A disposition for the dead

SUN JOURNAL

Ashes: As cremations become more frequent, mortuaries seek to build more crematories, but they encounter plenty of public opposition.

November 29, 2003|By John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. - The protests rang shrill enough to wake the dead.

After officials in this upscale Marin County town north of San Francisco approved a downtown mortuary's request to add an on-site crematory, denizens of a popular bakery next door weren't exactly pleased.

"Bake Bread, Not Bodies!" fumed one sign at a raucous City Council meeting in May. Another read: "Over My Dead Body."

Neighbors winced at the image of a "cadaver incinerator" that would run year-round, 16 hours a day. An Internet Web site created by critics warned of large bodies that could take eight hours to burn, rather than the average 90 minutes. Area fliers showed a flaming skull and crossbones, asking: "Citizens' last rites?"

As offbeat as this crematory showdown appears, such public theatrics are playing out nationwide.

By 2025, funeral industry studies suggest, nearly half of Americans will be cremated. Since 1999, the number of crematories has risen 20 percent - from 1,468 to 1,825 last year. But in communities from Connecticut to California, residents say they don't want them near their homes, right under their noses.

Residents of Aiken, S.C., bought full-page newspaper ads to fight a crematory. In Seaside, Calif., near San Francisco, neighbors formed a group called A.S.H., for Allied Seaside Homeowners. Officials in Goodyear, Ariz., voted down a crematory after neighbors took to the streets.

Most critics worry about mercury from dental fillings, creepy odors and ash escaping from crematory smokestacks. They worry about a largely unregulated industry scandalized by incidents such as the Georgia facility that stockpiled 334 bodies rather than incinerate them. And in October, a Southern California crematory operator pleaded guilty to 66 counts of mutilating corpses - selling the body parts for research.

One complaint, related neither to health nor environment, tops them all. Call it the heebie-jeebie factor.

"The outrage illustrates how people feel about their proximity to dead bodies," says San Rafael Planning Commissioner John Alden. "Most don't like the idea that a corpse could leave a funeral home not inside a casket but through a smokestack."

Funeral directors say concerns about emissions and smells are vastly overstated.

"When it comes to crematory fights, the respect for the dead goes right out the window," says Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

He has some advice for funeral directors planning to add an on-site crematory: Get ready for World War III.

"Crematories always lose the battle of public perception," he says. "Even if a project wins, the sniping doesn't go away. One puff of smoke, some varnish from a burned casket, and they're on your case, saying, `It's a crematory. It's got to be somebody's right leg.'"

Under public pressure, the San Rafael City Council passed a law last month limiting crematories to industrial areas. Cremation advocates blame such moves on Americans' innate fear of death.

"We're a death-denying society," says Tom Simonson, past president of the Neptune Society of Northern California, which conducts 6,000 cremations a year. "People won't walk past cemeteries or live near mortuaries. Some turn their backs on hearses from superstition. It's irrational, because everybody dies."

The nation's first crematory was built in 1874, but about 90 years passed before most Americans would consider an alternative to burials in spit-polished caskets.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, an expose of avarice in the funeral industry. She recommended cremation as a less-expensive alternative.

"That book paved the way," says Thomas Lynch, a Michigan funeral director, poet and author of books such as The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. "That's when cremation went from a statistical oddity to a growing norm."

That same year, the Roman Catholic Church relaxed its ban on cremations.

As Americans became more mobile, the neighborhood cemetery became less of a symbolic family plot. Says Springer: "It no longer really matters where dear old Mom and Dad are buried, because the kids rarely come home; they're scattered across the world."

In 1982, one in 10 Americans chose to be cremated. By 2002 the figure was one in four, with more than 676,000 cremations performed. By 2025, studies predict, 1.4 million - or 45 percent of Americans - will be cremated.

With costs starting at $650 for a basic cremation, the procedure remains less expensive than traditional burials, which average $5,500, not including gravesite and tombstone. Cremation costs can also be as high as burials, depending on added services such as ceremonies and pricey urns.

Fired to 1,800 degrees, the furnace, or retort, reduces most bodies to 6 to 8 pounds of bone fragments. Air used in the process is reheated to 1,600 degrees in a second chamber to further eliminate particulates - and then passes through a smokestack. The bones are mixed in a blender.

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