Cremations increase as attitudes change

Wixom, USA - Eunice Gilchrist prayed several days before making the most gut-wrenching decision of her life and cremating her mother.

Faced with a life insurance payout less than she expected, Gilchrest didn't have enough money for a full funeral service and burial after the 82-year-old died in March from diabetes complications. So Gilchrest, a Baptist, had to overcome her taboo against cremation.

"It's something I never thought I'd have to do," said Gilchrist, who is African-American. "It was the first time we ever cremated anyone in our family."

As the economy continues to wither, more folks are examining their consciences and re-examining beliefs against cremation. In 2000, 26 percent of all deaths were handled that way nationwide, and that's expected to rise to 40 percent by year's end, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Michigan ranks sixth nationwide in total annual cremations, and by 2015, the association expects 65 percent of all deaths in the state to end in cremation. That's up from 42 percent in 2007, the most recent year available.

Cost is one big reason. Simple cremations can run as little as $250, compared to at least $5,000 for funerals and $2,500 for burials. Attitude, too, along with change along cultural, religious and racial lines has contributed to the increase in cremations.

"That's changing with the black community," said Carla Cole, a third-generation mortician and president of Cole Funeral Home in Detroit. "In the past, black people didn't cremate."

Cole said the trend toward cremation among African-Americans is not only about saving money. She said that, like other ethnic and racial groups, blacks are rethinking their own customs about death.

More practical today

Andria Love reconsidered after her mother, who wanted to be cremated, died last month. Love had a hard time honoring the wish because she was brought up believing it is against God's law to cremate the remains of loved ones.

"I was torn," said Love, of Southfield, a nondenominational Christian whose mother was Baptist. "But I couldn't force my beliefs on her."

Finally, Love sought biblical guidance about cremation from a minister and family members.

"They speak against it in the Old Testament but not the New Testament," said Love, who had a private viewing and cremation to honor her mother's final desires.

Patrick Lynch, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors and president of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Metro Detroit, said the economy factors into the rise of cremations, but so does society. As families become more transient, it has become impractical to bury loved ones in hometowns from which they have moved.

"People are less rooted in a community than they were a generation ago," said Lynch."People raised their families in a community then stayed and died there, but baby boomers move from city to city and from job to job," said Lynch. "With cremation you have more portability (of a loved one's remains)."

Lynch said the environmental movement also has played a role in people not wanting to take up green space for burials.

Religions vary on use

Cremation is still shunned by Muslims, traditional Jews and many Christians. The Roman Catholic Church didn't permit it until 1963 and still prefers burial. The religious taboos stem from the belief that man is created in God's likeness, the promise of eternal life and detailed descriptions of burials in the Bible, Torah and Quran.

For many, the Genesis verse "you are dust and to dust you shall return" is a clear instruction that bodies should be buried in the ground.

"(Cremation is) desecration of the body," said David Techner, funeral director of the Ira Kaufman Funeral Home in Southfield. "We come from the earth. We go back to the earth, pure and simple."

Cremation is the norm and ritualized in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that emphasize the ephemeral nature of life.

In the United States, cremation rates are highest in Northeastern and Western states, while they're lowest in traditional Bible Belt states including Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky.

As social attitudes regarding cremation evolve, so, too, do the customs surrounding the practice.

Stephen Kemp, the owner of Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, said urns have become more personalized, and jewelry that holds small amounts of ashes is popular. He said people can still have a traditional funeral with a visitation of the body and have a cremation afterward. He added that cremated remains can also be buried in a plot.

"People have different kinds of options," said Kemp. "Pastors are beginning to say it makes more sense to do cremations, especially when money is tight."

'Wrestling with it'

The Rev. Edward Branch, pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church in Detroit, said he has counseled more people seeking spiritual guidance on the issue of cremation.

"They come to me for counseling about their decision and to ensure that by making their decision (about cremation) they are not violating the will of God," said Branch.

"They're really wrestling with it more as a moral issue. I give them Scriptures (and) we assure them that they will see their loved ones again and that nothing can keep the soul and the spirit from the presence of God."