In 2019, more than half of Americans will be cremated instead of buried. It won’t be the first time cremation held a majority — that was 2017 — but now we’re starting to see how funeral homes are responding to the meteoric rise of cremations.

According to a study from the National Funeral Directors Association, 55 percent of families will choose to cremate their loved ones after death. Idaho is above the national average at about 67 percent.

Growing cremation rates are due to a number of factors, such as cost, convenience, environmental concerns, changes in religious doctrine and other personal reasons. The rise in cremations is a major shift in the industry and funeral directors are expanding the breadth of cremation services to meet the demand.

“Although cremation outnumbers burial, cremation only accounts for 10.4 percent of industry revenue,” the National Funerals Director Association study said. “The increasing cremation rate has been the most significant challenge to the funeral service industry since cremation is performed at a much lower cost than burial.”

That means funeral directors have to come up with new and unique cremation services to make up for lost revenue as burials decrease.

New cremation center

Wood Funeral Home, a locally owned business with locations in Idaho Falls and Ammon, last month opened a new cremation center. The 4,000-square-foot facility, located adjacent to Wood Funeral Home’s Ammon location, is both a gathering place for funeral ceremonies and a crematory.

“Over the last two years, cremation has caught up to burials, even here in Idaho Falls,” said Brian Wood, funeral director at Wood Funeral Home.

Wood now sees about a 50-50 split in cremations and burials, whereas he, like most funeral homes, used to primarily do burials.

The Idaho Falls area has just three crematories, according to Doug Coltrin, funeral director and mortician at Coltrin Mortuary & Crematory. Coltrin has one and now Wood has two.

With the new facility Wood Funeral Home can service more cremations, as it continues to operate its crematory at the Idaho Falls location. And it provides a unique experience: families can hold a funeral service, then watch and even participate in a cremation as it happens.

The gathering area is separated from the crematory by a wall with a glass window. Through the window, families can see the crematory itself, a large steel cube, nearly as tall as the ceiling. Built into the wall in the viewing area is a green button, which a family member can push to start the crematory, if they so choose.

Wood Funeral Home isn’t the only such business that allows families to view or participate in cremations — Coltrin Mortuary and Crematory gives families that option as well. But Wood’s new cremation center, an all-in-one gathering space and crematory, is the first of its kind in Idaho.

Wood said inviting a family to participate in the cremation process helps loved ones have a sense of closure. Cremations used to be, “Come in a few days and we’ll have your urn,” Wood said. “It’s almost like it’s been harder to serve them what they need emotionally.”

“We’re trying to change the way that the funeral industry views cremation,” he said.

Wayne Erbe, 49, of Ammon, was a recent client of Wood Funeral Home and one of the first to book the new cremation center. Erbe’s father’s wish was to be cremated because it would be cheaper and easier for his family.

When the time came, Erbe pushed the button and started the crematory himself.

“I pushed the button to release what I needed to release, let go of what I needed to let go,” he said. “It was real intimate. It was very therapeutic.”

Why people are choosing cremation

Cremation rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed in recent years and the data from the National Funeral Directors Association shows there’s no sign of those numbers slowing.

The data shows that by 2030 the national average of cremations could jump from 55 percent to 72 percent. In Idaho it could jump from 67 percent to 81 percent.

There are several reasons for the rise in cremations, which are agreed upon by the National Funeral Directors Association study and funeral directors who spoke to the Post Register.

First, some major religions, which used to outlaw cremations, have relaxed their rules.

“Certain religions have had their barriers on cremations in the past,” Coltrin said.

In recent years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church have updated their policies on cremation. Now, for both religions, cremation is not banned but burial is encouraged when possible.

“They don’t ban cremation but they prefer burial,” Coltrin said. “Also, there are certain steps that we have to take with regards to members of the LDS Church to meet the religion’s requirements. I believe the Catholic faith is the same way. They prefer burial as well but they don’t prohibit cremation.”

Wood said a new generation of clients wants to do something different from the previous one, for the sake of trying something new.

“Religion isn’t quite as important as it used to be to the current generation,” Wood said. “A lot of younger people today that are planning the funeral services are interested in bucking tradition.”

Kurt Soffe, funeral director at Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Homes in South Jordan, Utah, said clients are moving away from religious traditions but also moving away from secular traditions.

“The post-war Baby Boomers really went through the tribute,” Soffe said. “They wanted to keep their loved ones, for many reasons, close by. We now have the Baby Boomers who want something different. So many of them are doing advanced planning. The generation before, it was taboo to talk about death. Now, it’s not only talked about, it’s investigated.”

Cremation also allows families to have more flexibility when planning a service. If a family is fractured, living across the country or the world, the service can be held at a later date, Soffe said. And the ashes are far easier to transport.

There can also be an environmental factor. Cremation is the more environment-friendly option. Funeral homes are making biodegradable urns now to serve those clients.

Finally, the most obvious (and the most convincing) advantage to cremation is the cost difference compared to burials.

With cremation, there’s no need for a casket (unless the client wants one), there’s no need for a grave (unless the client wants one) and, unless the family chooses to have an open-casket viewing before the cremation takes place, the body does not have to be embalmed.

At Wood Funeral Home, a cremation with the minimum services could cost about $2,000 less than a traditional burial with minimum services.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association study, more than one-third of clients who choose cremation go with a direct cremation, the cheapest option a funeral home can offer, which includes no services beyond the cremation.

New views on cremation

When Erbe decided to cremate his father last month, he said the decision had nothing to do with religion. And cremation would simplify things if the family decided to move Erbe’s father back to his home state of California.

“We’re all going be with the Lord someday, I believe,” he said. “It’s just a preference. It’s just our shell that’s empty.”

As funeral directors see the industry move toward cremations, they’re beginning to offer more services, such as an all-in-one cremation center or biodegradable urns, but they’re also hoping to change the way people view cremation.

Whereas cremation was formerly a hands-off process for families, now they can buy a slew of services, similar to traditional burials. The only difference is the disposition of the body.

“We have found that once families understand and almost are given the permission to celebrate life in whatever manner they choose, the disposition really becomes secondary,” Soffe said. “In other words, many have thought, ‘I can’t have a celebration or funeral service with cremation,’ and they certainly can.”

Reporter Ryan Suppe can be reached at 208-542-6762. Follow him on Twitter: @salsuppe.

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