The pandemic that has changed the rhythms and rituals of life is doing that in death, too.
Eulogies are delivered over Zoom. Memorial services are often held months late, if at all. More people are opting for cremation, accelerating the shift from burying bodies. And with out-of-state relatives unable to travel to pick up the cremated remains because of health risks, the U.S. Postal Service is increasingly delivering ashes to doorsteps.
“You can only send them Priority Express Mail, and they require a signature,” explained Lori Cash, who works in a small post office outside Buffalo. “Obviously, it would be horrible to come home and find cremated remains waiting for you.”
The USPS is struggling to keep up with the demand for its Label 139, a bright orange sticker it requires on these packages that reads “CREMATED REMAINS.” The Postal Service also offers a kit for human ashes that comes with a sealable plastic bag, bubble wrap and cardboard box. The USPS website warns of delays “due to high order volume.”
The fact that the remains of someone’s parent or child are crisscrossing the nation in postal vehicles is seen by many as practical, a sobering reality in isolating times. Others can’t fathom it.
“I don’t want to send someone I knew all my life through the mail,” Stan Reese said. The Huntsville, Ala., resident is starting a business to personally collect ashes for others and then hand-carry them to scenic places, where they will be scattered — on video if requested. He knows that relatives are not always able to fly or drive long distances to get a loved one’s ashes, and that quarantine guidelines and potential coronavirus exposure makes others reluctant. He said his service will help families avoid having “the last time they see their loved one be when they put a stamp on them.”
His inspiration for Eternal Alaska was hearing about how people are handling death in new ways. Before the pandemic, he never heard of the post office delivering ashes. The U.S. death toll from covid-19 — now over 500,000 people — means millions have mourned the loss of someone close over the past year, and as people see news of the latest tally on their phones or TVs, it has made many ponder their own mortality.
Reese is 56 and has given thought “about when I pass — hopefully not anytime soon.” His Baptist parents were given a traditional burial, but he wants his ashes scattered in Alaska’s Denali National Park, a place so beautiful it made his heart stop when he saw it. “I could see eternity there. I don’t want people visiting my grave in the cold ground.”
The steady shift from burying bodies to cremating them has been accelerated by the pandemic, according to funeral directors and industry surveys.
Cremation once was taboo. In 1960, only 4 percent of Americans were cremated. By 2005, 1 in 3 were. Today, more than half are.
Money is a key factor: Cremation is cheaper. People are less affiliated with organized religions that continue to favor body burials. The Catholic Church once did not permit cremation but now allows it, emphasizing that it is one’s soul, not physical body, that is immortal. Still, Catholic guidelines say ashes should be kept in a “sacred place” such as a church cemetery and not scattered outdoors or kept on the living room mantle.
During the pandemic, as many have lost their jobs and are struggling economically, the several thousand dollars a casket and cemetery plot can run are prohibitive. Quarantine rules and restricted international flights make it harder for family and friends to gather right after a death, and ashes can be held until whenever a memorial is held. “Cremation is simpler,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. “One decision is required immediately, and permanent placement and services can happen in the future.”
“Customs are changing,” said Archer Harmon, who runs Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home in Northern Virginia. “You know cremation is much more popular when the post office puts out instructions and gives you the labels. The stigma is no longer there.”
Several Southern states stand apart from the country as a whole, with a majority still burying bodies with the same rituals of their parents and grandparents. But in many states, especially those in the West, a hearse carrying a casket to a cemetery is a vanishing scene.
In Colorado, Montana, Washington state, Oregon, Wyoming, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont, more than 70 percent choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In Nevada, another state where many residents grew up elsewhere and feel less tied to traditions, the cremation rate has hit 80 percent.
With thousands of Americans cremated every day, a growing number of public places are being designated for human ashes. “Scattering gardens” are being created in cities across the country, in part because of concern over the psychological effect of knowing that a favorite local park is full of the ashes of people who once liked it, too. Boat owners ferry families the three miles off shore that the Environmental Protection Agency requires for a scattering ceremony. Cemeteries are building more and larger columbariums, structures with individual niches for a person’s ashes.
Quite a few people just keep them in urns, now sold in every imaginable design, from a classic Carrara marble box to a custom-made boat-shaped container for the remains of a person who loved to sail.
Some spouses keep the ashes of their wife or husband at home and plan to have them buried with their own when the time comes. Some couples who were divorced have left instructions to divide their ashes and give some to each surviving spouse. Sometimes a parent’s ashes are divided up among surviving children.
“Cremation has a lot of advantages,” said Thomas Lynch, a writer and funeral home director in Michigan. “Like the society we have become, it’s more portable, more divisible and easily scattered.”
Lynch said that after decades of burying people, he knows grief, and that no matter what method of disposing a body is chosen, the key is for the living to face the loss, up close. Too often, he said, “we disappear our dead.” He said it is a mistake for people never to lay eyes on the body of someone they loved because it helps begin the processing of loss. He said a body is as essential at a funeral as a baby is at a baptism.
“A good funeral not only gets the dead where they need to go, but the living where they need to be,” Lynch said.
The pandemic has made that harder. These days, the Irish wake, Jewish shiva or other gathering rituals where people reminisce and grieve together are small. While the restrictions in size are made for good reason, that means they often don’t include all those who are mourning.
“Dealing with death and closure has been difficult in this time,” said Deborah Gold, who teaches on death and dying at Duke University. “A lot of people have been moved deeply by all the people who have had to die alone in nursing homes, hospitals,” she said. It can make it harder for the grieving who could not be at the bedside of a parent or sibling, or who could not attend the funeral.
Despite the fact that death is a sure thing, “many Americans would like to believe they are immortal,” Gold said. “An awareness of the potential of death has certainly come out of this pandemic, and I think that is a good thing. . . . America is the most death-phobic society that I think ever existed on the planet.”
Seeing more boxes with bright orange labels is also raising awareness. The USPS has for years shipped remains. A spokeswoman said she was unable to quantify how much that has increased since the pandemic hit. But, for example, if 1 percent of the more than 1.5 million people who were cremated in 2020 were mailed, that would mean the Postal Service delivered 15,000.
John McHugh, former secretary of the Army and chairman of the Package Coalition, an advocacy group for Amazon and other retailers that rely on the mail service, said the post office reflects the times we live in: “Did you ever think before if I didn’t have the Postal Service, I couldn’t get my groceries online or my medications on time? Or, now if not for the Postal Service, I couldn’t get Mom or Dad’s remains where they should be?”
Harmon, who runs a funeral home just outside D.C., said he has recently been mailing quite a few boxes of cremated remains to Ohio, Iowa and other Midwestern states. Each Label 139 box has a different life story behind it. He knows of those who moved hundreds or thousands of miles to the nation’s capital for their careers, and never had children or died with no close surviving family, leaving instructions to be shipped home to be buried where they were born. He added, “If you talk to a funeral home in Arizona or Florida, where they have a large number of retirees, they probably go to the post office every day to ship remains.”
People also mail ashes to Harmon. Human remains cannot be mailed directly to Arlington National Cemetery. A spokeswoman said that rule is “to ensure a successful transfer of custody.” So those arranging to have a military veteran interred in the cemetery regularly mail ashes from around the country and sometimes abroad to Harmon and other funeral directors nearby who carry them over.
Shipping ashes is not a competitive business. Only the USPS, an agency of the federal government, delivers them. “Other carriers want you to list a dollar amount for replacement,” Harmon said. “How would you replace cremated remains that are lost?”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the emotional cost of a lost Label 139 is a clear example of why the USPS, plagued with slow and erratic delivery, needs revamping and investment. “I keep coming back to the human element here,” he said, when talking about what happened when Scott Egan, 68, died this past summer.
Egan, a former Army medic, was never tested for the coronavirus, but his family wonders whether it played a role. He had slowly progressing prostate cancer but was well enough to be helping homeless people when he fell ill. He was hospitalized and died suddenly, before his son who was deployed at sea in the Navy and other family members could see him.
Covid definitely was why his sister Jean Egan brought his ashes to her local post office in Suffield, Conn., on Aug. 7. She was sending them to her sister in Maryland, who would bury them on her farm under a tree overlooking a pond.
Jean Egan’s husband suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Worried that if someone else came into her house to help care for him they could spread the virus, she decided to stay with him and not make the long drive to Maryland with her brother’s remains. So she paid the Connecticut postal clerk just under $100 for two-day Priority Express Mail.
A week later, there was still no sign of the package. After being scanned at the Springfield, Mass., regional processing center, the tracking record vanished. Jean kept calling the post office. Then she called the offices of both her U.S. senators, Blumenthal and Chris Murphy (D).
“I was just trying to find out where my brother was. I know it was his remains, but to me it was my brother,” she said, tearing up in an interview. “It was not an afghan I had knitted. If that was lost, I could knit another. It was my brother.”
The Egan family was told their brother’s remains had been in a pile of unprocessed mail in Springfield. Twelve days after being shipped, the box arrived, banged up.
Blumenthal said the pandemic has made losing a loved one harder and highlighted “in deeply human, powerful ways” why the Postal Service needs new investment and to be modernized.
Jean Egan said the Postal Service’s outdated machinery and systems caused anguish, but she praised the kindness of a postal employee who drove two hours each way to her sister’s home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Otherwise, the family would have had to wait even longer.
Several postal workers interviewed said the pandemic has made their deliveries more crucial and said they know they are a lifeline to many who are homebound. They deliver once unimaginable items: live roosters and racing pigeons, even balance beams for teachers holding online gym classes. But they say the boxes marked “Cremated Remains” stand out.
Cash, a local postal union official who works in Lancaster, N.Y., with a population of 40,000 near Buffalo, said even in her small town, she is seeing more boxes of cremated remains. She recalled the tears of one woman, a daughter who missed the delivery of the ashes of one of her parents and arrived at the post office asking for them.
“Her hands were shaking,” Cash said. “I am a crier. As soon as I see a little bit of glaze in their eye, I get very emotional myself. This woman had lost a parent. We all know how hard that is and can imagine how hard it is to take them for their final trip home.”