Evolving Concepts of Death in the U.S. and Netherlands

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The United States and the Netherlands have long been allies, both politically and culturally, and they share many of the same beliefs about equality, personal freedom, privacy, religious choice, and separation of church and state. In this article, we’re going to take a brief look at how these two countries view religion, death, and what happens to us after death. We’re also going to look at religious shifts occurring on both sides of the Atlantic and how these changes might be bringing the two nations even closer together.

I had lived in the Netherlands for less than a year when my father-in-law passed away at home surrounded by his family. His funeral service was a typical Dutch affair. It was not a religious service. It was a celebration of life held in a bright, modern, and comfortable space. The casket was framed by a vast glass window overlooking the polder and canals where waterbirds drifted peacefully. After a few remarks by family, a slide-show commemorating his life, and a quiet time for saying good-bye, the service concluded. Shortly afterwards, the body was cremated.

The Dutch are a pragmatic lot, and thrifty. They have to be because nearly 18 million people are packed into 41,543 square kilometers, an area a little larger than the state of Maryland. Their strong Calvinistic values – hard work, simplicity, and thrift – originated with the 16th-century Protestant reformation and continue to shape their culture today with the exception, oddly, of religion. 

For more than a century, the Netherlands has been on a direct path to what many would call secularization. A 2021 survey of Dutch individuals over the age of 15 found that only 43% identified themselves with a religious or spiritual group. This was down from 54% in 2012.

I have noticed that the Dutch don’t talk much about death or an afterlife. Maybe they like to keep that private, or maybe they are more concerned with the quality of life here and now. They value dignity in death and the freedom to choose end of life care as is evident in the country’s 2002 legalization of euthanasia under strict guidelines. 

Americans, on the other hand, have tended toward a more romanticized and emotional response to death that is deeply rooted in biblical practice. Funerals in the United States are more formal than in the Netherlands and typically include religious hymns and a service performed by a church official. I think it is also fair to say that Americans talk more freely about religion, death, and the afterlife than the Dutch. It seems to be part of our cultural psyche. 

Only recently has the US begun to play catch up with the Netherlands on its trajectory towards secularization. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 and 2019 noted about 74% of American adults identify with a religious or spiritual group, although the number of Christians has declined by 12% over a decade. Although the numbers are not as low as those recorded in the Netherlands, they are still a part of a downward trend. 

The shift toward not identifying with a particular religion may be leading to concomitant changes in burial ritual and beliefs about the afterlife. According to the US’s National Funeral Directors Association, American funerals have changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 100 years together. They note that cremation rates are on the rise and that 60% of individuals interviewed expressed an interest in green funeral options. The Washington Post reported in 2022 that cremation has dramatically increased in the US as a result of the country’s growing secularization. 

The numbers mirror those in the Netherlands where 6 out of 10 Dutch chose cremation over burial in 2021. This could be related to the low availability of land for burial in the Netherlands, or more likely, by a shift away from strict religious traditions.

Even though more and more individuals do not identify with a particular religious group, this does not mean that they are not spiritual nor that they do not believe in God or a higher power, or that some part of us remains after our bodies cease to exist. It is also worth considering that for some of us who continue to identify with a religious group, our views of spirituality and the afterlife have become more flexible with exposure to multicultural environments.

In 2021 almost 75% of American adults claimed they believed in heaven, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. 62% acknowledged a belief in hell. Even among individuals who denied a belief in heaven, 7% did believe in some sort of afterlife, including one in which  the energy or spirit of a person continues to exist on another level.

Anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy, author of American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century, believes that American death practices have shifted dramatically from a very standardized death ritual to a more personalized one and not necessarily a more secular one. Her research found that spirituality remains very important to people in America. While fewer believe in the classic Christian version of the afterlife being either heaven, hell, or something in between, they do believe that a part of the person continues, whether it can be easily defined or not.

This holds true not just in the United States, but also in the Netherlands where a significant number of responders indicated they did believe in God at least some of the time or in some sort of higher power beyond themselves.

The United States and the Netherlands are multicultural nations that share many political, and historical ties. Both nations are also moving towards faith that allows a broader interpretation and is not defined solely by religious affiliation. This change is reflected in trends toward cremation, more personal and relevant death rituals, and an acknowledgement that our spirit continues to exist after death in ways we may not yet be able to comprehend.

 Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek. (2020, Dec 18). God in Nederland. https://www.cbs.nl/nl-nl/longread/statistische-trends/2020/religie-in-nederland/5-god-in-nederland

 Rand, Paul (Host). (2022,May 12). From Green  Burials to DIY Funerals, How Death in America is Changing with Shannon Lee Dawdy.  (Episode 92) Big Brains. UChicago News. https://news.uchicago.edu/green-burials-diy-funerals-how-death-america-changing

 Pew Research Center. (2021, Nov 29). Views on the Afterlife.

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