urn 1

Cremation is being used more often across the nation, including in Wisconsin.

KANSAS CITY — The nation is fast approaching a cultural milestone that says as much about life as death.

Within a year or two, more than half of Americans departing this world will be cremated. Past generations might be spinning in their graves. No viewing the body? No family burial plot? Often no funeral?

A lot of people say, “I don’t want the service. Just cremate my loved one, and I’ll take the ashes and go,” said Jimmy Radovich, general manager of Kansas City, Mo.-based Charter Funerals, which runs four funeral homes and three cemeteries.

By the end of 2015, national rates of cremation and burial are projected to be 48.5 percent and 45.6 percent respectively, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. 

In Wisconsin, the cremation rate is rising about 2 percent a year, said Randy Mundt, owner of Stokes, Prock & Mundt Funeral Chapel and Cremation Society of Wisconsin in Altoona.

When Mundt came to the Chippewa Valley in 1985, the state’s cremation rate was about 5 percent. Cremation now is the choice in about 52 percent of deaths in Wisconsin, he said.

While cremation once was “taboo” for Roman Catholics, now about a third of Catholics — and even more Protestants — are cremated, he noted.

Thinking shifts

“The whole paradigm has shifted. People are more comfortable with it than they used to be,” Mundt noted.

Reasons for the upswing range from the high costs of traditional “full body” funerals to the blurring of religious convictions to the geographic fanning out of U.S. families.

The cremation rate is low in tightly knit rural communities and higher in cities, Mundt said.

One attraction of cremation is it is less expensive than a traditional funeral and burial, he acknowledged.

Prices vary tremendously depending on what people choose, from a no-frills cremation to one with a public viewing and rental casket, Mundt said.

He encouraged people to “shop around” if they need to find a funeral director. They should explain what they want and find out what it will cost, he advised.

Cremation is more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, Mundt said, adding a vault lasts “forever.” On the other hand, cemeteries preserve green spaces, he added.

He sees more people choosing to discretely scatter ashes of loved ones at their favorite places, such as a hunting or fishing spot, he said. (State law doesn’t restrict the disposition of cremated remains, but people should check with agencies overseeing public spaces about rules for scattering ashes.)

As the number of Americans with religious affiliations has declined, more people also are opting for memorial services rather than funerals, Mundt said.

These services might include poetry or people talking about the deceased, and clergy might not be present. While funerals traditionally are done in churches, some memorial services even take place in bars.

There are different approaches, and not any right or wrong way, he said.

Lost in the dust

 In the hubbub of modern life, ashes of the dead can be forgotten, lost or given out for others to handle. Countless quantities of cremated remains — or cremains — sit for years in urns in garages of relatives of the deceased, funeral directors and cemetery superintendents say.

People toss remains illegally from thrill rides at Disneyland, drop them legally (with a permit) from planes over the Grand Canyon and pack them into ammunition or fireworks to be exploded. Some will be worn as jewelry. 

Only about 40 percent of the nation’s cremains wind up buried at grave sites or placed into columbaria at churches or cemeteries, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

What happens to the remaining 60 percent — the remnants of perhaps 700,000 Americans each year? Kemmis said there is no way of accounting for it.

“People take them home, and that’s perfectly legal,” Kemmis said. “But there’s a lot of urns in closets and on mantels, with no plan for them.”

Many funeral homes around the country end up with cremains that are not called for, Mundt said. When he bought the former Prock Funeral Home and Cremation Society of Wisconsin, he inherited unclaimed remains.

He and his staff tried to track down the next of kin, with a Nov. 10, 2013, article in the Leader-Telegram resulting in families claiming loved ones, and later arranged for a common service and burial for the rest.

Legally, remains can be thrown in the trash, said Rick Wiseman of Porter Funeral Home and Crematory in Kansas City, Kan. But he said, “We believe they deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Time to think

Families often need time to deal with the loss. 

For Yvonne Dirkson of Overland Park, Kan., the loss of her husband, Mike, 60, was traumatic. His cancer prognosis took a sudden turn for the worse, and death came in his sleep in September.

“Over the next three days, people were asking, ‘When are you going to do something? Where’s the funeral going to be?’ ” and what day should they take off work, she said. “All of that just wore on us, especially the kids.”

Mike had let Yvonne and their three adult children know he favored cremation. Pocketbook issues sealed the decision. The family paid $1,500 rather than the typical $8,000 or more that’s charged for embalming, full-body casket, funeral service and conventional burial — not counting the expense of the cemetery plot.

A memorial service was held eight days after Mike’s death. More than 100 friends and family converged on Shawnee Mission Park. But his remains rest in a container in Yvonne’s living room.

Grieving family members have all the time they need to decide what to do with the ashes. “There’s no rush,” Yvonne said.

Rituals changing

More seniors and their offspring are choosing cremation, said Karen Hubbard, bereavement coordinator for Village Hospice, a service of John Knox Village retirement community in Kansas City, Mo.

Baby boomers and younger Americans rarely visit cemeteries, she said.

And Mundt said, “When you’re cremated, you’re a lot more portable.”

Many families also weigh inventive ways to memorialize loved ones.

In Grandview, Kan., Adam Brown, 34, mixes cremains into original works of art. His clients seek remembrances of the deceased, personalized with their ashes.

Holding a monochromatic rendering of a woman from Slovakia, Brown pointed out the coarse texture of her pearls and granular shadows framing her face. “That’s actual bone fragment,” he said.

Not all of Brown’s work is what he calls “art from ashes,” but cremation-related commissions are a growing niche.

“An urn on a mantel shows that someone died,” Brown said. “But to me, ashes in a painting show that they lived.”

As more people choose cremation, they still find ways to create death rituals, said sociologist Laurel Hilliker of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “We’re just doing it differently in the 21st century.”

For example, younger generations honor elders with a memorial page on Facebook. And two years ago, the city of Olathe, Kan., opened a cremation garden at Olathe Memorial Cemetery.

Pitfalls of culture

The cremation culture comes with drawbacks. Some experts say it has made death and loss seem more fleeting.

To Mundt, viewing the body is a positive thing because it establishes the reality of death.

“You do see a difference in funerals with bodies present and those without them. There is a different tone to it. I think people are a little sadder when a body is there and maybe grieve more,” he said.

Harold Ivan Smith, a Kansas City, Mo., author of books on bereavement, said too many people rule out a memorial service. Within his family, a decision last year to forgo such a gathering caused distress.

The wife of Smith’s nephew died and was cremated. A visitation and funeral were declined, sparing the bereaved the need to notify friends and relatives. Smith’s sister was upset to find out five months later.

Gatherings fill a psychological need of loved ones and friends to acknowledge something painful altered their world, he said.

The world doesn’t make such events easy to attend, he allowed: “Not all companies are excited about giving time off for funerals.”

Final destination

Back when family members lived close together, rounding up everyone for a burial on short notice was less difficult. But as baby boomers spread far from the nest and their parents invested in winter retreats, cremations became practical.

They took off fastest in Sun Belt states, where retirees relocated or leased winter homes, Smith said. Upon their deaths, “it was easier to cremate and have their remains FedEx’ed” back to their home places.

The International Scattering Society in Lee’s Summit, Mo., deposit remains for those who can’t do it themselves. The Grand Canyon, Normandy beach and Stonehenge are among the destinations.

The key to avoiding the pitfalls of a cremation culture, experts say, is to discuss the disposition of remains with family members before death strikes.

“A lot of people are skipping the funeral services altogether,” said Vickie Mears of Crossroads Hospice in Kansas City. “But without having that opportunity for ritual, that’s when our bereavement can get complicated.”

Tribune News Service