When Cory West's mom died, he knew what to do: Take her to the mountains.
Frances Miller, who died in 2002, wanted to be cremated and have her ashes sprinkled high in the mountains "so she could see what was going on with us later in life," said West, a Bountiful resident.
So, following a family viewing and a memorial service in which her ashes were present, the family, elders and all, made the hike.
"It was pretty inspiring, I guess, seeing that," West said. "We went up, shed a lot of tears, talked about her and spread her ashes. Usually, we go up on Memorial Day and Mothers Day and spread a bunch of wildflower seeds up there. And then the next year, there's a bunch of different flowers coming up."
Cremations are becoming increasingly common among Americans. But the trend has been slower to catch on in Utah. Nationally, 32 percent of deaths resulted in cremation in 2005, the most recent data available from the Cremation Association of North America. That's up from 27 percent in 2001. Pacific states and the Mountain region, which includes Utah, led with 55 and 53 percent of deaths resulting in cremations.
But in Utah, it's just 22 percent less than half the regional average.
Income, educational levels and how far from "home" a person now lives weigh into the decision to cremate, said Mark Matthews of Palm Springs, Calif., second vice president of CANA's board of directors. But Utah's trends appear based less on finance and more on faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the predominant religion in Utah, doesn't ban cremation. But it is somewhat frowned upon here, one scholar says. That, however, could be changing. The practice has a long history.
Cremation was customary in ancient times in the Middle East and Asia. It was widely practiced among ancient Greeks and Romans and remains so in predominantly Buddhist and Hindu areas.
But cremation was opposed by ancient Jews, who viewed it as an act of idolatry or one befitting of criminals or the unrighteous, Roger Keller, a Brigham Young University professor or church history and doctrine, wrote in a 1991 Ensign article.
Early Christians took a similar stance, traced to the biblical book of Genesis that says God created all things, including the body, and pronounced them "very good," Keller wrote.
Customs began to change in the 19th century, however, due to unsanitary conditions in European cemeteries, Keller writes.
In 1963, the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation, and Canon Law was revised in 1983. While the church still recommends burial, cremation is OK, so long as it isn't done contrary to Christian beliefs. And in 1997, the church allowed U.S. bishops to conduct a funeral Mass with cremated remains, though it instructs ashes be kept intact for interment, states a Catholic Update article, "Cremation: New Options for Catholics," published that same year.
Today, cremation is acceptable to many Christian religions.
"More and more I feel contemporary evangelicals and young people in this generation are saying (cremation) can be just as sacred, it can be just as significant, it can be just as appropriate" as earth burial, said the Rev. Greg Johnson, president and director of Standing Together, a network of Wasatch Front evangelical churches.
People also are looking at "the sacredness of the Earth and the limited availability anymore, and it has just become a far more acceptable and welcome practice," said Mary Kay Williams, administrative assistant to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't ban the practice. According to a statement provided to the Deseret News, the church "does not encourage cremation but recognizes the practice is required by law in some countries. This, along with other burial decisions, is left to the family of the deceased."
Keller notes the practicality of the statement. "You know in Japan you're going be cremated no matter what you are," he said in an interview, "and the (LDS) church accepts that."
Yet cremation is somewhat "frowned upon" among Utah's LDS faithful and remains a rare choice here, he said, recalling one cremation in the past five years, when he was an LDS bishop.
"They're dressed in their temple robes in the casket and you know there's a tie to the doctrine in the resurrection in the resurrection, you will rise with family," Keller said. "But everyone knows darn well if you're buried at sea or the fish eat you or you're cremated, God can put you back together."
Still, the taboo remains for some, West says.
"I think a lot of people looked down on us for having her cremated," West said. One man recently told him: "God's going to have a hard time finding all her pieces to put her back together." And West's grandfather was none too thrilled with his daughter's choice.
"I think it kind of offended him by (her) not wanting to be buried," West said. "He was old-school Catholic. ... I just don't think he was used to it."
Despite deep traditions, Utah's overall cremation trend is up. While cremations here were reported for 22 percent of deaths in 2005, four years prior, the number was 17 percent, CANA data show. The association projects that by 2025, cremations nationwide will nearly double to 57 percent. In 1975, by comparison, just 6 percent of U.S. deaths resulted in cremation.
Spencer Larkin of Larkin Mortuary in downtown Salt Lake City points partly to Utah's changing demographics.
Utah has grown by more than 400,000 people, or about 18 percent, between 2000 and 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Fifty-eight percent of Utah is LDS, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life issued last winter. Fourteen percent are Protestant, 10 percent are Catholic, 16 percent are unaffiliated.
Starks Funeral Parlor co-owner Shayneh Starks attributes the rise to "the perceived dignity in cremation," which can follow a traditional wake, viewing, funeral or life celebration. It's more an alternative to earth burial not a substitute for memorial service, she says.
"Some Latter-day Saints, recognizing there's absolute standard of the church. ... may see this as a more acceptable way than 20 years ago," Keller said in explaining the rise of Utah cremations.
Whatever the reason, mortuaries are providing a wide selection in urns and interment options, including gardens for sprinkling ashes or placing urns, even water features, Larkin said.
The Catholic Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey next month is expected to open its own crematorium to better accommodate families, said Deacon Russell B. Demkovitz, director of cemeteries.
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