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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Strife After Death

As the number of crematories increases, so does community opposition. A puff of smoke is all it takes to set off emotions.

November 13, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — The protests rang shrill enough to wake the dead.

After officials in this upscale Marin County town approved a downtown mortuary's request to add an on-site crematory, denizens of a popular bakery next door weren't exactly pleased.

"Bake Bread, Not Bodies!" fumed one sign at a raucous City Council meeting in May. Another read: "Over My Dead Body."

Neighbors winced at the image of a "cadaver incinerator" that would run year-round, 16 hours a day. An Internet Web site created by critics warned of large bodies known as "stinkers" that could take eight hours to burn, rather than the average 90 minutes. Area fliers showed a flaming skull and crossbones, asking: "Citizens' last rites?"

As offbeat as this crematory showdown appears, such public theatrics are playing out nationwide.

By 2025, funeral industry studies suggest, nearly half of Americans will be cremated. Since 1999, the number of crematories has risen 20% -- from 1,468 to 1,825 last year. But in communities from Connecticut to California, residents say they don't want them near their homes, right beneath their noses.

Residents of Aiken, S.C., bought full-page newspaper ads to fight a crematory. In Seaside, Calif., near San Francisco, neighbors formed a group called A.S.H., for Allied Seaside Homeowners. Officials in Goodyear, Ariz., voted down a crematory after neighbors took to the streets.

Most critics worry about mercury from dental fillings, creepy odors and ash escaping from crematory smokestacks. They worry about a largely unregulated industry scandalized by such incidents as the Georgia facility that stockpiled 334 bodies rather than incinerate them. And last month a Lake Elsinore crematory operator pleaded guilty to 66 counts of mutilating corpses -- selling the body parts for research.

One complaint, related neither to health nor environment, tops them all. Call it the heebie-jeebie factor.

"The outrage illustrates how people feel about their proximity to dead bodies," said San Rafael Planning Commissioner John Alden. "Most don't like the idea that a corpse could leave a funeral home not inside a casket but through a smokestack."

Residents monitor some crematories with video surveillance cameras and conduct regular, albeit unscientific, "sniff tests" to gauge emissions.

Funeral directors say concerns about emissions and smells are vastly overstated. "When it comes to crematory fights, the respect for the dead goes right out the window," said Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Assn. of North America. He has some advice for funeral directors planning to add an on-site crematory: Get ready for World War III.

"Crematories always lose the battle of public perception," he says. "Even if a project wins, the sniping doesn't go away. One puff of smoke, some varnish from a burned casket, and they're on your case, saying, 'It's a crematory. It's got to be somebody's right leg.' "

After public pressure, the San Rafael City Council last month passed a law limiting crematories to industrial areas. Cremation advocates blame such moves on Americans' innate fear of death.

"We're a death-denying society," said Tom Simonson, past president of the Neptune Society of Northern California, which conducts 6,000 cremations a year. "People won't walk past cemeteries or live near mortuaries. Some turn their backs on hearses from superstition. It's irrational. Because everybody dies."

*

The nation's first crematory was built in 1874, but about 90 years passed before most Americans would consider an alternative to burials in spit-polished caskets.

In 1963, Berkeley writer Jessica Mitford published "The American Way of Death," an expose of avarice in the funeral industry. She recommended cremation as a less-expensive alternative.

"That book paved the way," said Thomas Lynch, a Michigan funeral director, poet and author of such books as "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade." "That's when cremation went from a statistical oddity to a growing norm."

That same year, the Catholic Church relaxed its ban on cremations.

As Americans became more mobile, the neighborhood cemetery became less of a symbolic family plot. Said Springer: "It no longer really matters where dear old Mom and Dad are buried, because the kids rarely come home; they're scattered across the world."

In 1982, one in 10 Americans chose to be cremated. By 2002 the figure was one in four, with more than 676,000 cremations performed. By 2025, studies predict, 1.4 million -- or 45% of Americans -- will be cremated.

In 2002, California led the nation with 112,000 cremations, or 48% of those who died. Marin County has one of the state's highest cremation rates at 71%. California has 177 crematories.

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