SALT LAKE CITY — On the rare occasions when all four of Gayle Jordan's adult children are home in Tennessee, the conversation often turns to death.
The discussions started for practical reasons: Jordan wanted her burial wishes known to increase the chance that they'd be carried out. Over time, though, the family has come to relish these chats, debating the most environmentally friendly way to be buried or where the kids should go for a post-funeral vacation.
"These little sessions ensure that we're all on the same page about what each of us wants," Jordan said.
Many Americans are likely horrified by the Jordan family's quirky habit. Death is a depressing subject, after all.
And yet funeral industry experts and faith leaders alike are pushing for this level of openness around death, arguing that having conversations about burial early and often is one of the only ways to avoid conflict when a death actually occurs.
"Sometimes people come into it with unfinished business, as well as anger, resentment and jealousy," said Kurt Soffe, president and co-owner of Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Chapels and Cremation Center in Utah.
Candid discussions about burial plans are becoming even more important, as faith groups grow more accepting of alternatives to traditional burial. Opportunities like green burial and body donation, as well as the growing popularity of cremation, have disrupted old norms.
There used to be a script to follow. Surviving loved ones might have fought over which hymns to sing or readings to share, but today, they're trying to sort out what kinds of burial appropriately honor a loved one after death, said Ben Stewart, a professor of worship for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
"People's understanding of honoring may be limited to an embalmed corpse in a fancy metal casket that goes to a respectable cemetery with a Christian headstone. They're not used to other ways to honor," he said.
In the midst of this uncertainty, personal faith provides comfort, while also potentially exacerbating tensions. Families must sort through religious differences to find compromises, Stewart said.
A variety of factors drive burial trends, including costs, the geographic spread of families and religious teachings, funeral experts said. Faith groups have grown more accepting of cremation in recent years and have generally embraced green burial, a practice that enables natural decomposition of the body and the casket.
Last year, for the first time, a majority of Americans (50.2 percent) were cremated, according to the 2017 Cremation and Burial Report from the National Funeral Directors Association. Widespread interest in cremation has changed the nature of funeral directors' work, Soffe said.
"With the blessing of their church to cremate, many families have had tributes that have been at lakes, up in the mountains or at a park. One group had a Harley Davidson-themed service in our parking lot," he said.
Although many unique services are designed with the blessing of a religious leaders, others stem from a lack of faith, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.
"If you've cut ties with religious traditions, you're going to honor your loved with new traditions. Services become very personalized outside the scope of a church," she said.
Around half of Americans say they've attended a funeral at which a non-clergy person presided over the service, and the number of people who say family members' funerals need to include religious elements is dropping.
In 2017, around 4 in 10 adults (39.5 percent) felt that a religious component in the funeral of a loved one was very important, compared to 49.5 percent in 2014, the National Funeral Directors Association reported.
Shifting funeral norms allow for creativity, but not everyone welcomes burial-related innovation, said Maureen McGuinness, who formerly served as family service manager at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in upstate New York, where she established a natural burial area.
"As Americans, we're used to doing things a certain way, including in our own families. When one family member tries to make changes, others think, 'That's not the way it should be done,'" she said.
Funeral planning often brings out the worst in families, reopening old wounds and pressurizing religious differences, Soffe said.
"Families spend a great deal of time arguing over how a loved one would have wanted it. (Funerals) are a service for the living planned by people trying to please the dead," he said.
Fights mostly stem from strained family relationships, but faith can also be the problem, especially in an age of rising religious disaffiliation, funeral experts said. Survivors might bicker with siblings or even a sick relative about how traditional a service needs to be.
"One of the saddest things I'd see was children deciding to do something against church teaching when the deceased was very devout," McGuinness said.
Pam Anderson grew increasingly anxious about navigating faith-related burial decisions as her mother's health declined earlier this year. Anderson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and so was her mother, but her four sisters had left the church years earlier and had little interest in honoring the religion's burial traditions.
"I dreaded the decision-making process," she said, noting that it was hard to balance her own hopes, her mom's wishes and her siblings' frustrations.
She'd come around to the idea of cremation after speaking with her bishop and visiting cremation gardens around Salt Lake City. But she drew the line at skipping a religious funeral service, which she knew would help her work through her grief.
"My goal was not to make my desire trump anyone else's," Anderson said. "But a memorial service was important to me."
Ideally, funeral arrangements honor a loved one's wishes while simultaneously providing comfort to surviving family members and friends. However, this goal becomes decidedly more difficult to achieve when some family members' anchor their identity in faith and others have left religion behind, said Jordan, who serves as executive director of Recovering from Religion, an organization that supports people who are considering leaving their faith community.
Honoring the dead
Jordan left the Southern Baptist tradition around 10 years ago, prompted by her kids' confusion about creation and evolution. She'd spoken with history and science professors in an effort to help her children, but left these conversations feeling dissatisfied with her faith.
After a period of pain, her relationship with her very religious parents has improved. They stick to talking about family news or local gossip, rather than religion and politics.
However, Jordan has lingering concerns about what would happen if she unexpectedly died before them. Her kids know that she wants a nonreligious burial, but her parents might struggle to leave God out of a life-changing event like death.
"It would give them comfort" to hear a sermon about everlasting life and familiar hymns, she said.
In general, people seem to struggle with following through on their loved one's burial wishes, especially when they're different from established religious or community routines, Soffe said.
"Before a death occurs, a family member might say, 'This sounds like a great idea.' But afterwards, you see families slide back to what past family members have done," he said, noting that writing out your burial wishes helps ensure that your family will follow them.
Scattering a loved one's ashes along a favorite hiking trail or laying them to rest in an unmarked grave at a green cemetery can feel disrespectful, because people have long thought of traditional burial as the appropriate choice, Stewart said.
"How do you honor a body in death? Established tradition tells us that you should make it look lifelike with cosmetics and chemicals and then put it in a sturdy, sealed metal container," he said.
However, ignoring or altering a loved one's wishes can cause people to miss out on expanding their own faith through unique burial decisions, Stewart added. He's been struck by how spiritually meaningful green burial can be for some Christian families, even when they'd initially balked at the practice.
"In natural burial, you're often putting the body in the ground in the woods or in a meadow. Deer walk by or a hawk flies over," he said. "Death becomes a flourishing place of life."
As Soffe noted, recent changes in burial norms have expanded funeral directors' job descriptions. They're increasingly asked to facilitate unusual gatherings and called upon to answer faith-related questions.
"If you're going to be a funeral director, you have to be versatile," said Rick Zern, who works at Peel Funeral Home in Magna, Utah. "My job is to walk people through the process no matter what."
The same is true for religious leaders, who try to be flexible when it comes to unusual burial-related requests, McGuinness said.
"We have many priests who are in touch with the needs of their people," she said.
For example, when her sister-in-law died, McGuinness' family chose to have the traditional wake at home instead of in a church, and a priest was willing to attend and offer prayers.
"My brother wanted it to be a party, because Dawn loved parties. We were able to do that, so there was a lot of happiness along with sadness," McGuinness said.
In the midst of shifting burial-related expectations, faith communities can ease potential conflict by encouraging conversations about funerals long before people are sick, Stewart said.
"I encourage religious communities to have an annual forum where you share with people the different options for a funeral at the church," he said.
In general, people should be intentional about discussing their burial wishes with family members or, at the very least, writing them down somewhere, Soffe said.
"It gives the surviving family or friends a map" to follow for funeral arrangements, he said.
One upside of Anderson's mother's long illness was that it gave family members time to discuss burial plans. She died from complications related to cancer last month.1 comment on this story
Although funeral planning was still tense, Anderson had previous conversations with her mom to reference if her sisters questioned her decisions. She settled on a small chapel service with an LDS Church bishop for any interested family members and another, less formal graveside gathering for everyone.
"In the end, we were able to bridge our religious differences," Anderson said. "As I reflect on it, I have warm, good feelings about everyone in my family. I think our hearts were all softened in the moment, and I feel fortunate that it all worked out."