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Cremation Becoming Increasingly Accepted

October 29, 1992|NANCY SCHLESINGER

While no one is predicting the imminent demise of the community burial ground, the increasing acceptability of cremation is changing its very structure.

For reasons economic, social, religious and even ecological, Californians are turning to cremation in record numbers.

Cemeteries and memorial parks, eager to keep abreast of societal changes, are selling more walls, niches and plots for placement of cremated remains than ever before. Meanwhile, cremation societies are enrolling members by the tens of thousands. And, stressing simplicity and reasonable cost, more people are planning their own funerals.

Contrary to popular notion, most cemeteries are not running out of room, even in high-density Southern California.

"We have enough acreage to last, without annexing any additional land, for 75 years," said George Hubbard, general manager of Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside.

Founded in 1946 and one of North County's largest cemeteries at 52 acres, Eternal Hills has some 1,200 dispositions annually--between 35% and 40% of which involve cremation. Both Oak Hill Memorial Park in Escondido and San Marcos Cemetery, public facilities run by the North County Cemetery District, have seen increased disposition of cremated remains in recent years. Although they have acres of undeveloped land (36 in Escondido, 17 in San Marcos) they've recently installed special commemorative walls for cremated remains.

The number of people foregoing the cemetery altogether is also growing, according to cremation society administrators.

"About one-third of our families choose scattering at sea, and the rest will perform private services (which may or may not entail use of cemetery facilities) or keep an urn at their home," said Jeff Simonson, marketing director of the San Diego office of the Telophase Society. "Funerals are much more personal than they once were."

Projections by the Cremation Assn. of North America put the cremation rate at 56% by 2010.

"Even today in California, it's at 40% to 41%," Simonson said.

Similar figures come from the Neptune Society, another cremation service registry, based locally in El Cajon.

"Actually, in San Diego County, we put the cremation rate at 50% of reported deaths," says Rod Hildebrand, Neptune's manager for San Diego, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties.

Cremation is usually cheaper (averaging about $650) than "traditional" in-ground burial; it is easily arranged in advance, and, with a mobile society, the importance of the family burial plot has greatly diminished.

Even the Catholic Church, once opposed to cremation, has deemed it acceptable. And the ecologically minded like cremation's efficiency in terms of space and the speed with which the "dust to dust" process occurs.

Dewey Asmus, manager of Oak Hill since 1979, sees these attitudes as a by-product of life in the waning days of the 20th Century.

"We're more transient now," he said. "At one time, everyone had a family plot somewhere, and when you died that's where you went. Now people bury their loved ones and move on."

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