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Burning question: Religion is one factor driving cremation trend

Published: Friday, Sept. 13 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

A bookshelf in the home of Pamay Bassey displays a small urn containing some of the ashes of her father, who immigrated from Nigeria in 1960 and died of cancer in 2009. The black book in back of the urn is a Bible written in Ibibio, the native tongue of Bassey?s father.

Pamay Bassey

Among the knickknacks on the shelves of Pamay Bassey's home office in Chicago is small black urn with a gold motif standing next to a Bible written in Ibibio, a Nigerian language.

The decorative 2-inch container holds some of the cremated remains of her father, a Christian who had the rest of his ashes sprinkled into the Pacific Ocean in a private family service.

"A little part of me knows he wanted to have his ashes spread in his childhood home," Bassey said. "I figure at some point I will go back to Nigeria and kind of grant that last wish."

Bassey's experience represents the changing attitudes among religious Americans toward cremation, which is rising in popularity in the United States and Canada, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The organization's latest figures show a 9 percent increase in cremations from 2007 to 2012, and the trade group projects that by 2016 more than 55 percent of Americans will choose cremation when they die.

"Religion is among the top five trends driving the popularity of cremation," said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of CANA, with cost being the main driver.

The association's 2011 annual report said surveys have found that many religions are more tolerant today of a practice some once considered open rebellion against tenets that deal with death and the disposal of the body. “In some cases, churches have even begun to plan columbaria (a room or garden area where urns are stored in niches) as part of the church property, so those associated with the church can have their final resting place on church grounds,” the report concluded.

Familial feelings

Despite national trends, not everyone is Bassey's family was comfortable with the idea of her father being cremated.

"My uncle is a devout Christian, and he thought it was borderline blasphemous," Bassey recalled. "He actually said a prayer and said, 'I hope no one suffers any mental issues after what’s happened,' because I think he was so troubled."

But Bassey said her uncle didn't understand how her father came to his decision to be cremated. She described the decision as a combination of his approach to faith and his definition of home. He was raised Catholic and liked to attend a traditional Latin mass, but he also explored other religious disciplines and encouraged his children, who were raised nondenominational Christians, to do the same.

"I don't remember exactly when he told me he wanted to be cremated, but it was long before he died of cancer," she said of her father who immigrated to the United States in 1960. "I think it had to do with his wide philosophical reach and ... also because he felt, 'Why would I pick an arbitrary cemetery in Atlanta to be buried just because I happened to wander into here as an immigrant? It’s not home for me.'"

The CANA report said the ease of transporting remains to where the deceased would want to be interred or scattered is another factor behind the popularity of cremation.

Bassey's father also asked that there not be a memorial service, but she said her mother couldn't accommodate that wish because there were too many family and friends that needed that time as a way to say goodbye.

The morning after the service, Bassey stood alone in sterile crematorium as funeral home staff slid a cardboard box containing the body of her father into a large industrial oven, closed the heavy, insulated steel door and flipped the switch on.

"You can only have the courage to stand in that room because you love that person who made that request of you," she said. "And you want to honor their wishes."

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