CBS News Poll: Americans' views on death

CBS/AP

Death may be inevitable, but most Americans don't pay it much mind -- and most are unprepared for it, when it comes to having a will.

According to a new CBS News poll, most Americans -- 54 percent -- say they don't spend much, or any, time thinking about their own death. Fourteen percent say they spend a lot of time thinking about it, while another 31 percent say they spend some time thinking about it.

There are also differences according to gender. Most women (51 percent) say they think about their own death at least some of the time, while that is the case with just 38 percent of men.

A Good Death

Is there such a thing as a "good death"? Most Americans (65 percent) seem to think so, while 27 percent do not.

Do You Have a Will?

Four in ten Americans say they have a will, but the majority (60 percent) do not -- including 62 percent of Americans who say they think about their own death a lot of the time.

As might be expected, age plays a role here. Just 22 percent of those ages 18-49 say they have a will, but that rises to 62 percent among those who are 50 years old or older.

Medical Directives

Even though most Americans haven't made out a will, most have made clear what kind of medical care they would want if they were too sick to express their wishes. Fifty-eight percent have shared such plans with their family members or next of kin; 41 percent have not.

Age, again, is a factor here as well. Seventy-five percent of Americans over age 65 have made clear their medical wishes, compared to just 41 percent under 35.

Remains To Be Seen

The public is somewhat divided about the future of their bodies after death. Forty-eight percent want to be cremated, while 42 percent want to be buried.

Americans who do not express a religious preference are far more likely to opt for cremation (67 percent) than those who identify with a particular religion (48 percent).

Also, cremation is favored by more women (51 percent) than men (44 percent).

The Afterlife

Three in four Americans believe in the existence of heaven or hell, including 66 percent who think both exist. Eleven percent believe only heaven exists. Seventeen percent of Americans don't think either place exists.

According to the poll, many Americans who don't believe in heaven or hell are agnostic, atheist, or do not identify with a particular religion; 49 percent of this group says neither place exists, but 43 percent of them do believe in heaven or hell.

Among those who do believe in heaven or hell, 82 percent expect to wind up in heaven at the end of their lives; two percent says they expect to end up in hell. Nine percent don't think they will be in either place.

Death and Animals

Even if money were no object, most Americans would not go so far as to bury their favorite pet in a cemetery after the die: just 35 percent would do so, and younger Americans (44 percent under age 35) are more receptive to the idea than those who are older (28 percent age 65 or older).

Bringing the Extinct Back to Life

Perhaps "Jurassic Park" taught us something: there isn't much enthusiasm among the American public for bringing extinct species (like the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon) back to life.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say scientists should not bring back such species if they could, while just 29 percent would like them to return.

This poll was conducted by telephone from April 16-20, 2014 among 1,017 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by Social Science Research Solutions of Media, Pa. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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