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Suburban funeral homes see increase in cremations
By Lauren Salapatek | Daily Herald Staff

The number of cremations is growing and the economy is playing a big part in the increase.


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Published: 8/6/2008 12:08 AM

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After 50 years at Antioch's Strang Funeral Home, Dan Dugenske is seeing more customers comparison shopping the big send-off.

Yes, times are tough, and like other industries, the funeral business is not immune to the struggling economy. People are studying prices and cheaper options, along with a little flexibility and flair.

So, faced with the average cost of a full service earth-burial in the suburbs at $6,000 to $8,000 or cremation with a $3,000 to $4,000 price tag, a growing number of us are opting for the latter.

"Truthfully, economics plays a part as to why people are choosing cremations," Dugenske said. "It's a saving. There's no question about it."

That's borne out in a five-year nationwide study by Wirthlin Worldwide in 2005, "American Attitudes Toward Ritualization & Memorialization," in which 30 percent of those surveyed said "saving money" was their top reason for choosing cremation.

"We have found in studies that every year the cremation rate has consistently increased," said Jessica Koth, communication coordinator for the National Funeral Director's Association. "Studies have shown that cost is one of the key factors."

Statistics from the Cremation Association of North America show cremation rates have significantly increased since 1985, when it was roughly 15 percent. By 2005, 32 percent of all final arrangements were cremations, and that figure is expected to climb to 39 percent nationwide by 2010 and 57 percent by 2025.

"With the cremation rate steadily rising, we are seeing more people calling and asking questions about funeral prices compared to cremation prices," said Gerald Sullivan, president of the Cremation Society of Illinois, which has nine locations in the Chicago area. "People are trying to get an idea of how to best spend their money, while also paying their final respects to loved ones."

Purchasing a casket, which can sell from $2,000 to $10,000, burial plot and grave liner can all add up to be pricey funeral expenses.

Cremation can be costly as well. A family can choose to put their loved one within a casket and to have an entire funeral service before cremation.

However, a less expensive option would be to purchase an urn to store the ashes, or have the ashes scattered across grave sites, bodies of water or other meaningful places of the deceased. Cremation expenses can run as low as $1,000, for a direct cremation, which does not include visitation or services.

Some people are preplanning their final arrangements by registering with cremation societies to save money. Once registered, members can get discounted prices on cremation services at times of death.

But cost isn't the only factor driving the growing trend.

"People are also choosing cremations over burials because there's been a change in lifestyle," Dugenske said. "We are becoming a more mobile society."

According to CANA, trends affecting cremation rates include: people living longer and choosing cremations for themselves; increased migrations to retirement homes; increased levels of education; weaker ties to tradition; diminishing regional differences; increased environmental awareness; and greater flexibility in memorial services.

Religious restrictions are have eased, making cremation more acceptable.

In 1963, cremations were ruled acceptable by the Roman Catholic Church. Not until March 1997, was a person's remains allowed to be present at a Catholic funeral Mass.

The authorization by the church contributed to a significant increase in use of cremations by Catholics throughout the years. A 2006 CANA Disposition Survey, showed 32 percent of all people cremated were Catholic, compared to 26 percent in 2001.

Burial plots and land space are two other reasons.

"Grave sites are permanent, which include a casket and concrete in the ground," Sullivan said. "People are putting into consideration the amount of time it takes to care for each individual grave site and the amount of land space each one takes."

According to the Wirthlin Report, "land space" ranked as the second top reason, at 13 percent, as to why people are opting for cremations.

"In densely populated areas or larger metropolitan regions with less available land, we see cremation rates rank very high," Sullivan said. "In Southern states, there are generally less people and more available land, with relatively flat cremation rates."

Official figures from CANA in 2004 rank California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas as the five states with the highest numbers of cremations. Cremations were calculated to be around 30,000 in Texas to 122,000 cremations in California.

In 2005 statistics from the NFDA, Illinois' cremation rate ranked at 25 percent and is expected to steadily rise.

"Even though studies have shown there are many contributing factors as to why people are choosing cremations, cost remains a top concern," Sullivan said.