Burning question: Religion is one factor driving cremation trend
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.
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."
Bassey, who wrote about the experience in her "52 Weeks of Worship Project," said a year after the service and cremation, she and her mother and three sisters flew to San Diego, where they arranged for a boat to take them about 15 minutes from shore. They sang songs, said prayers and dispersed their father's ashes into the Pacific — except for the small amount that Bassey still keeps on her shelf at home.
"There was a family decision that rather than trying to spread his ashes in Nigeria, the Pacific Ocean might be somewhere we could actually go and have some time where we are memorializing him," she said. "(Knowing) that water moves and air moves and he might make his way home" to Nigeria.
A larger community
David Augsburger, a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary, said it's important for a family of the deceased to respect the needs of the community at large as well as the wishes of the deceased.
That's what one Utah family did when it decided to cremate a family member but kept the decision private so as to not upset members of the Mormon congregation where the deceased attended church.
"We did have a traditional funeral service in the chapel, even to the point that they brought in a (rented) casket even though (the body) wasn’t in it," an in-law of the family said, requesting anonymity. "There was no mention made of cremation."
The family member said the decision to cremate was primarily a financial one. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' policy states cremation is a family decision. The CANA report noted that cremation is on average about one-fourth the cost of a traditional burial.
"Social respect and acceptance was dealt with, then they dealt with their own private family grief," Augsburger said of the decisions the Utah family made in holding a traditional service and a private interment of the cremated remains.
Discussions that take into account a broader community have helped bring cremation into the mainstream, funeral operators said, as it gives people more options to memorialize deceased family members according to their needs and beliefs.
The Rev. Michael Fick said in his first Lutheran parish in Denver, Colo., only one of the dozens of funerals he officiated over in seven years was a traditional burial. A cultural environmental ethic was a predominant reason people chose cremation over burial, he said.
"The environmental piece is often a very motivating one because they may have found their most spiritual experience in hiking and camping and spending time outside," he said.
Now, as pastor over Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Chicago, Rev. Fick said burial is the preferred choice for both religious and traditional reasons.
"In this area, generations can be buried in the same cemetery, and so it may be important to carry on that tradition, and that would influence burial over cremation," he said. "Some people don’t understand cremation remains can be buried."
Christian denominations have a long history of changing views on cremation. While some cite Biblical references to burial, resurrection and the use of fire as a means of punishment, religious scholars say the main reason early Christians buried their dead was to distinguish themselves from Pagans who cremated deceased remains.
"The early Christians also followed the standard practice of Jews," said Larry Cunningham, an emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame University.
Jews regard the human body as sacred and on loan from God, so any form of intentional mutilation is forbidden and can be seen as an act of rebellion and disrespect, said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who leads a congregation in West Rogers Park, Chicago.
Old Testament scripture in Deuteronomy gives detailed instructions on how the dead should treated, Matanky explained.
"(Cremation) is troubling as a choice, especially in light of the Holocaust, where the crematoria are still fresh in people’s minds," he said. "Choosing anything that has reference to that is very troubling."
When that choice is made, Matanky said, he considers whether the decision was made with awareness of Jewish tradition and teachings before determining if the deceased is deserving of the traditional mourning period.
Cunningham said the Catholic church also considered cremation an act of rebellion, based largely on the church's rocky relationship with the Masons, who cremated their dead as a statement against the church and its belief in the resurrection.
But those feelings have tempered over the centuries, and the Roman Catholic Church is OK with cremation as long as it is not done as a statement against the church, Cunningham said.
Noting that his mother was was cremated 10 years ago, but Cunningham plans to be buried.
"Don't ask me why. I guess I'm kind of a traditionalist," he said.
Industry trends, however, show that Cunningham and others who choose burial will be in the minority before the end of the decade, as more people weigh tradition and culture against their own personal beliefs and understanding of death.
Standing in a showroom of urns, Stewart Walker, co-owner of Walker Funeral Homes, which operates a crematorium in predominantly Mormon Utah County, recalls a time when they didn't have one urn in stock. Now they offer a variety of containers that can biodegrade in water or soil, easily slide open for scattering or come in keepsake sets, allowing loved ones to have a reminder of the deceased close by, like Bassey has on her bookshelf.
"We used to do things one way," Walker said. "Now they have processes that can turn ashes into industrial diamonds or put them into fireworks. If it's legal we can do it. That's the changing philosophy."
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