Cremation on rise in tough economic times

December 15, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

When Dorothy Anderson died in late September at age 87, her grandson would have preferred burying her at Woodlawn Cemetery. But money was tight for Edward Rucker, so he opted to save money by having her cremated.

Anderson's final disposition cost $2,500, most of it covered by her life insurance. A traditional burial would have run at least twice that amount, a burden Rucker said he was unable to manage.

"I couldn't afford to spend $5,000, $6,000," said Rucker, 44, an independent truck driver who struggled amid high gas prices. "I would have had to spend my own money, and I didn't have it to spend."

Cremation has been gaining wider acceptance nationwide for decades, and now the abysmal economy is giving relatives of the deceased one more reason to consider this less costly option, funeral directors and industry groups say.

"It's a situation where families in some cases don't have the resources to bury," said Hari P. Close, whose eponymous Northeast Baltimore funeral home handled arrangements for Anderson's cremation.

"We are seeing a substantial increase across the state," said Close, also president of the State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors. "I know my colleagues are expressing the same things. The economy is the issue."

While no industrywide statistics have been released since the economic downturn began, Close and others point to anecdotal evidence within their own businesses. For example, Close's funeral home has seen a huge shift. Last year, just four of its 100 funeral calls were for cremation. This year the number has soared to 40 out of about 100 deaths.

While Close said the change has "made a difference in our bottom line," he has tried to offset lost income by selling multiple urns and other extras to family members. Also, families often hold a service before the final disposition.

The rate of cremation has been rising for years in good economic times and bad, according to statistics compiled by the Cremation Association of North America. Since 2001, Maryland's rate has gone from 24 percent to 28 percent in 2006, the last year for which hard data are available. The association estimates 2008's rate at 29 percent.

The national rate stood at 33.6 percent in 2006. While Maryland lags behind the West and New England, it's far ahead of Southern states in the so-called Bible Belt.

Several factors have driven the steady increase, say funeral directors: weaker religious affiliation, a more mobile society, a desire to be environmentally "green" - and lower cost.

Lately, cost seems to be a major factor, several funeral directors said in interviews.

David Weber, owner of David J. Weber Funeral Homes in Catonsville and Baltimore's Upper Fells Point, said those opting for cremation typically lack a cemetery plot, which can cost $1,500 or so. A lack of life insurance often enhances cremation's appeal since ground burial can cost $7,000 or more.

But many families choosing cremation still request a viewing and a memorial service - everything, basically, but the limousine trip to the graveyard.

"They're seeing a chance to have their full service," said Weber, who serves as a spokesman for the National Association of Funeral Directors, "but yet it costs them two to three thousand dollars less than if they opted for the burial."

In the past six months, cremations have risen by 15 percent at Weber's funeral homes and account for one in four calls. One reason the ratio is not higher, he said, might be the concentration of Catholics living near his businesses. Some Catholics consider cremation unacceptable even though the Vatican lifted a prohibition decades ago.

Even people who reject cremation are taking steps to save money, he said, whether by picking a "direct burial" that skips embalming or by holding the viewing and burial the same day.

At Cremation and Funeral Alternatives, a Towson discounter where cremations start at $975, cremation made up 95 percent of cases through September, up from 91 percent last year. A sister operation in Silver Spring has seen a similar increase, said chief financial officer Alan Sea.

Not everyone is convinced the horrid economy is the dominant factor in cremation's recent popularity. Cremated remains can be buried, too, and some ceremonies are lavish.

"I saw a cremation contract for $12,200 - full church service, limos, jewelry, visitation the night before, cremation casket, embalming," said Mike Nicodemus, a Virginia Beach, Va., funeral director and vice president of the Cremation Association.

But in Rucker's case, cost was the key reason his grandmother's ashes sit in an urn at his Northeast Baltimore house. Otherwise, he probably would have buried his grandmother next to the Woodlawn Cemetery grave where his mother was laid to rest in 1991.

Before Anderson's death, Rucker sought, and received, assurances from his pastor that there was no biblical prohibition on cremation. The pastor told him the body is "just a vessel" temporarily inhabited by an ever-living spirit, he said.

Rucker also knew his grandmother had no objection to cremation; he said she believed that only the soul mattered. And she had urged Rucker to be frugal, telling him, "Don't spend no money on me."

Even so, Anderson got a celebratory send-off. Rucker helped organized a well-attended service Oct. 3 at her West Baltimore church, First Emmanuel Baptist. The family rented a casket for the occasion. Afterward, as mourners reminisced about Anderson, Close took her body to the crematory.

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