A $3 Billion Afterlife Industry
biomythologies of ash and dust
I’ve never been to a wake. I’ve never been to a funeral with a visitation. I’ve only been to funerals for the cremated. In 2015 cremation became the most popular method for helping our dead become ancestors, in America. By the end of this year, the cremation rate in the United States will likely be over 60%. The National Funeral Directors Association predicts that by 2040 that number will be close to 80%. For years, people in Europe and America resisted this interment ritual. There were, especially, religious objections to it. But since the mid-1960s, even the Catholic Church has been softening its objections. Cremation has become a new American tradition.
Now, the religious objections are showing up elsewhere. Poetically, perhaps, cremation can be reconciled with biblical texts; it’s a way of bringing people back to the dust that Genesis tells us we came from. What’s generating objections from the Catholic Church, today, is human composting (popularized by organizations like Recompse). Humans are not trash, is how objections to the ritual have been articulated. But compost is not trash. I actually think this rite might be the most beautiful way we have to help our dead to become our ancestors, given the way that life in America is built today. Human composting is now legal in six states, and there’s a bill working its way through the legislature in Connecticut. I’m tempted to predict that this ritual will overtake cremation in popularity, in short order. Given that most cremations in America today are industrial, composting is more poetically and symbolically rich. It’s a ritual that connects with the earth—the soil that we come from. I’m currently working on a writing project about it; hopefully I’ll be able to share more soon. For now, I want to think with you a bit about the poetics of cremation; the biomythologies that cremation calls up, symbolizes, and perpetuates.
I recently finished reading a book, Shannon Lee Dawdy’s American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century, that’s challenged the way I tend to think about cremation. For most of my life, cremation seemed inevitable—it’s just what you do when someone dies in America today. It’s the most practical and affordable legal option. It allows you to postpone funerals, so distant family have time to travel in. And it minimizes the disgust factor at the end of life, to put it bluntly. It makes the matter of bodies feel invisible, or abstract.
I never gave much thought to alternative rituals, until I started teaching a course on death and the afterlife. Burial rituals became a key component of the course. And I began to understand how deeply symbolic these rituals are, and how they are connected to mythopoetic sensibilities about life and death. American cremation began to make me a bit sad. If it’s a symbol for anything, it’s a symbol of American industry and efficiency. It takes death care out of our hands and makes it into an industrial operation. It may be more affordable than burial, but it’s still an industry that’s valued at $3 billion or more. What Dawdy’s book made me realize is that we deserve something poetic, something rich with symbolic beauty—even if we are trapped in the industrial landscapes made by capitalism. Even cremation can have its own form of symbolic richness, if we can see it that way.
Let me, first, explain why I’m calling cremation an afterlife industry rather than a burial industry. The short explanation is that, in my view, people tend to be overly restrictive in their use of the term “afterlife.” In large part that’s because Christianity has more or less colonized the afterlife. Christian theological views have been so dominant and so influential that they’ve been “naturalized”; it’s as if Christianity made formal maps of the afterlife itself. Most people, even if they are non-religious, tend to think of “the afterlife” as heaven-like: some sort of beatific other world where our personal identities somehow live on after our death. In my experience, the non-religious are more skeptical that an afterlife would be hellish.
In my own writing and teaching, I use the term “afterlife” to refer to what’s created in the wake of a death, including how a community of the living might continue to affirm life. Writers like Saidiya Hartman, who’ve written about the afterlife of slavery, clarify that afterlives can be hellscapes, even when they’re not in an underworld. But this also illustrates how an afterlife can be an immanent reality for the living. I think of afterlives as something active and dynamic, something we encounter—a pressing reality that we live into and up against. Afterlives, in many forms, are part of our imaginative landscapes.
Burial rituals are caught up, or tied to, the afterlife in the sense that they seek to create a particular kind of transition for the living and the dead. A ritual that leaves us with a sense of peace, a sense that our loved one has found a space of rest, can help to produce a feeling that their memory (or some other form of them) endures within a space of rest and peace after life.
Dawdy uses the term “afterlife” in the title of her book, which would seem to suggest that she’s going to address something metaphysical (some heaven beyond this physical reality, for instance). But in the book her primary concern is burial rituals, and what changing American death rituals express or illuminate. She’s influenced by the early 20th century anthropologist Robert Hertz, who published an early comparative study of death rituals across cultures. For Hertz, as Dawdy summarizes his work, a funeral ritual helps the dead to enter “a new, unseen society in the afterlife.” Simultaneously, the ritual works for the living to “reweave the social fabric” and “to mend the hole left behind by the loss of one of its members.” With this in mind, Dawdy suggests, a burial ritual itself can be understood as a method for “crafting an afterlife.”
Cremation, as a ritual, crafts a particular form of afterlife: a particular endurance of life, in the wake of death. As an industry, it works to produce this form of afterlife for the masses.
Cremation in America was long described as “less religious”, or the preferred option for the non-religious. This had little to do with the ritual itself, and much more to do with the fact that it was a non-traditional burial ritual for the dominant religious tradition in the United States (Christianity). Fire, for centuries, was more immediately associated with hellscapes for Christians. And early advocates of cremation, in the United States, were primarily concerned with making burials more sterile, and and less of an infringement on urban space. The push for cremation, in America, was not spiritually motivated.
As a ritual, however, cremation can bear all kinds of religious or spiritual associations. This is especially true if it’s possible to gather around the pyre. Fire itself is rich with symbolism. Even in biblical traditions fire (in the form of burning bushes, for instance) can often be a stand-in for divine power. Fire is also mesmerizing to watch, and its heat is both a lure and a repellent—a source of fear and awe. Being present for an open pyre cremation allows the living to watch a process of transition unfold in its entirety. And there is a particular sort of poetry in the upward motion of the smoke and flames that rise above the world of the living. But this sort open pyre ritual is only legal in one place in the United States (Crestone, Colorado). Open pyre cremations are even becoming environmentally controversial in places like India, where it’s long been standard ritual practice.
The symbolism inevitably changes, when cremation becomes a specialized industrial process that’s invisible to consumers. In American crematories, the process happens in small spaces, behind closed doors. And what you receive, when you return for a loved one’s ashes, looks nothing like them. They’ve been converted into something abstract, and the process was invisible for you. As an industry, American cremation serves to make death less visible. The old are warehoused in spaces where they are isolated from the young. And death is invisible until you face it. Death is inconvenient, for capitalism—at least when it calls for us to stop our work and memorialize our living. As a consolation, American consumer capitalism offers us a whole range of products that we can “become” once we are ash: tattoo ink, diamond rings, paper weights.
I’ve always had grander ambitions for us. I want to know that the people I love are present with me in the powerful, dynamic, cyclical movements of life on earth. I want an affirmation of what I call, in my book, the sisterhood between life and death. Why, I’ve always thought, would you want to become what the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick called kipple—the immortal detritus of consumer capitalism? But perhaps my imagination is too limited.
People of Dust and Ash
The last time I came into contact with cremated remains was the day before my wedding. My grandmother died right after I finished college. She was cremated, and the urn full of her ashes waited until my grandfather died (about a decade later) for burial. My wedding was the first time that enough of the family would be in town, at the same time, to bury my grandparents together in a small cemetery plot. The ceremony was very unceremonious. My grandparents’ urns were not fancy, or decorous. Everything was very stark, simple, and even a little disconcerting. It was difficult to remember what it is we were all doing there. It was decided, impulsively, that their ashes should be united outside of the urn. As the ash was poured from urn to grave, the wind caused trouble and blew ashes onto those of us who stood alongside the grave. “That’s person,” my friend next to me whispered soberly, as we looked down at the white dust on our clothing.
This is the story that always comes back to me, when I think about cremation. It’s a story that leaves me with a feeling that cremated remains are unsettlingly depersonalized and abstract. But I know that this isn’t the case, for everyone. And there’s another story that reminds me of this. I was deeply struck, as a child, when a friend of my mother’s explained to me that her sister, who had just died, was still with her—in a small amulet hanging from a chain around her neck. She removed the cap from the amulet, to show me, and a bit of ash drifted onto her finger. She put it on her tongue, and closed her eyes to hold back tears. I remember thinking that it was as if she said a very short prayer. She was keeping her sister with her in a way that radically, even unsettlingly, challenged the abstractness of what remained behind. This is what the ritual rendering of loved one into tattoo ink also does, doesn’t it? It’s a way of keeping the dead close to us in a deeply material and embodied way.
What we do with our dead expresses and illuminates how we believe that they remain with us, as we keep on living. What we do with, and for, the dead crafts an afterlife. The fact of the matter is that those of us living in America today are often quite alienated and abstracted from processes of living and dying. Most of us only attend our own birth and death events. And we live in a capitalist society that impacts, in every way, how we think about and cope with life and death. The process of burying our dead has been streamlined, and made both invisible and efficient. It might be the case that anti-capitalists dream of becoming part of something bigger—a grander, more cosmic story of nature. But nevertheless, even those anti-capitalists will still need to navigate an afterlife industry with other agendas and priorities, in order to make this happen. Capitalism crafts our afterlife.
“Some people want to become postmortem objects that look an awful lot like commodities,” Dawdy observes, without judgement or romance. In her book, she challenges us to reflect on whether or not this desire can simply be boiled down to a matter of consumer choice. I felt, in some way, as if this challenge was directed right at me. As any artist would tell you, Dawdy notes, “not all forms of material expression are market driven.” Not even when you can buy them.
Perhaps, on some level, we can think of this desire to “become a commodity” not as the powerful effect of an industry’s power but as a desire to die as we lived. And to be close to, connected with, life as we knew it. People want to imagine an afterlife, some sort of enduring expression of life, that feels familiar to them in some crucial way. And what feels familiar to most Americans today is a world of commodities. On the one hand, I find this incredibly tragic. On the other hand, I think there’s also a kind of humility, in the desire to become an object like this. It’s a way to remain in and with the world, as we knew it. And in spite of it all, I think there’s something beautiful in that sort of humble desire. To be clear, becoming dirt is a biomythology that resonates deeply with me in a way that becoming a diamond ring does not. But I’m also learning to see the beauty in this particular form of becoming dust, of reanimating dust, within the limits we’ve been given. Sometimes we have to try to make things beautiful, exactly where we are. No matter how ugly things get.