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January 22, 2001




ASHES TO ASHES:
Trends in dying
___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___When Carolyn Leverett's husband died unexpectedly three years ago, she reluctantly complied with his request to be cremated.
___Now the Baptist laywoman is making plans for when she dies, and she knows one
Cem_urn
CREMATION is becoming a red-hot business.
thing for sure: She wants to be cremated and have her remains co-mingled with those of her late husband.
___What's happened over the last three years to sway her opinion so strongly? She became the owner of a funeral home and crematory that performs about 200 cremations a year.
___Both her personal attitude and her business stand at the head of a growing trend in American society. Cremation is a red-hot business.
___In many regions of the nation, and in parts of Texas as well, cultural and religious concerns about cremation are disintegrating.
___More than one-fourth of all Americans who died last year were cremated, according to estimates from the Cremation Association of North America. That's up from less than 10 percent in 1980.
___By the Cremation Association's estimates, the trend toward embracing cremation will continue to grow in the years ahead, with one-third of all the deceased being cremated by 2010. In some regions, such as the Mountain West and New England, the percentage of bodies being cremated could surpass 65 percent by 2010.
___A 1999 study by Wirthlin Worldwide confirmed this trend by polling a random sample of American adults. The Wirthlin poll, conducted for the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, found those reporting they intend to choose cremation for themselves or their loved ones increasing to 46 percent, up from 32 percent in 1990.
___Experts in the funeral business sometimes offer this comparison to illustrate the growing acceptance of cremation: When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the cremation rate in the United States was about 3 percent. The Roman Catholic Church, of which Kennedy was a member, had only two years earlier dropped its ban on cremation, and Catholic priests in the U.S. generally did not allow cremated remains to be brought into church buildings for a funeral mass.
___Fast-forward to 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash. He was cremated and had full Catholic services.
___Because of differences in church polity, Baptists never had an official ban on cremation, although the practice was rare. Traditional casket burials remain by far the most common practice among Texas Baptists, but cremation is a growing trend in urban areas of the state, according to a number of pastors who conduct funerals.
___Bob Beck is a longtime pastor in Tarrant County, now serving as interim pastor of First Baptist Church of Bedford. He has seen the trend toward embracing cremation not only among the churches he has served but among his own family as well.
___In addition to those actually choosing cremation, "there has been a very marked increase in the number of people who are considering that as a possibility," he said.
___He told the story of a series of tragedies that killed all three members of a family in one church he served--the mother, father and a son. All three family members were cremated over that period of time. Ultimately, all three urns were placed together in the mausoleum of a Fort Worth cemetery.
___Such a story simply could not have been told 10 or 15 years ago, Beck said. It wouldn't have happened.
___At Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, cremations also are on the rise, said Leroy Summers, minister to older adults. Because he's served the church 18 years and knows many of the older members, he spends a great deal of time helping people make funeral arrangements.
___"In those 18 years, I've seen a lot more people opting for cremation," Summers said.
___The question often arises when he's working with church members in funeral pre-planning, and it's not because he raises the topic, he said.
___"Many people are opting for cremation. It's less expensive, and burial costs have gotten so high. My own counsel with them is it's something they have to feel right about."
___Yet elsewhere in Texas, cremation remains a rarity among Baptists.
___In Abilene, an Episcopal church recently built a columbarium outside the sanctuary with niches to hold the urns of cremated remains. Yet across town at First Baptist Church, Pastor Phil Christopher said the number of cremations he deals with is quite small.
___On one level, the difference may be found in the fact that Episcopalians offer a different liturgy for dealing with death, Christopher said. But on another level, Baptists in West Texas still take a fairly traditional view of funerals.
___"When we do funerals here, people still pull over," Christopher said.
___Indeed, Texas does not lead the nation in embracing cremation as a trend, even though cremation is a growing trend in the state.
___Data from the Cremation Association of North America show about 16 percent of all Texas deaths last year involved a cremation. That's significantly lower than the national average of 26 percent, but it's still growing annually.
___The Texas cremation rate has increased from 11 percent of all deaths in 1994 and is projected to reach 34 percent by 2010.
___Hawaii, Washington, Nevada, Oregon and Montana lead the nation in percentage of cremations, each with more than 55 percent of all deaths handled by cremation last year.
___Guy Thompson, owner of Thompson's Harveson & Cole Funeral Home in Fort Worth, has been in the business 63 years. During that time, he's seen cremations grow from less than 1 percent of his business to about 20 percent.
___He does not advocate cremation and said he would not choose it for one of his own family members unless the body had been subjected to severe trauma before death or at the time of death.
___Traditional burial offers more dignity and respect for the body, Thompson said. "The body to me is very sacred because it was the vessel that housed the soul of a person."
___People today choose cremation over burial for a number of reasons, and Thompson doesn't discount or discredit those choices. However, he sees the trend toward cremation fitting in with other societal trends, including lack of interest in family burial plots.
___The reasons for embracing cremation are varied, experts report. And in Texas, at least, there's no common profile of who favors cremation and who doesn't.
___"It isn't just people who cannot afford a regular burial, though that is a part of the picture," Beck said. "It's people who choose not to have a burial plot. For them, it's a matter of taking up space. It's people who don't want to have a grave to remind the family of their loss. It's environmental sometimes. ... There's also some simplicity in it.
___"It's just a style," he concluded. "It's a rapidly increasing style of dealing with the body of a deceased person."
___All these factors were considerations for Leverett's husband in his request to be cremated.
___He liked the simplicity of it, the economy of it, the logic of it, said Leverett, owner of Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory near Baylor Hospital in Dallas.
___For his funeral, Leverett used what's known in the trade as a "rental casket," a beautiful hardwood casket that would cost thousands of dollars to purchase outright. Though not obvious to family and friends viewing the casket, the box has something like a tailgate on one end. The body actually rests in a cardboard insert that slides into and out of the wooden casket.
___Though not all bodies to be cremated are embalmed, Leverett chose to have her husband embalmed because she wanted a more traditional visitation time and memorial service. After that, the casket liner holding the body was easily removed and taken to the crematorium.
___She keeps a portion of his ashes at home. That's the part she wants to have co-mingled with her own ashes after her death.
___But she took part of her husband's remains to Branson, Mo., one of their favorite vacation spots.
___"We always hated to see the time coming when we had to go home," she explained. "So I spread his ashes there, and I said, 'Now you can stay here; you don't have to go home.'"

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