Cremation is now America's final disposition of choice, set to be New Jersey's top pick by 2030
Fred and Margaret, of Clifton, died one month apart this winter.
The couple, whose last name their children asked to protect, met in high school and were married for 69 years. They were inseparable.
Death was not about to change that.
They made arrangements years ago: Margaret, 87, would take the last grave in the family’s plot at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Lodi. Fred, 88, a devout Catholic who was born some 30 years before the Vatican lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, decided his ashes would be buried by her head.
Perhaps, if there were space, Fred would not have chosen to be cremated, his daughter Donna said. But there was room for only one.
“I think he just wanted to be with my mom and that’s what he had to do in order for him to be with her,” she said.
For space and other reasons, cremation is a decision more and more Americans are making.
In 2016, the cremation rate inched past 50 percent for the first time, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2025, it is expected to become the disposition of choice for 63.8 percent of people who die in the U.S., and by 2035, 78.8 percent.
“What’s pretty interesting is it took nearly 100 years from the first cremation in the U.S. in 1876 to reach 5 percent in 1972, and since then, it’s grown exponentially,” said George Kelder, executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association.
Western states lead the U.S. with cremation rates exceeding 70 percent.
New Jersey, with its large Catholic population and more conservative traditions, lags slightly behind the nation with a 48.5 percent cremation rate but is quickly catching up. By 2030, 64.4 percent of people who die in the state will be cremated, according to the funeral directors association.
The relatively cheap cost of cremation versus traditional burial is a major driving factor, Kelder said. Burial costs an average of $4,741 in the state, including the price for a grave and burial vault and a cemetery fee for opening and closing the grave.
A casket can add $10,000 to that price tag, the association says.
Cremation requires an average crematory fee of $306. An urn is about $200. The fees associated with a niche, a space that holds urns, can total about $2,000.
"In New Jersey, what greatly affects us — whether you're building on a piece of property or burying a body on property — is the high cost of real estate," Kelder said. "The cost of burial continues to increase as the cost of real estate increases. "Cremation becomes an affordable alternative to that."
Weakening ties to religion and place have also chipped away at the number of burials. The days of weeklong religious funeral services with a large gathering of friends and family are over, said Judy Welshons, executive director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association.
People are far more transient, she said. They're less tethered to their hometowns, communities and religious institutions.
When Welshons buried her mother in 1969, there were four days of viewing with two sessions a day, then a church service and then the burial. Her entire family, apart from her mother's sister, resided in New Jersey.
Today, Welshons' family is spread out across multiple states, including Kansas, California, Texas and Alaska.
"We're a much more mobile society than we once were," Welshons said. "The days spent on a funeral today are 25 percent of what they were when I was growing up."
The proportion of consumers 40 and older who feel it is important to have religion as part of a funeral has dropped more than seven percent since 2012, according to the Funeral and Memorial Information Council.
Customers look for simpler, quicker funeral practices, said Lou Stellato, president of Stellato Funeral Homes. Wakes last mere hours.
"Fifty years ago, four generations lived in one house, so everybody was there already," Stellato said. "Now it takes two to four days just to get the entire family back to New Jersey."
Cremation is more conducive to a nomadic lifestyle, he said, allowing the remains of the dead to easily travel with loved ones.
Catholics are prohibited from keeping urns at home or scattering ashes, but even they are increasingly turning to cremation.
The Vatican's reaffirmation in 2016 that Catholics can be cremated as long as their remains are laid to rest in a consecrated place, such as a Catholic cemetery, boosted interest, said Andrew Schafer, executive director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Newark.
The cremation rate at the eight cemeteries the archdiocese oversees jumped from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2016. It is projected to top nearly 19 percent this year.
"The Catholic population has been a little slower to embrace cremation," Schafer said. "You have a part of the population that now — because it's been such a conversation out in the media — is exploring."
Only one Catholic cemetery in the state, the Diocese of Metuchen's Holy Cross Cemetery in Jamesburg, has a crematory. Others have heavily invested in niches and above-ground mausoleums for urns.
“As the need for interment of human cremated remains became more popular, we had to increase or change the services we provide,” Schafer said. “The services and products have changed dramatically to accommodate those families that have chosen cremation.”
Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington expanded its mausoleum in 2013 to include 920 niches. They quickly sold out. The cemetery is now adding niches wherever it can fit them, carving out more space in the mausoleum and retrofitting older structures to accommodate remains.
The state has about 24 total crematories, most of them in cemeteries, said Welshons. Two cemeteries have applied to build their own crematories this year.
“It’s a very traditional industry, one of the slowest to change and adapt to things, so that’s a high number,” she said. “It’s a big investment in time and money.”
At East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, manager and superintendent Gary Sciarrino noticed the market changing some 20 years ago and decided to take the plunge.
The cemetery’s crematory opened in 2000 with one cremation chamber, called a retort, and became so popular that four more retorts were added in the span of three years. Burials have since dropped from 800 per year to 550 to 600 per year.
“We saw that there was such a demand that we had no choice,” Sciarrino said. “We built the facility with the idea that we would have the space to add if we needed.”
The crematory, located in the back of East Ridgelawn’s mausoleum, is now at capacity and comfortably handles 2,500 cremations per year.
The room’s centerpiece is an oversized retort that can handle bodies of up to 900 pounds. The silver unit is loud, filling the high ceilings with the sound of roaring machinery when in use. There are no smells or smoke.
It takes about an hour to cremate 150 pounds, Sciarrino said. The remains are then swept up, pulverized and placed in a white box.
Mourners can watch the process from a viewing room, but few choose to do so, Sciarrino said. The majority opt to pick up the remains from a funeral home and take them home. Others place the ashes in niches in the cemetery’s outdoor columbarium or indoor mausoleum or sprinkle them in a scattering garden.
“It gives the family a little bit more closure,” Sciarrino said of the garden.
The experience of having one parent buried and another cremated feels different, said Donna. She was slightly bothered that her father, Fred, chose the latter option.
“It was a little strange,” Donna said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re taking him to be burned.’"
But when it comes time for her to choose, Donna said she will not hesitate.
“I would like to be cremated, too,” she said. “Just spread my ashes wherever.”
Whatever stigma there once was around cremation has disappeared over the years, said Welshons.
“Fifteen years ago, it was a little startling if someone said, ‘Oh, I told my family to cremate me.’ But it’s not startling anymore. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the exception to tradition anymore,” Welshons said. “This is the new tradition.”
Published by The Record/NorthJersey.com, 2018. Photos by Marko Georgiev.