The latest trends and advances in technology are changing funeral practices in Ireland and around the world, writes Jason Osborne
The world seems more fluid than ever before, and even the age-old traditions surrounding death and funerals aren’t immune to the effects of the current trends and technology reshaping everything we know.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic newspaper as part of the build-up to the Irish Hospice Foundation’s 2021 Forum: ‘On Dying, Death & Bereavement’, which took place October 5-6 , Joseph Behan of Hibernian Funerals told oh how the Covid-19 pandemic hastened the ways in which funerals are changing, and pointed to the UK landscape as an example of what’s to come.
“Where you couldn’t register a death online beforehand, so you had to do it in person, then all of a sudden last year, you could do it, so it’s just how Covid or an emergency forces change,” Mr Behan tells this paper.
“Then even some simple things that happened in the UK, the government there have a ‘Tell us once’, where rather than going to each government department, like the passport, driving license, all those things, you use ‘Tell us once’ and then it goes from there.
“A lot of financial institutions are signed up to a death notification service, so rather than going to your post office, your credit union, your bank, etc., you just tell once to the death notification service,” he says.
While these may seem like small changes, “it’s often the simplest things make the biggest difference,” Mr Behan notes. This is all the more true at a time when people are under the “most extreme emotional circumstances” that many people experience in their entire lives.
However, the notification system in the UK is one of the smaller changes on the horizon, with different possibilities coming forward with regards to the body’s treatment after death, and where to response.
Pointing again to the UK, which is often a good indicator of where the Irish funeral scene is heading, Mr Behan says that “at least 80%” of people are now choosing to be cremated, a large break with past traditions. However, there is a limit to the rise in cremation’s popularity, with many religious minorities opting against it, particularly Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim populations.
“On the cremation side there’s quite a bit happening there. The UK market is over 80% cremation. What happens there now is actually direct cremation happens quite a lot.
“In the space of a year it’s increased fourfold, from three to 14 per cent. What happens there is actually the body goes straight to the crematorium and then the ceremony or not happens afterwards with the ashes rather than the body,” Mr Behan says.
With Covid-19 accelerating that trend, cremation is no longer the straightforward process it once was, either. Traditional gas cremation exists alongside “greener” cremation options, such as electric and water cremation, and “organic reduction”, which is so far mainly a phenomenon in the United States.
Many of these new options and possibilities are being driven by environmental concerns, Mr Behan explaining that each of these options has a lower environmental footprint than traditional options, which appeals to many people.
Electric cremation “operates at about 200 degrees lower than gas cremation, so it’s a slower process, it’s a bit like driving your car a bit slower, so it uses a lot less energy and it can use renewables as well.
“So then even if that used our [environmental] coffin as well, it would have a much lower footprint,” he says, continuing “the water cremation has a much lower footprint as well, and obviously the organic reduction is the lowest of all.”
Coming from the same environmental concern trend is the renewed consideration of where to be buried. Mr Behan says that in the UK, natural or woodland burial sites are becoming more popular, with them popping up over here as well.
“And then burial grounds…it’s an interesting topic, because I know personally someone who operates one [natural burial site] down in Wexford. Is it consecrated ground? He’s had clergy bless it, so it’s an interesting one. Or else you can have a woodland as well, so just to show you what can be done.”
While this is still a niche in Ireland, there are over 300 sites in the UK, indicating a potentially popular future in Ireland.
“In Ireland, it’s a niche, in the UK, there’s probably over 300 natural or woodland burial sites, so they’re much further ahead of us and then there’s actually another product that they’re looking to bring to the market as well which is a return to nature,” Mr Behan says.
“Ashes themselves are quite toxic, since it is ground-down bones, so it’s two things: One is the pH is the wrong level, so if you planted a tree with it, then there’s a good chance that the tree will die. But also the trace elements, so your sodium, your potassium, your magnesium, all those things, will be at the wrong concentrations, so you need to dilute them down. There’s a product that’s gaining traction in other parts of the world, that actually you would mix with the ashes and then you could use it to plant a tree or spread it safely and so on.”
Personalisation is another trend driving people’s funeral choices, with customisable coffins and ‘novel’ ways of distributing ashes flooding the market.
“There’s some segmentation of the market that I’ve seen done, some very good segmentation, that the personalisation is coming more in to the fore. We tend to lag really, what’s happening in the UK and other markets, so you can see what has been happening there and some of it I would expect we’ll follow.
“So, for instance, one of the products that I would be bringing to the market then would be an environmentally friendly coffin, but it could be personalised. There would be different ranges in that, so that’s something then that will come on stream soon enough.”
Offering a demonstration of the personalisation options, Mr Behan shows me that it’s possible now to design coffins with religious imagery, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta or a golden cross, or adorned with personal photos and messages incorporated into the coffin’s design.
With regards to ashes, everything that people can think to do with them is done, from tattooing the ashes, to having them launched into space for a princely sum, to having the ashes incorporated into a diamond. While most of these options are, and will likely remain, niche services, they exemplify just how much funerals and the surrounding arrangements have changed.
How people travel to their final resting place is also no longer fixed, the classic hearse being supplemented with electric vehicles now, and even, bicycles. Mr Behan refers to cycling advocate and filmmaker Paddy Cahill’s last journey through Dublin’s streets earlier this year, which caught the nation’s attention and featured in national media.
Mr Cahill’s brother, Conor, cycled his coffin to Glasnevin Cemetery in April, followed by a train of cyclists, in a move that has since become more popular.
Mr Behan offers a glimpse of the changing face of funerals and death preparations, both in Ireland and abroad, showing that millennia-old traditions are no more immune to change than anything else.