzles as much energy, in the form of natural gas and electricity, as a 500-mile (800 kilometers) car trip.” This calculus finally appears to be settling in. “Cremation isn’t a good option for a lot of folks worried about air pollution,” the Hartford Courant noted. The article cited the words of Connecticut funeral home owner Sam Fulginiti: “If you’re looking to lessen your carbon footprint, cremation is not the way to go.”
“Even scattering small amounts [of ashes] can be hazardous in a delicate environment such as an alpine environment or vernal pool,” end-of-life counselor Michelle Acciavatti noted to the New York Times last year. As more and more eco-conscious consumers discover green burial options or intriguing technology like the Capsula Mundi burial pod, cremation numbers may start to go back down. This trend may start to show itself in the statistics in 2019.
8. Pet Death Gear Bonanza – In 2015 the website ReelSEO.com released some astonishing data. According to the video marketing site, there were more than two million cat videos on YouTube and people had watched these videos more than 25 billion times. It does not seem like anyone has redone the survey, but I can’t imagine the numbers being any less. In fact, consumer spending on pet-related items is up and expected to keep going up. A report by Grand View Research noted that the global pet care market was $131.7 billion in 2016. The research group expected spending to grow steadily over the next decade and reach $202.6 billion by 2025.
Grand View cited other industry research which noted that millennials are more likely to use technology to keep track of their pets. “Apps are allowing owners to monitor health habits, nutritional intake, and playtime,” said the report. This certainly translates into even more cat videos, and it also likely translates into more pet death care products. Funeralwise.com already offers a pretty impressive line here, such as this bamboo pet cremation urn box, or this handsome mudstone ceramic pet urn. Look for green pet burial options to increase in 2019 too, such as those provided by the Green Pet-Burial Society.
Most of all, enjoy yourself, be safe, and have a happy new year!