Cremation offers an alternative to traditional burials

More Americans are giving up on the idea of traditional burial, opting for cremation to dispose of their mortal remains.

The National Funeral Directors Association reports cremation rates will reach almost 54 percent this year in parts of the country, mostly along the coast and in urban areas, although casketed burials will remain the leading choice in most Southern states.

However, it's projected that by 2035 the rate of cremation in all 50 states will exceed 50 percent.

Cremation gaining societal acceptance

The change from only 50 years ago, when cremations were relatively uncommon, is partly due to a greater concentration of people in cities, with limited room for new cemeteries or the expansion of older burial grounds.

“We’ve found that around urban areas and in college towns on both coasts, cremations are much greater than burials,” funeral director and NFDA spokesman Douglas “Dutch” Nie said. “I think that in the next couple of years that rate may rise to 80 percent.”

Surveys have cited the fact people tend to move around more often and that most religions, except Jews and Muslims, now accept cremation as proper methods of burial.

“For many years, for example, the Catholic Church did not sanction cremations, but that’s changed over the past decade,” Nie said. Now some Catholic cemeteries include memorial gardens.

That’s true in Dover. The Church of the Holy Cross cemetery is a one-block area between Williams and Clara street. It likely will be full in less than 20 years.

“We built a mausoleum there about nine years ago that had about 80 niches for ashes,” said church spokesman Len Dornberger. “Those are all sold out.”

The church is completing work on a new columbarium to hold cremation urns, and more than two-thirds of those spaces already are sold.

‘Millions of options’

Although many societies throughout history have been known to burn their dead, cremation as an accepted practice in the United States began in 1876 when the first crematory was built in Washington, Pa., according to the Cremation Association of North America.

But the practice grew slowly. By 1999 about one-quarter of all deaths in the United States were handled by cremation; it was 36 percent 10 years later.

Delaware’s funeral home owners have seen an increase since.

“In this area, we’re probably at 58 percent,” said Larry Pippin of Pippin Funeral Home in Wyoming. “People who are undecided about cremation seem to want the traditional service with the body present, but because they may not be from here they’re using cremation as the disposition so they can be in charge of where the cremains finally go.”

There’s no longer a long-term generational attachment to a cemetery where one’s forebears are buried, he said.

Torbert Funeral Chapels owner William Torbert has seen a similar increase.

“When I started in 1981, only about 25 percent of our funerals were cremations,” he said. It was 75 percent for 2017 and so far in this year about 65 percent.

Torbert theorizes Kent County’s shifting population may be why. It’s difficult to exhume and move a body if a family relocates, he said. That’s not a problem when a relative’s ashes are in a compact urn or box that can be kept on a shelf.

“I’m sure it has a lot to do with the opinions and thoughts of our customers,” he said. “A lot of people living here are not from Kent County, and cremation offers a huge array of options. You don’t have to inter the ashes, you don’t have to do everything right away or the same day. There are a million different options, things you can do with ashes.”

Still, many funerals have a viewing and service before the cremation, Torbert said. In a direct cremation, the ashes are turned over to the family with no memorial service at a church or funeral home.

Cremations make up between 55 and 60 percent of the business at Faries Funeral Home in Smyrna, said owner Rob Timblin. Faries, founded in 1831 and the nation’s seventh oldest funeral home, opened its crematory in 1990. They average about 280 cremations annually, he said.

He agrees societal changes have prompted the rise in cremations.

“Society is becoming more fast-paced, more service oriented, and a cremation-related service is faster than an old-school, traditional burial,” he said.

Cost also is a reason.

“Generally speaking, cremation-related services are less expensive,” Timblin said. “You don’t have to factor in the cost of buying the required casket, burial vault and all the cemetery fees.”

Pippin noted that it might have cost $175 to buy and open a grave in the 1970s; today that could run as high as $3,000.

“Instead you can spend several hundred dollars for a cremation and take possession of the remains,” he said. “Then the family can do whatever they want.”

The savings are large. A traditional funeral service runs $3,500 to $4,500. That does not include the casket, monument, copies of death certificates, minister fees or the cemetery plot. Casket prices range from about $1,200 to $8,000.

By contrast, a direct cremation costs $1,150 to $1,250.

‘Disposed of in any way’

Cremation is relatively straightforward. After the funeral home obtains permits from Delaware’s Division of Forensic Science and the state Board of Health, the remains are placed in a large retort and heated to more than 1,400 degrees. Soft tissue disintegrates and the skeleton is reduced to bone fragments. Depending on the size of the deceased, a cremation can take from eight to 10 hours, Torbert said. The process is monitored by DNREC for air quality purposes and by the Delaware Board of Funeral Services.

Any metal in the body, like surgical screws or dental fillings, is removed and the bone fragments are reduced by machine until they have the texture of fine sand.

Then, some families opt for interment in a cemetery or columbarium, while others choose a more creative path. In general, remains may be scattered over land or a body of water, but families must be aware of federal and state laws.

Ashes are considered environmentally harmless and pose no public health risk when scattered. According to Delaware code, cremated remains “may be transported in any way in the state and disposed of in such a way as is desired by the person receiving them.”

They may be scattered on private land with permission of the landowner or at sea as long as it takes place at least three nautical miles from land. The Environmental Protection Agency forbids scattering at beaches and must be advised of the scattering within 30 days.

Families intending to spread ashes on public lands such as a park should check with the city or county first, although many do not, according to the legal guidance site nolo.com.

Acceptance varies

The European Federation of Funeral Services reports 99.98 percent of those who die in Japan are cremated, primarily due to scarcity of cemetery land.

Religious reasons are a primary factor in nations like India, with a rate reaching 75 percent, and Nepal, where 95 percent of the dead are cremated.

In nations where Islam is dominant, cremation is rare. Muslims believe a body should be buried as soon as possible.

“We believe the body is a trust from God,” Argum Rashid, imam for the Islamic Society of Delaware said. “You cannot mutilate the body, and that’s one reason why cremation is not allowed.”

Even if a burial is delayed for unplanned reasons, it still must take place as soon as possible, Rashid said.

And just as Muslims eschew cremation, their respect for the dead extends to non-Muslims. They cannot take part in or witness a cremation.

Similar beliefs are found in Judaism-the body is owned by God and it must be returned to God as soon as possible and in good condition. According to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, it is essential to ensure a proper burial, observing Jewish law and tradition.

Reform Judaism still favors burial, but some Reform Jews have adopted cremation, according to senior Jewish educator Rabbi Victor Appell. Most Reform cemeteries still require ashes to be buried in a coffin.

To the stars

A newer industry offers alternatives, such as creating jewelry from several ounces of ash.

The ashes are heated to more than 5,000 degrees. All the elements except carbon are burned out. The heating continues for several weeks until the carbon turns to graphite. The graphite and a metal catalyst is placed in a diamond press and heated to 2,500 degrees at a pressure of 800,000 pounds per square inch, a process that takes several more weeks.

What emerges is a rough crystal that can be cut like a diamond.

Some ashes have been flown into space: Gordon Cooper’s family had some of the astronaut’s remains sealed inside a small container and sent into temporary Earth orbit. When NASA launched its New Horizons probe to Pluto, it carried ashes from astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930.

His ashes now are more than four billion miles from Earth, making Tombaugh, or at least some of his remains, the farthest-traveled human in history.