Last updated: March 17. 2013 2:52AM - 1232 Views

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W hen her husband died at age 50 in 2009, Donna Boyle of Wilkes-Barre was determined that people remember John as he was in life, rather than death.

She decided against a traditional viewing and burial, opting instead to have him cremated. A memorial service followed during which people paying their respects could see the urn holding his ashes, surrounded by pictures of him.

I hate going to viewings, and I didn't want to look at him lying there dead, she said. I'd rather have pictures of him celebrating life.

For Boyle, cremation provided the most appropriate way to mourn her husband and father of her children, she said.

It's a choice being made by more and more people each year.

Cremation rates across the United States have steadily increased, rising from 33.8 percent of all deaths in 2006 to 40.6 percent in 2010, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

The association projects that by 2016 cremation rates nationwide will reach 49 percent, and jump to nearly 56 percent by 2025.

That trend is similar in Pennsylvania and Luzerne County, according to statistics from the State Department of Health. The percentage of cremations statewide increased from 29.3 percent in 2006, to 36.1 percent in 2010, the latest available data. In Luzerne County, cremations increased from 26.3 percent to 33.7 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Lower cost factors in

Funeral and cremation industry officials say the increased popularity of cremation is tied to several factors, including lower cost, greater acceptance by religious denominations and the flexibility in memorializing a loved one that cremation provides.

Cremations generally are less expensive than burials, although the amount of savings depends on several factors, including whether a memorial service is held.

The least expensive option is a direct cremation, in which the deceased is taken directly from the funeral home to the crematory with no memorial service. The average cost for that service was $1,650 in 2009, the latest year for which data is available. That compares to an average cost of $7,300 for a funeral, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Mike Yeosock, of the Yeosock Funeral Home in Plains Township, said he believes cost has played a major role in the increased number of cremations in Luzerne County. Since 2009 the economy's been terrible. People just don't have the money, said Yeosock, who serves as secretary for the Luzerne County Funeral Directors Association.

The cost savings is less if a traditional viewing is held before cremation, which would require the deceased to be embalmed. Funeral homes provide a ceremonial casket, at a significantly reduced cost, in those cases.

The vast majority of people choose to have some type of service, either before or after the person is cremated, area funeral directors say. The ability to still have memorial and religious services has played a significant role in the increased popularity of cremation, they said.

They can still have a significant amount of closure without a burial, said acting Luzerne County Coroner and retired funeral director William Lisman. You can have a religious service and at the completion of the Mass, people go their own way. The only thing you don't do is go to the cemetery.

Boyle said cremation provided the best choice for her family.

He husband was hospitalized and could not work for six weeks before he died. He didn't have much life insurance, and money was tight. He was so sick, I was up at the hospital instead of working, she said. There was no income coming in.

She took comfort in the fact that she was still able to hold a traditional religious service for him.

I had the urn taken to the church, and we had a service there, she said. We did a poster with him at different ages in his life.

Religious acceptance

The acceptance of cremation by religious denominations has changed, influencing many people's decisions. The only denominations that outright ban cremation are Orthodox Judaism and Islam, according to Barbara Kemmis, of the Cremation Association of North America.

Cremation also provides more flexibility for families in deciding how to best memorialize their loved ones, said Brian Harman of the Harman Funeral Home and Crematory in Hazleton.

The Harman crematory is one of three crematories in Luzerne County. The others are the Maple Hill Cemetery and Crematory and the Sunlight Crematory, both in Hanover Township.

The cremation process involves placing the remains, which must be held in some sort of combustible container, inside a chamber that is heated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat incinerates the remains until only bone fragments are left. The process takes an average of two to 2½ hours.

The bone fragments are removed and placed in a grinder and milled to a powder with a consistency similar to a fine gravel.

Once a body is cremated, surviving family members are free to do what they want with the ashes, Harman said. Some take the cremains home and place them on a mantle or disperse them in one of the decedent's favorite places, such as the mountains or a lake.

The most common practice is to bury the ashes, Harman and other funeral directors said. A number of cemeteries have columbariums – a mausoleum-like structure in which the urns are held in niches behind a plate-glass window.

The Maple Hill Cemetery and Crematory and Oak Hill Cemetery in Hanover Township are among the cemeteries in Luzerne County that have a columbarium. Both cemeteries also have a special section dedicated solely for urns.

Funeral directors impacted

As more families choose cremation, funeral homes, cemeteries and other related industries have had to adjust to compensate for lower profit margins.

There's no question there is a financial impact, said John Erickson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association. There's been a definite decline in dollars spent in the overall scheme of things.

Terry Vonderheid, owner of the Wilkes-Barre Burial Vault Co., opened the Sunlight Crematorium last year, in part, to offset a decrease in the demand for burial vaults. I never anticipated opening a crematory, but things changed, Vonderheid said. You're in a situation where everything is going up except your cash flow. It provided job security for my personnel.

Erickson said funeral directors have adjusted by increasing costs for cremation-related services. That ensures the overhead related to running a funeral business is not unfairly shouldered by those who choose traditional burials, he said.

Charles Prohaska, administrator at Oak Lawn Cemetery, one of the largest in Luzerne County, said officials there have adjusted by increasing fees for interring cremated remains. The cost to open a plot for an urn traditionally has been significantly less than for a casket, averaging about $450 for an urn compared to $750 for a casket, Prohaska said.

Oak Lawn changed its policy about four years ago. Now there's only about a $50 difference, he said.

Cemetery officials took the step, in part, because of the increasing number of urn interments, which made up roughly 25 to 30 percent of all burials over the past four years, he said.

Prohaska acknowledged there's not as much labor involved in burying an urn as a casket. The cemetery took the action to ensure it could survive.

The cost of upkeep for the cemetery comes from opening and closing fees, he said. If we were to charge a very low cost, you'd be out of business.

Whether a person chooses cremation or burial, funeral and cremation industry officials strongly urge families to hold some type of memorial service. People need to understand that people need to grieve, and there needs to be a process and place to do that, Erickson said. When you have a service it focuses people on that given period of time.

Vonderheid said he also hopes people, particularly those who choose not to have their ashes interred, will consider the impact their decision will have on future generations of their family.

Visiting loved ones at a cemetery is a long-held tradition, and he fears it might go by the wayside.

Do you have a right to deprive them of a place to go? he said.

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