EVERY minute more than 100 people die. Most of these deaths bring not just grief to some, but also profit to others. America’s 2.7m-odd deaths a year underpin an industry worth $16bn in 2017, encompassing over 19,000 funeral homes and over 120,000 employees. In France the sector is worth an estimated €2.5bn ($3.1bn). The German market was worth €1.5bn in 2014 and employed nearly 27,000 people, a sixth of them undertakers. In Britain the industry, estimated to be worth around £2bn ($2.8bn), employs over 20,000 people, a fifth of them undertakers.

In religious countries, burial is still the norm; Ireland buries 82% of its dead, Italy 77%. But over half of Americans are cremated, up from less than 4% in 1960, and this is expected to rise to 79% by 2035. In Japan, where the practice is seen as purification for the next life, it is nearly universal. Cremation, direct or otherwise, is not the only rival to old-fashioned burial. A study in 2015 found that over 60% of Americans in their 40s and older would consider a “green” burial, with no embalming and a biodegradable casket, if any. Five years before the proportion was just over 40%.

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