Will the industry adapt to changing attitudes?

Executive Summary

The “American way of death” has undergone substantial changes since author Jessica Mitford made that phrase famous half a century ago in her expose of funeral business practices. Cremation is now more prevalent than burial in the United States, “green” cemeteries and other non-traditional options are growing in popularity – and some funeral homes are adapting by opening their doors to a wide range of events: weddings, birthdays and family reunions. The funeral industry is relatively decentralized and still dominated by family businesses; only one company, Service Corporation International, has a market share exceeding 5 percent.

Key takeaways include:

  • Funeral industry revenue has increased more slowly than the overall U.S. economy, and some forecasters project that revenue growth will decline in coming years.

  • The death rate in the United States is expected to rise in the coming decades as the large Baby Boomer generation ages.

  • The federal government has attempted to regulate funeral pricing practices since 1984, but some consumer advocates argue that the rules are outdated.

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Resources for Further Study



Mitford, Jessica, “The American Way of Death Revisited,” Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. The updated version of Mitford’s original 1963 book on funeral-industry practices adds chapters on pre-paid funerals, the role of global corporations and an evaluation of the 1984 Federal Trade Commission regulation that the original book helped to create.

Wilde, Caleb, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life,” HarperOne, 2017. A funeral director overseeing his family’s funeral home recounts memorable funerals and the lessons learned from dealing with death as a professional services provider.


Eveleth, Rose, “How Lincoln’s Assassination Launched the Funeral Industry,” Smithsonian Magazine, Aug. 13, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/ydyzbsbp. A writer recounts the famous train tour that returned the president’s embalmed body to his hometown for burial.

Quirk, Vanessa, “‘We’ve mastered weddings – but the funeral needs a lot of work’: Inside the new death industry,” Quartz, April 4, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ych85p26. A journalist explains how increased appetites for alternative, green or otherwise customized funeral arrangements are helping to disrupt the industry.

Sanburn, Josh, “More Americans Than Ever Are Choosing to Be Cremated,” Time, July 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8uro3uh. A reporter outlines how American attitudes toward burial and cremation are changing.

Reports and Studies

“Deathcare Accounting,” Service Corporation International, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybqdu29g. The country’s largest funeral company explains specific industry accounting rules, such as how companies handle money that consumers pay in advance for services to be provided when they die.

“Service Corporation International’s (SCI) CEO Tom Ryan on Q1 2018 Results - Earnings Call Transcript,” Seeking Alpha, April 26, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycjlds59. The chief executive of the largest funeral industry company in the United States talks to securities analysts about the company’s performance in the first quarter of 2018 as well as its strategy and prospects.

McGinley, Devin, “Funeral Homes in the US,” IBISWorld, June 2018 (subscription required), https://tinyurl.com/ycfk48yf. This business-intelligence report explains the U.S. funerals industry, provides key data on its value, size and performance and details the types of companies involved.

Oliver, Kelsey, “Cemetery Services – US Market Research Report,” IBISWorld, December 2017 (subscription required), https://tinyurl.com/y8m4ey6k. A report on the U.S. cemeteries industry concludes that cremation’s increasing popularity is a threat to cemetery revenue, but favorable trends in per capita income could boost spending by those families inclined to bury their deceased.

Slocum, Joshua, “Death with Dignity? A Report on SCI/Dignity Memorial High Prices and Refusal to Disclose These Prices,” Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America, March 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8zuwhq8. A funerals-industry consumer rights specialist compares prices at funeral homes owned by Service Corporation International, the largest owner of funeral homes in the United States, with those of smaller competitors.

The Next Step

Alternative Burials

Campbell, Hayley, “A New Way to Dispose of Corpses – With Chemistry!” Wired, March 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaamn7gb. A chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis, which essentially liquefies flesh, is an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation or burial.

Erizanu, Paula, “The biodegradable burial pod that turns your body into a tree,” CNN, Jan. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycjpckno. Human remains can be used to grow trees with a biodegradable urn that manages water and nutrients, and the addition of human ash, for the root system during gestation.

Tangermann, Victor, “7 Futuristic Things To Do With Your Body When You Die,” Futurism, June 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycvye5qa. Creative alternatives to traditional burial that are gaining popularity range from launching cremated remains into orbit in space to being turned into a diamond.


Scutti, Susan, “Half in US choose cremation as views on death change,” CNN, Aug. 9, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yafddpn8. The growing trend toward cremation has contributed to changes in traditional services, with more people opting for casual or unconventional memorials, according to the founder of a green funeral home in Seattle.

Shkolnikova, Svetlana, “Cremation is now America’s final disposition of choice, set to be NJ’s top pick by 2030,” NorthJersey.com, April 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yakqhqrd. Concerns about cost and space saving are driving the growing popularity of cremation in New Jersey.

Solomon, Adina, “A Dying Industry? Memorial Makers Want to Avoid That,” U.S. News and World Report, May 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybkae848. As cremation erodes demand for granite memorial markers, the industry is exploring alternatives, including cremation gardens, benches, pedestals and bird baths.


Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20580
A federal agency that enforces the Funeral Rule, which regulates how funeral homes sell their services and protects consumers from having to pay for services they do not want.

Funeral Consumers Alliance
33 Patchen Road, South Burlington, VT 05403
A nonprofit consumers rights and education organization.

126 Fifth Ave., Suite 801, New York, NY 10011
An online comparison tool and conduit through which consumers can contact funeral homes. Users get a 5 percent discount if they purchase services using the site.

International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association
107 Carpenter Drive, Suite 100, Sterling, VA 20164
A trade association that represents funeral directors, cemetery and crematorium owners.

Kavod v’Nichum
8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD 21045
This nonprofit provides information about funeral services and death rituals according to Jewish traditions and organizes conferences and training sessions for community leaders who help provide those services.

National Funeral Directors Association
13625 Bishop’s Drive, Brookfield, WI 53005
A trade association representing funeral directors and other providers of end-of-life services.

People’s Memorial Association
1801 12th Ave., Suite A, Seattle, WA 98122
A nonprofit group founded in 1939 that seeks to help consumers by negotiating lower rates and sample contracts with funeral homes.

Service International Corporation
1929 Allen Parkway, Houston, TX 77019
The largest U.S. private-sector provider of funeral services. Its funeral homes are typically branded with the name Dignity Memorial.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680428.n1