On Tuesday, May 10, Tanya Marsh of McNeelyLaw LLP, also vice-dean and professor of cemetery and funerary law at Wake Forest University, appeared on the NPR podcast “1A” to discuss the evolution of cremation in American funeral practice. “Cremation really started in the United States in 1870s and the 1880s,“ she said. “It was originally illegal, so there was a process where not only you had to convince people to install the first crematories and then convince some members of the public to embrace it, but you had to change the law.” She goes on to say, “Cremation in latter part of the 1800s was really an oddity or a curiosity…It took 90 years, really until the 1970s, to even hit the 5% cremation rate in the United States.” This, she continued, was “followed by what we have been experiencing which is a very rapid increase.”
When host Jenn White asked Marsh about teaching cemetery and funeral law, she said, “The first thing that is important to understand about funeral and cemetery law in the United States is that there is a very state-by-state approach.” She continued, “I think one thing that is surprising to my students is how much variety there is.” Why is there so much variation across the country? “Cemetery law tends to reflect and reinforce social norms in a particular community,” Marsh answered.
When asked about the reasons for cremation being taboo in the early years of the country, Marsh pointed out the extent to which early law and social norms in the nation were based on Christian principles. “Cremation was seen as something that could jeopardize your chances of resurrection,” she explained.
You can read more about Marsh’s appearance on 1A and listen to the episode in its entirety here.