As Families Opt for Cremation, Industry Expands Services, Choices

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Neighbors in Stafford County, Kurt Zimmerman and Lawrence Mervine got to musing about death one day. Mervine had read that people could have their cremated remains placed in an underwater reef if they wanted. They could even shoot them to the moon.

The men were still talking when they drove past a garden center and paused just long enough to think: What if they mixed cremated remains with concrete to make garden statues and planters?

"We kind of looked at each other and said at that point it could be a very good idea," Zimmerman said.

Twenty years ago, such an idea would have been unthinkable, and certainly not marketable. But as demand for cremations rises nationwide and the funeral industry finds itself personalizing what was once fairly standard, it is no longer far-fetched that two men who knew nothing about the business of death are trying to patent a process for preserving remains.

Nationwide, cremation is estimated to have been the choice in about 35 percent of the deaths in 2007, up from about 28 percent in 2002, the Cremation Association of North America reported recently. And the association's estimate for 2025 is about 59 percent.

It makes sense: The economy falls and cremations rise. Cremation has always been more affordable than traditional burial, and industry experts say that cost is the main reason families choose it. But funeral home directors say that more families are also opting for memorial services and burial of the ashes, indicating it is not only economics driving post-life choices but also transient lifestyles and the desire for personalization.

"Even in death, the consumer wants options," said Michael Lyon, a Clarksville funeral director and owner of the Cremation Society of Virginia. "Whereas 33 years ago when I first entered death care, it was very commonplace for funerals to look identical from person to person, today I am finding that death care is as unique as the life lived."

The Cremation Society's Web site offers a cast-bronze urn depicting an eagle in flight for $2,420 or wind chimes "available in alto or soprano." Alto, it turns out, costs $207, $45 more than soprano. Browsers may order the equipment and staff for a memorial service or choose the "Do It Yourself" package, complete with thank-you cards and matching envelopes.

"I am trying to figure out every single option that is available to the consumer," Lyon said. "Death is like going to the clothing store for a suit. It's not a 'one size fits all.' "

And cremation, it seems, offers the most variety, coming in all sorts of sizes, styles and prices. It allows relatives who live in different parts of the country to plan services around their schedules and split the ashes if they choose. They can pick five urns or two, one cemetery plot in New York and another in Idaho. If Dad was a golfer, there is an urn to match. If he loved flying, his ashes can be scattered from the sky.

During this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, U.S. beach volleyball star Misty May-Treanor sprinkled some of her mother's ashes in the sand, just as she did after winning gold in Athens in 2004. "It's important to me," she said. "But I have more left of her. I always will," she said, referring to Barbara May, who died of cancer in 2002.

The cremation association estimated the cremation rate in Virginia at 28.5 percent in 2007. The rate is expected to reach 33 percent in 2010. But several Virginia funeral homes report that cremations already represent more than 30 percent of their business. In some places, including the Virginia Beach funeral home where Michael Nicodemus is a director, the cremation rate is approaching 50 percent.

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