Bury­ing a tra­di­tion

With na­tion be­com­ing more mo­bile, cost-con­scious, cre­ma­tion poised to pass burial as fam­i­lies’ No. 1 choice

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah Scully

When Dave Pena started in the fu­neral busi­ness in 1994, he worked pri­mar­ily with Catholic His­panic fam­i­lies who wanted church ser­vices and tra­di­tional buri­als for their loved ones. On the rare oc­ca­sions a fam­ily re­quested cre­ma­tion, the staff would nearly panic, not sure what to do.

Much has changed in the years since, with cre­ma­tion over­com­ing long-stand­ing cul­tural bias as the na­tion be­comes more mo­bile, less re­li­gious and more cost­con­scious. This year likely will be the first in which it sur­passes burial as the No. 1 choice in the U.S. By 2030, seven in 10 peo­ple who die are ex­pected to be cre­mated.

Pena saw the grow­ing ac­cep­tance first­hand while work­ing both at in­de­pen­dent fu­neral homes and with the big­gest com­pa­nies in the in­dus­try. By the time he was ready to launch his own busi­ness eight years ago, he de­cided to spe­cial­ize in the prac­tice.

“I thought, ‘Cre­ma­tion fam­i­lies have al­ways taken a back seat,’ and I wanted it to be dif­fer­ent,” Pena said re­cently in his of­fice at In­tegrity

Fu­neral Care, sit­ting at the pol­ished wood ta­ble where he meets with loved ones of the de­parted.

Glass shelves nearby dis­played urns: curvy vase-like gold ones, wooden boxes with a slot for a pho­to­graph in front and minia­ture urns for fam­i­lies who planned to split up the re­mains or keep some af­ter scat­ter­ing the rest. A sculp­ture of glass whipped up in col­or­ful twists showed off art that could in­cor­po­rate ashes.

The lim­ited casket op­tions, in­clud­ing a rental for vis­i­ta­tions prior to cre­ma­tion, sat in a stor­age room at the end of the hall with stretch­ers and equip­ment.

“It’s an old-fash­ioned in­dus­try,” Pena said of his pro­fes­sion. But, he added, “It’s changed more in the last 20 years than in the past 120.”

A num­ber of so­ci­etal shifts has nudged more Amer­i­cans to­ward cre­ma­tion. And Hous­ton-based Ser­vice Cor­po­ra­tion In­ter­na­tional, the largest death-care com­pany in North Amer­ica, has moved ag­gres­sively into the space.

SCI, which op­er­ates 1,550 fu­neral homes and 467 ceme­ter­ies in the U.S. and Canada, pur­chased the Nep­tune So­ci­ety in 2011, then the largest di­rect cre­ma­tion com­pany. Within two years, more than half of SCI clients were choos­ing the op­tion, the com­pany said.

“Our cre­ma­tion rate is higher than the na­tional av­er­age, and that’s be­cause of the mar­kets that we’re in,” chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer Phil Ja­cobs said.

Cre­ma­tion rates vary widely among states. In Ne­vada, the cre­ma­tion rate ex­ceeded 74 per­cent in 2012, while in more tra­di­tional Mis­sis­sippi just 18 per­cent of peo­ple were cre­mated that year. In Texas, the cre­ma­tion rate was 36 per­cent in 2012.

But stud­ies show the rate is grow­ing ev­ery­where na­tion­ally, even in Texas and South­ern states where the prac­tice re­mains less com­mon.

“Cre­ma­tion just kind of fits with the cul­ture that we have,” said Bar­bara Kem­mis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cre­ma­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica. Peo­ple are tran­sient, cost-con­scious and less re­li­gious than past gen­er­a­tions, she said.

Cre­at­ing op­por­tu­nity

What­ever the rea­son, the Na­tional Fu­neral Di­rec­tors As­so­ci­a­tion pre­dicts cre­ma­tions will sur­pass buri­als this year. Kem­mis’ or­ga­ni­za­tion says that by 2018, at least half of Amer­i­cans will be cre­mated upon death. The rea­son these mile­stones don’t co­in­cide are sel­dom-used op­tions in­clud­ing hav­ing the body cryo­geni­cally frozen or do­nat­ing it to science.

The num­bers cre­ate op­por­tu­nity for providers like Pena, who es­ti­mates 600 of the 700 clients he’ll serve this year will opt for cre­ma­tion.

Another com­pany, Acre­ma­tion, which opened in 2010 out­side Dal­las and of­fers only cre­ma­tion, has since ex­panded to Hous­ton and San An­to­nio. It’s con­sid­er­ing West Texas, too, man­ager and fu­neral di­rec­tor Frank Sed­dio said.

With­out the over­head costs of a fu­neral home, Acre­ma­tion can of­fer ser­vices cheaper, typ­i­cally for $750 to $800, Sed­dio said. Last week he was in north Hous­ton, sit­ting in the small view­ing room with a win­dow into the space that holds two mas­sive me­tal cre­ma­to­ries at South­east Texas Cre­ma­tory, with which Acre­ma­tion con­tracts.

Ray Shotwell, a re­tired fu­neral di­rec­tor, opened the cre­ma­tory in north Hous­ton last year. He doesn’t want to be cre­mated him­self, he said, but “this is the way the fu­neral busi­ness is go­ing, so I de­cided to do this.” Of Sed­dio’s com­pany, he added, “That kind of busi­ness didn’t ex­ist 10 or 15 years ago.”

The idea of a stand­alone cre­ma­tory is so new that Texas law doesn’t specif­i­cally al­low for it, Shotwell said. Tech­ni­cally, he op­er­ates a com­mer­cial em­balm­ing es­tab­lish­ment, but the fully-out­fit­ted em­balm­ing room con­nected to what looks like a small air­plane hanger where two cre­ma­to­ries run above 1,600 de­grees re­mains un­touched.

Cre­ma­tion came to the U.S. in 1867 but took more than a cen­tury to catch on. Ini­tially, it was ap­peal­ing for health rea­sons in the post-Civil War era.

“There were real con­cerns in the United States about hy­giene and death,” Kem­mis said. “Dead bod­ies that were buried in ceme­ter­ies were con­tam­i­nat­ing wa­ter sys­tems.”

Still, as late as 1966, fewer than 4 per­cent of Amer­i­cans were cre­mated.

Im­por­tant shifts came when the Catholic Church con­doned cre­ma­tion in 1963 and later al­lowed cre­mated re­mains in fu­neral masses in 1997. Now, fewer Amer­i­cans in gen­eral are af­fil­i­ated with a re­li­gion and the burial tra­di­tions they dic­tate.

‘Tran­sient pop­u­la­tion’

In the 1990s, cre­ma­tion rates topped 20 per­cent, and they have been climb­ing since.

For many, the idea of be­ing buried in the fam­ily plot at the lo­cal church has be­come ir­rel­e­vant.

“We just have a much more tran­sient pop­u­la­tion base than we ever have be­fore,” Ja­cobs said.

When Kem­mis’ brother died in an ac­ci­dent at age 20, he was in col­lege in Wis­con­sin, their par­ents had just moved to Texas from Michigan, where the kids grew up, and Kem­mis was liv­ing in Chicago. There wasn’t a clear place to call home.

So the fam­ily chose cre­ma­tion, novel to them at the time, and later gath­ered to scat­tered his ashes in the moun­tains in Colorado.

And, es­pe­cially since the latest re­ces­sion, fam­i­lies also have re­al­ized that cre­ma­tion can be more eco­nom­i­cal, cut­ting out costs for em­balm­ing, cas­kets and trans­porta­tion of the body. Busi­nesses like SCI, In­tegrity and Acre­ma­tion are re­act­ing to the de­mand for non­tra­di­tional fu­neral ser­vices.

For fam­i­lies who are un­de­cided at the time, cre­ma­tion lets them choose later whether to keep or scat­ter the ashes or even to bury them.

Poul Lemasters, a fu­neral di­rec­tor and at­tor­ney in the in­dus­try, ar­gues that com­par­ing cre­ma­tion rates to burial is mis­lead­ing be­cause many fam­i­lies choose to bury cre­mated re­mains, whether im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the death or years later. Cre­ma­tion’s as­cen­sion doesn’t mean the end of buri­als, he said.

“The fu­neral home side has not kept up,” Lemasters said, in talk­ing to clients about their op­tions and how me­mo­rial ser­vices or burial af­ter cre­ma­tion can help of­fer clo­sure.

They also can re­place some, but not all, of the lost rev­enue.

Cre­ma­tion is typ­i­cally one-fifth to one-third the cost of a burial, in­dus­try groups say. At In­tegrity, a cre­ma­tion costs $895, plus a con­tainer and any ser­vices. In 2014, the me­dian cost of cre­ma­tion alone in the U.S. was $2,200, the Na­tional Fu­neral Di­rec­tors As­so­ci­a­tion re­ported.

The Fu­neral Con­sumers Al­liance writes that $700 to $1,200 is a rea­son­able price for cre­ma­tion, be­fore other ser­vices are added. That’s about what the least ex­pen­sive cas­kets cost.

Mean­while, for a tra­di­tional view­ing, fu­neral and burial, the me­dian cost was $7,205 in 2014, the fu­neral di­rec­tor’s as­so­ci­a­tion re­ported.

Some providers have been slow to adapt to the changes.

“A lot of fu­neral di­rec­tors have been say­ing for years, ‘Cre­ma­tion is killing my busi­ness,’ ” Pena said.

Fam­i­lies typ­i­cally don’t buy cas­kets with cre­ma­tion, although some do and cre­mate the body in a casket. In­stead, they’ll rent one for a vis­i­ta­tion or use none at all. Now, roughly a third of cre­ma­tion clients get cre­ma­tion only, a third have a full vis­i­ta­tion and cer­e­mony, and a third do some­thing in be­tween.

Rip­ple ef­fects feared

“Casket com­pa­nies, we’re start­ing to see con­sol­i­da­tion, some are go­ing out of busi­ness,” Kem­mis said.

“The rip­ple ef­fects are far-reach­ing — not just for casket man­u­fac­tur­ers and fu­neral homes, but also ceme­ter­ies and other sup­pli­ers of fu­neral prod­ucts and ser­vices,” a spokes­woman for Batesville Casket Co. wrote in an email. The com­pany has re­sponded by of­fer­ing urns and per­son­al­ized prod­ucts for fam­i­lies who choose cre­ma­tion, she wrote.

Sid­ney Webb, owner of Webb Dis­count Cas­kets in north­east Hous­ton, said his rev­enue has dropped 35 per­cent in the last two years. Webb opened the shop with his wife in 2005.

At the Com­mon­wealth In­sti­tute of Fu­neral Ser­vice, Di­rec­tor Jason Altieri said the school has made its cre­ma­tion cour­ses manda­tory for grad­u­a­tion.

Fu­neral homes are fig­ur­ing out other ways to get a piece of the mar­ket that con­sumers are mov­ing to. More are of­fer­ing cel­e­bra­tions of life with per­son­al­ized re­cep­tions and cater­ing in­stead of tra­di­tional ser­vices. They of­fer jew­elry with a loved one’s fin­ger­print or art with ashes in­cor­po­rated into it.

“There’s an in­cred­i­bly rapid pace of change in this in­dus­try,” Kem­mis said. “None of these rates are re­vers­ing.”

Thomas B. Shea

Bery Crispin, of a lo­cal fu­neral home, dis­plays one of the cre­ma­tion urns that are ris­ing in pop­u­lar­ity.

Thomas B. Shea

The Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Fu­neral Home has a num­ber of urns on dis­play for fam­i­lies think­ing about cre­ma­tion over tra­di­tional buri­als.

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