NEWS FEATURE: Families Asking to Witness Cremation Procedure

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. _ For many years, funerals throughout the Pacific Northwest have taken on the same iconoclastic bent of the place itself. Here, cremations outnumber traditional burials; country clubs and favorite restaurants have supplanted churches and mortuary chapels as the venue for eulogizing.

But now funeral home directors are getting an increasing number of requests from family members who cremate their loved ones: More and more, they are asking to watch the container that holds the body disappear into the retort, or creation chamber _ and even to press the incinerator’s start button.

A new funeral home in Aloha, Springer and Son, has a specially designed viewing room overlooking the crematory. And so many families at a Seattle funeral home request to view the procedure that it now charges for the service.

“It’s the same as watching your loved ones being placed in the grave,” said John Springer, owner and funeral director of Springer and Son. “What’s the difference? It’s about closure. Family members want to make sure they’ve taken Mom or Dad or brother or sister to that last step.”

In recent years, cremation has become increasingly popular in the United States, and it is particularly prevalent in the Northwest. Nationwide, 28 percent of bodies were cremated in 2002; in Oregon and Washington, that figure was roughly 60 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America, a Chicago-based industry group.

Many opt for cremation because it is cheaper than burial. Some cite environmental concerns, and others choose it because families have dispersed across the country, and the possibility of transporting, or spreading, ashes is preferable to visiting a distant grave.

Some religions prohibit cremation; they include Judaism, Islam and the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. Cremation is traditional in Buddhist and Hindu societies.

Industry officials attribute the rise in requests to be part of the ritual to a familiarity with Asian customs, as well as a scandal in Georgia two years ago in which a crematory had not properly disposed of the remains of 300 bodies. (In March, the families reached a settlement of nearly $40 million with the crematory and its insurer.)

Some also note that as baby boomers approach the deaths of their elders, they are creating their own customs.

“This is a generation that has not necessarily perpetuated the values of its parents,” said Greg Bolton, a spokesman for Dignity Memorial in Houston, which owns funeral homes throughout the country. “They protested the Vietnam War and were on the forefront of the sexual revolution. This isn’t so different.”

Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management, a national monthly based in Monterey, Calif., said that the funeral industry now often finds itself accommodating wishes that fall outside customary practice.

“For decades, cremation was something that was tolerated rather than promoted within the death-care industry,” said Hast, who has been in the funeral business for nearly 50 years. “Often crematoria have been in a garagelike industrial setting not typically structured for suit-and-tie comfort.

“It used to be that when people wanted cremation, they said goodbye to the body and collected the bill later,” he said. “There was no ceremony whatsoever.”

Indeed, he said, “Formalities have value.”

And so now, Western families who are choosing cremation are looking elsewhere for ceremonial aspects they can incorporate into their services. In Japan, it is customary for family members to watch as the deceased’s coffin enters the crematory. Among Hindus, the chief mourner lights the funeral pyre for loved ones.

But among some people here, the practice raises eyebrows.

Judith McGowan, a chaplain at Providence St. Vincent Hospice in Portland, said she had only recently heard of the phenomenon when a family in her acquaintance was presented with the option. “They were stunned,” she said. “Most people don’t want to know the practical details of the after-care of a body.”

McGowan suggested, however, that it could offer the family a sense of finality. “Perhaps it gives a sense of control,” she said. “Participation in ritual is very important for the family to find meaning in all that has happened in the death.”

Some relatives do want to actively participate.

“We do get requests to push the so-called start button,” said Clay Wilhelm, a funeral director at Little Chapel of the Chimes. The funeral home cremates 800 bodies a year, he said, and each month, a handful of families ask to view the body entering the retort.

Bolton, of Dignity Memorial, which owns Bleitz Funeral Home in Seattle, said it was “not at all unusual” for families to request watching the procedure, but he was unable to give a number.

However, the service is requested often enough that the company has begun charging $125 for it, Bolton said. “It has to be scheduled, and it requires more personnel,” he said. “They can’t go about their normal business because it slows things down.”

Mark Musgrove, president of the National Funeral Directors Association and a funeral director in Eugene, said the trend has been discussed nationally at board meetings, and that 3 percent of his customers choose to view cremations. “I don’t have value judgments on it either way,” Musgrove said. “If it helps them, that’s what we’re here to do.”

DEA PH/JL END GLASER

(Gabrielle Glaser is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. She can be contacted at gabrielleglaser(at)news.oregonian.com.)

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