Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 29, 2004

Cremation slowly becoming more common in area

By Jane Otto

Since 1876, the number of cremations has risen almost every year.

The Cremation Association of North America says from 1876 to 1884, 41 cremations were reported. In 1980, 9.7 percent of those who died, or 193,343 people, were cremated. Twenty years later, that percentage rose to 26 percent or 676,892 cremations.

That steady increase is one reason why Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Winsted added a 96-niche to its cemetery in July.

It’s caused St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Waverly and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie to, at least, discuss the possibility of adding a columbarium to their cemeteries.

“Cremation is not going to go away,” said Kevin Chilson, director of funeral homes in Winsted and Buffalo. “It’s not quite in central Minnesota yet, but the conversation is here.”

State statistics for 2000 show the seven-county metropolitan region had an average of 31 percent of total deaths cremated. In the central counties of McLeod, Wright, Meeker, and Sibley, however, that percentage drops to 18.

“We’ve seen some increases over the past eight to 10 years, but right now we’re steady,” said Bruce McBride, director of Paul McBride Funeral Home in Lester Prairie.

“We live in a more traditional area,” McBride said. “We have traditional weddings, traditional funerals.”

Why cremation?

According to the 1999 Wirthlin Report, a publication that researches current trends in public opinion, the top response people gave for choosing cremation was: it’s less expensive. The other reasons were:

• environmental: 17 percent

• simpler, less emotional, more convenient: 13 percent

• preference: 11 percent

• body not in earth: 7 percent

• ashes can be strewn: 4 percent

• religion: 2 percent

• tradition: 1 percent

A 20-year-old report, however, conducted by Notre Dame University in 1984, showed the No. 1 reason why people choose cremation is it’s the deceased’s preference, followed by the next-of-kin’s preference.

Chilson still sees that today. “It has nothing to do with money,” he said. “It’s a personal decision. At least, that’s my opinion.”

McBride agrees. “That’s what I find here,” he said of his funeral home business. “I don’t think cremation is necessarily selected for economic reasons.”

Though money may not play a part in most people’s decisions in this area, it might in other areas of the state. In the economically depressed areas of northern Minnesota, the cremation rate tends to be higher, McBride said.

In the Arrowhead region alone, 44 percent of those who died in 2000 were cremated, 13 percent higher than the state’s average.

Not only economics, but lifestyles, have led to the steady rise in cremations.

A primary reason that Holy Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Paul Wolf, sees for cremation is people’s mobility.

People who die while south for the winter, are often cremated, Wolf said. “It’s because of the expense of transporting the body.”

Some trends that the Cremation Association of North America lists are:

• cremation is becoming more acceptable.

• environmental considerations are becoming more important.

• level of education is rising.

• ties to tradition are becoming weaker.

• regional differences are diminishing.

• religious restrictions diminishing.

Church and cremation

Today, Orthodox Judaism and Islam are the only two religions that forbid cremation.

Until 1963, the Catholic church forbid cremation. It was considered to be a heathen practice and a statement against the church’s belief in the body’s resurrection after death.

“The church became very literate in its belief not to desecrate the body,” Wolf said. “The body should be reverenced and respected, but it’s not where the soul lies.”

Though the Catholic church eventually allowed cremation, it took more than 30 years until it permitted the cremated remains to be at the funeral Mass.

The church prefers, however, that the body is present at the service and cremated later, Wolf said.

“The funeral director will, a lot of times, suggest that the body be at the service,” said the Rev. Tim Cloutier, St. Mary’s pastor. “There’s no closure otherwise . . . We suggest it for psychological and emotional well-being.”

A “general rule” of the Catholic church is to make sure the ashes aren’t scattered, Cloutier said. “We only have a funeral Mass if the urn is going to be properly reposed in a vault . . . at least in a proper burial place and not on a mantel place. What happens if the urn falls off? It all comes back to respect for the body and resurrection of the dead.”

Like the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, at one time, viewed cremation negatively and for similar reasons.

The church now has no official position on cremation.

St. Peter’s pastor, the Rev. Gerald Schwanke, said he’s never presided over a funeral service where the cremated remains are present.

“It’s probably because of the places where I served,” he said.

Schwanke has been in areas where cemeteries have more accessible land and people are more “old-fashioned and have continued with the custom of a traditional burial,” he said. “We’ve talked about a columbarium and have some unwritten guidelines for cremation.”

When St. Mary’s parishioners talk about funeral rites, Cloutier said, “I don’t dissuade anyone from cremation. I let people make their own choice.”

Regardless of whether people choose cremation for economical, environmental, or religious reasons, as a funeral director, Chilson said, “Usually, when they get to me, that decision was made a long time ago.”

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