It will be another month before the 7,000 immaculately pruned rose bushes at Rose Hills Memorial Park near Whittier provide their famous blaze of springtime color.
By the time they bloom in late April and the first of the estimated half a million yearly visitors arrive at the gates of the cemetery to see the show, construction will be complete on a new Rose Hills development: a 10-foot-high, 200-foot-long polished black granite memorial wall, similar to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. The wall will have room for 10,000 inscribed names.
The wall will front another Rose Hills innovation, a quarter-acre scattering lawn for cremated remains.
In creating the scattering site and the memorial wall, Rose Hills, which claims to be the biggest cemetery in the world, is addressing a growing trend in California and other Western states toward cremation rather than burial.
In the United States, about 13% of all deceased are cremated. In California, the figure is 35%, up 10% since 1980, according to the Cremationist magazine. California ranks third in the nation in percentage of cremations, behind Hawaii and Nevada, and just ahead of Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
The Rose Hills scattering lawn, which will be bordered by traditional burial plots and family crypt areas, can accommodate an "infinite" number of remains, according to Sandy V. Durko, vice president of marketing for Rose Hills. The lawn's sod will be peeled back, the ashes scattered on the dirt and the sod repositioned.
Cremation, scattering and an inscription on the memorial wall will cost $700. A traditional Rose Hills funeral costs about $2,000, Durko said.
A memorial wall inscription alone, to commemorate those buried elsewhere, will be available for $125. The rationale for offering an inscription only, Durko said, is that many people no longer live near their traditional family cemeteries, yet still feel the need to have a memorial location to visit.
"For generations, families have been buried in the same places," said Emanuel Weintraub, president of the Neptune Society, an organization that helped popularize low-cost (about $500) cremation at 21 locations in California, Florida and New York. "But in places like the Sun Belt, where people have migrated, cremation is becoming more popular. Back in the old home town, there's no one there any more. It's a changing life style in a mobile society."
Another factor, Durko said, is that more people are making their own arrangements for when they die. Durko quoted a 1986 national study coordinated by the University of Notre Dame that showed that cremation is often the choice of the deceased rather than family members.
Weintraub agreed that people are more willing to deal with the topic of their own death these days. "The subject of death, like sex, homosexuality and AIDS, has come out of the closet," he said. "People have become more amenable to making arrangements in advance."
Despite the lower cost of cremation compared to the traditional casket burial, expense is not usually a deciding factor in the choice, according to the study that Durko cited.
Religion Affects Choice
The study found that those who choose cremation usually are better educated, more successful, less religious and tend to live alone more than those who choose burial. Protestants are more likely to choose cremation than Catholics. Religious principles are a stronger influence on those who select traditional burial than on those who choose cremation.
Although some of those polled in the study who preferred cremation cited the desire to conserve land, land use was not a factor in Rose Hills' decision to create the scattering yard and memorial wall. Since its founding in 1914, Rose Hills has used only 300 of its 2,500 acres for its 200,000 burials.
Rather, the new project represents a marketing decision for Rose Hills.
"A lot of cemeteries were hesitant to market cremation for fear they would convert families from ground interment to cremation," Durko said. "What they found was that cremation is an option that is being chosen more and more, so people will look elsewhere if they don't find the services they want. Rose Hills is trying to address this issue."
The Traditional Funeral
Other cemeteries still promote traditional burials. Forest Lawn, which expanded to five locations with its 1979 purchase of Long Beach's Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Sunnyside, still emphasizes the traditional approach.
"Our clientele tends to favor the traditional funeral," spokesman Dick Fisher said. "Only one in five requests cremation."
He said Forest Lawn has no plans to actively promote cremation services, although cremation is available at their mortuaries. The cost of cremation at Forest Lawn starts at $789.
In 1986, a California law took effect prohibiting the scattering of ashes on private or public land, lakes, rivers or harbors.