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The Simpler Way of Cremation : Popularity of Choice Goes Beyond Mere Economics

July 17, 1987|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

When Goldie Maher made her funeral plans 10 years ago, she already had her mind firmly made up.

"I decided on cremation," the 66-year-old Anaheim resident said. "In the first place, it's convenient, because I'm on a low income. It isn't only that; I have a horror of being put in the ground and having dirt thrown on me."

Cremation is becoming the new trend in the funeral business, its popularity pushed not only by economics but also by a growing feeling that it is often a simpler way to go.

And funeral directors, once reluctant to promote what one industry member termed "an inexpensive disposal service," are beginning to catch up with the times in offering several ways for cremains, or cremated remains, to spend their eternal resting place.

"Crematories and funeral directors are looking at cremation as a different option for handling the deceased," said Jack Springer, the executive director of the Cremation Assn. of North America. "The memorialization can be as varied, or more varied, than the standard burial. What the industry has discovered in the past few years is that if you offer more, the public wants more."

Springer also sees economics playing only a small part in peoples' choice of cremation over traditional ground burial. "Basically, it is because people in the United States are growing older, and moving away from the home area to the Sunbelt. Cremation is thought of as . . . a simpler way to handle death away from home."

Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier is a perfect example of innovation in the funeral business. The 2,500-acre park, which bills itself as the world's largest cemetery, recently unveiled a $1.2-million complex called The Gardens, with traditional ground burial plots, a 200-foot-long black granite wall reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on which names of 10,000 "decedents" (dead people) can be engraved, and a special, quarter-acre rectangle of land covered with thick grass called The Meadow.

The Meadow is the name Rose Hills has chosen for its new scattering lawn, an idea, it seems, whose time has come.

That, for the uninitiated, is a place where a square of grass is peeled back, the cremains scattered over the dirt and the sod replaced. Using this technique, park officials say, there is room for unlimited amounts of cremains, and with the ashes underneath the ground, the land can be used for memorial services.

According to Springer, the popularity of cremation has doubled in the last 10 years. Figures released last year by the Cremationist Assn. of North American in their magazine, The Cremationist, show that 12.94% of the 2,084,105 people who died in the United States in 1985 were cremated. Hawaii leads the nation with cremations at 43.03%, followed by Nevada 40.62%, and California is third with 34.94%.

A recent study done by the University of Notre Dame revealed that those who choose cremation tend to be more educated, have higher employment levels and be less religious than those who choose burial, factors that have not changed since 1962 when a similar study was done. The only change since then is that both groups have roughly the same income levels (in the past, those who opted for cremation had higher incomes). Cremation is also more the preference of the deceased, the study found.

Rose Hills' new outlook on cremation was explained by Sandy Durko, the company's vice president of promotion. As he drove around the grounds, past lush rolling hills dotted with baskets of flowers and Mylar balloons, he said, "There was a reluctance to promote cremation because the feeling was that if we promoted it, we would not be able to sell the property here. But we realized that this is what people want, and we need to provide that service, along with all our others. Because if we don't, someone else will."

Subtle Advertising

Rose Hills is taking a subtle approach with its advertising of the new cremation services. The newest promotion campaign comes in the form of tasteful billboards that feature an idyllic park setting with Rose Hills' name and the words "Funeral and Cremation Services."

The scattering lawn is also an alternative to scattering cremains at sea, which many local cremation societies offer. (A recent California law stipulates that cremains can be scattered only over the ocean or in a cemetery, or the urn can be taken to a cemetary, a church or kept at home--but may not be buried in the back yard.)

For years, cemeteries have provided a place for urns to be kept, such as a columbarium, a vault where urns are placed in niches behind glass or marble. Urns can also be buried, with tablets marking the spot.

Cremation memorial options vary at other area cemeteries, largely depending on how much cremation business they do. At each of Pierce Brothers Mortuaries' five locations cremains are scattered in the Gardens of Remembrance. There is a marker to designate the resting place, as well as urn gardens for burial and niches in mausoleums.

In a Rose Garden

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