Originally created 03/08/06

'Bury me not' is becoming a popular refrain



AURORA, Ind. - Beth McGinley has no use for burial plots. She wants her friends to sprinkle her ashes somewhere memorable when she dies.

"My main motivating factor is the cost of funerals," said Ms. McGinley, 53, of Indianapolis, who began planning her cremation after being diagnosed with lung cancer last spring. "That whole industry is not any place I want to spend my money."

Joe Sigler of Indianapolis grew up with the three-day viewings and funeral ceremonies traditional to his Spanish heritage. He was surprised when his 77-year-old father decided to be cremated.

Mr. Sigler, 53, sprinkled some of his father's ashes along the Gulf Coast at a family ceremony and plans to spread the rest during a trip to Spain next summer. He hopes his family will do the same for him when his time comes.

"I believe when you cremate someone, it's the old saying of ashes to ashes, dust to dust," he said. "I don't get $15,000 funerals."

Millions of people like Ms. McGinley and Mr. Sigler are shunning traditional burials in favor of cremation, whose rates have risen to 30 percent of funeral arrangements and are poised to climb to more than 45 percent by 2025.

The shift has forced casket makers to retool their traditional business approach, offering new products and packages that include viewings and other elements of traditional services designed to capture cremation customers.

The industry's big three - Batesville Casket Co., York Casket and Aurora Casket Co.- have introduced their own cremation lines, with items ranging from basic cardboard boxes to $3,000 fully combustible caskets to $12,000 one-of-a-kind urns. Batesville produces a glossy, Pottery Barn-style cremation catalog whose "spring/summer" cover features a single purple flower blooming from a gleaming Nambe keepsake urn.

"They've all diversified into cremation products, trying to lose the burial business to themselves," said Elliott Schlang, an analyst at Soleil Securities' Great Lakes Review who covers Matthews International Corp. and Hillenbrand Industries Inc., parent companies of York and Batesville.

Cremation as a modern practice began gaining mass appeal in the United States in the 1960s, thanks in part to a Vatican blessing of the practice.

In 1970, nearly everyone used a casket, but by 2005, that figure had dropped to about 71 percent, said George W. Lemke, executive director of the Lake Bluff, Ill.-based Casket and Funeral Supply Association.

Some of the shift is attributed to cost. A basic cremation, which requires little more than a cardboard box for the body and a container for cremains, can cost thousands less than a traditional burial with high-end casket, burial plot, viewings and full funeral service.

"Burial has been associated, at least for the baby boomers, with being overwrought and overdone and too traditional and cookie cutter," said Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University and author of the book Purified by Fire.

Cremation rates are highest in western states. Nevada has the highest rate - 67.1 percent. Hawaii and Washington follow with 67.5 percent and 65.1 percent, respectively. But the practice has affected casket makers nationwide, including Aurora Casket in southeastern Indiana.

Jason Barrott, the company's director of marketing development, is the fifth generation of his family to work in the business.

"When my dad was my age, it was probably harder for him to think too much about a 30 percent cremation rate," Mr. Barrott said. "Now it's here and we can't ignore it."

In December, Aurora debuted its Journey line, branding for the first time its urns, cremation caskets and tokens for families.

Casket makers and funeral homes also have developed packages combining cremation with elements of a traditional burial, such as viewings, memorial services and carved stone markers.

The average cremation - without the cost of burial and other fees - is about $1,850, said Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. But add an elaborate urn, a hand-carved wooden casket, full funeral or fees for space in a columbarium and the price can rival, if not exceed, a traditional burial, which runs about $6,000 not including a plot and other fees.