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Think rents are on the rise, well... Cremation is on the rise as space tightens
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Cremation on the rise as space tightens and taboos loosen

Friday, November 17, 2006
By SONI SANGHA
The Record - STAFF WRITER

Survey: Would you prefer burial or cremation?

Pat Bissett, 75, has already decided that when she dies she will be cremated.

The Old Tappan resident settled on cremation over burial for a few key reasons: It wouldn't strain the environment; the funeral arrangements could be tailored to suit her far-flung family who live outside New Jersey; and it fit in with her pragmatic view of dying.

"The body is of no use to anybody unless you donate your body to science," Bissett said. "The person [remains] with you, in your memories."

Experts say Bissett's approach toward death may explain a growing trend: Fewer Americans are choosing to be buried. Instead, cremations, a practice embraced by many Eastern cultures, are growing so popular that by 2025, funeral industry officials predict, they will overtake burials as the most common form of committing the dead to rest in the United States.

From 1985 to 2005, the number of cremations nationwide more than doubled, from 289,091 to 778,025, and last year accounted for almost 32 percent of all funeral services, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

And the funeral industry is moving to meet the demand, building special mausoleum-like cremation vaults and memorials walls where loved ones can visit or commemorate the deceased. Even Major League Baseball has taken note of the growing popularity of cremations: Earlier this year, the league licensed the logos of several teams so they could be used on cremation urns as well as caskets.

"We get a lot more ashes than we used to," said Debbie Santangelo, general manager of Paramus' George Washington Memorial Park cemetery, referring to deceased who have been shipped back to be buried locally. "We get a lot more people who have moved away but want to be buried in the family plot."

The cemetery, built on a little more than 100 acres, has only about 10 acres of usable land left and may run out of space for traditional grave sites in less than 25 years.

The increasing popularity of cremations comes as the country's demographics are changing dramatically, and as the funeral industry continues to see burial costs spiral upward and the amount of real estate available to cemeteries dwindle. But some say the numbers may indicate a shifting in society's notions of mortality and spirituality, a questioning of the mainstream Christian view of the body and soul being equally important at death.

"What's happening in the U.S. is that those [traditional resurrection] views are going away," said Stephen Prothero, a Bergenfield native and chairman of Boston University's department of religious studies. "What's essential about the person is not the body, but the soul. More and more people are seeing themselves as a spiritual being."

The Catholic Church did not traditionally sanction cremations, but relaxed its stance in the 1960s, allowing them provided that there is still a funeral Mass and that ashes are buried. The change in tradition, according to the church, is more a response to the demand than a changed view of death. Officials say the fundamental belief in resurrection -- or the rebirth of Jesus Christ -- can still be upheld, regardless of the state of the body.

"I think it has been gradual, but I think people have asked for it," said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese.

Islam and Orthodox Judaism forbid cremation. Mainstream Judaism has generally discouraged the practice, though some liberal branches of the religion permit it.

The change in philosophy in some religions goes hand in hand with a change in lifestyles, according to Prothero and members of the funeral industry. The nation's culture has grown increasingly mobile, they said, with more retirees leaving their homes -- and family burial plots -- in New Jersey for warmer climates, while their children settle farther from their parents' homes, making gravesite visits more difficult.

"My family, even with all the graves we own, all want to be cremated because my siblings are all over the place," said Jim Killian, a funeral director from the Patrick J. Conte Funeral Home in Elmwood Park. "Graves being neglected seems to bother people more than cost."

However, cost is not a consideration lost on everyone, since even the most basic burial is significantly more expensive than a typical cremation. An average burial -- one that includes a modest casket, a burial vault and a single cemetery grave -- can cost $11,290 in New Jersey. In comparison, a cremation that includes the costs of a basic casket and crematory fees runs an average of $5,433, according to New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association.

Regardless of the reasons, the choice of whether to bury or cremate a loved one or themselves can spark spirited discussion or discord among family members.

Simi Tanner, 31, of Jersey City met some resistance when she announced she wanted to be cremated after death. Her grandparents, who are Baptist, were quite upset with her decision.

"Some of my family members did look at me like I was kind of crazy," said Tanner. "The more traditional part of my family is like, 'Why do you want to be burnt up?' "

Tanner, whose father gravitated toward Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, doesn't see it that way. She sees cremation as a practical solution that respects her soul and beliefs.

"I think there are better things to do with the land than bury people in it," she said. "You can put up affordable housing or you can use the money to feed the poor."

Staff Writer Ben Lesser contributed to this article. E-mail: sangha@northjersey.com

Posted on: 2006/11/17 15:03

Edited by GrovePath on 2006/11/17 15:38:31
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