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Ashes to ashes: Is society turning its back on death?

Faith attendance is falling, cremation is booming -- but is society turning its back on death?

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Monique Gauthier at the building site of the Living Waters Columbarium, which will have 4,000 niches for remains.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Monique Gauthier at the building site of the Living Waters Columbarium, which will have 4,000 niches for remains. Photo Store

Like his grandfather and father before him, Eirik Bardal is bent over a stainless-steel table carefully combing through a mound of whitish remains. More specifically, human remains.

Bardal is standing in the retort room of Neil Bardal Funeral Centre. Behind him is one of the giant cremation ovens that reach up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Before him are the post-cremation remnants of one of the recently departed.

Bardal continues his work.

"This is plastic," he explains, picking out a remnant the size of a small tooth. "This is not Mr. Smith. That gets discarded."

The offending nugget is tossed in a bin that includes other foreign objects, such as hip-replacement parts and various screws that had formerly held bone together. There is a misconception cremation is a process that reduces bodies to ash. Not true.

It reduces bodies to bone fragments that are first picked clean of plastic, titanium and steel, before being milled into powder form and placed in an urn. Or cookie jar. Or a bottle of Jack Daniels.

These days, cremation is booming. In some Winnipeg funeral homes, the cremation rate is more than 85 per cent. Not surprisingly, a cottage industry has emerged to deal with remains: How about getting your ashes spread on a vinyl record of your favourite song? How about being shot into space or being incorporated into a diamond ring?

This is a phenomenon that isn't just forcing the funeral industry to evolve beyond the "loss of the box," or casket. It also raises some uncomfortable questions about dealing with death in the 21st century.

Or, more accurately, not dealing with death.

For Bardal, sifting though bones is simply a matter-of-fact chore most of us wouldn't consider. Or want to consider.

"This is somebody," he says. "But I know picking through here, pulling out the plastic and metal, is the right thing to do. It's got to be done. As long as it's done respectfully, I have no problem with it. There's a side that has to detach. That's what we have do to."

A generation ago, cremation in North America was barely a consideration. It was forbidden by the Catholic Church. Now, in Manitoba, the cremation rate is expected to rise to 68.9 per cent in 2016 from 43.4 per cent in 1998.

The newest Catholic Church now being erected in Winnipeg is the first in Manitoba to have its own columbarium, complete with 4,000 "niches" for urns. In St. Vital, a prominent funeral home has opened the city's first storefront in a strip mall designed specifically to offer cremation services. Meanwhile, local cemeteries are adapting by establishing their own columbarium spaces that in the future will be the eternal home for "hundreds of thousands" of Winnipeggers.

Indeed, if all we are is dust in the wind, then the winds of death are changing.

 

óè óè óè

 

Kevin Sweryd is standing in the storefront of that strip mall in St. Vital asking a visitor, "Does it look like a funeral home?"

It doesn't. For starters, the Bardal Arrangement Centre (no relation to Neil Bardal Funeral Centre) is a modest 1,100-square-foot space -- a fraction of the 18,000-sq.-ft. Bardal Funeral Home and Crematorium downtown.

The funeral home has a chapel and kitchen and space to display and store dozens of caskets. The storefront displays cremation boxes, urns and related services. Most visitors walk in off the street, often while running other errands or shopping. A mixture of casual and curious.

If all goes well, Sweryd, the funeral director at Bardal, plans to open two or three more centres in other city suburbs.

After all, the cremation rate at his funeral home is now upwards of 85 per cent. As a result, the need for the trappings of a funeral home is declining.

Without a traditional service, why do you need a kitchen or chapel? And without a body, there's no need for a casket, which for decades has been the money-maker of the funeral industry.

To survive, Canadian funeral homes have adapted by focusing on cremation services and products. The storefront is an attempt by Sweryd to take the formality out of the funeral. And take those services to the people.

"With a body, you're pretty much stuck with going to a cemetery or a mausoleum," Sweryd says. "With a cremation, the service can be as personalized and unique as the individual wants."

Sweryd is simply responding to consumer demand.

In Canada, the cremation rate has risen to 59.2 per cent in 2011 from 5.89 per cent in 1970, according to the Funeral Services Association of Canada. That cremation rate is projected to increase to 63.9 per cent by 2016.

In the U.S., the jump in cremation rates has been just as dramatic, to 42.6 per cent in 2011 from 3.56 per cent in 1960 -- projecting to more than 55 per cent in 2021, based on estimates by the Cremation Association of North America.

It's a trend that shows no signs of dying soon, either.

 

"We're not seeing an obvious plateau approaching," says Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, based in Wheeling, Ill. "When is it going to top out? We don't know."

So what happened?

Funeral industry experts cite four common reasons: cost; the transient nature of today's society; the decline in religious influences; and -- if you dig a little deeper -- the growing reluctance to face the harsh realities of death.

Economic factors, of course, are the most obvious. The standard cost of a burial with casket runs between $7,000 and $10,000 in Canada. (According to a June 2013 Time magazine article, the average cost of a traditional funeral in the U.S. was $7,775.)

By comparison, a bare-bones cremation service can cost $2,000 or less.

It's worth noting, however, cremation can be just as expensive, or even more so, depending on the myriad options when it comes to memorial niches or gravestones, which even in a public cemetery can cost upwards of $10,000.

In fact, the burgeoning cremation industry has spawned a plethora of unusual alternatives for "cremains" -- at least one of which is literally out of this world. A U.S.-based company called Celestis offers a range of "space flight" services -- from a return-to-Earth option (starting at $995) to the planned "Voyager," which in 2014 will launch your remains into deep space (starting price $12,500 for a gram of you).

Don't like space? How about being buried at sea? Eternal Reefs, of Atlanta, Ga., now has more than 1,500 memorial reefs in 20 locations off seven states. They'll mix cremated remains into cement blocks, which are sunk into an artificial reef.

Music lovers? And Vinyly is a U.K.-based company that offers to "bake" remains into vinyl records, which could be anything from Metallica to a recording of the deceased person's voice. Explained company founder Jason Leach, in one report: "It's a bit more interesting than being in a pot on a shelf."

The possibilities, unlike life itself, seem endless. Cremains can be incorporated into diamonds. Ashes can be placed in lockets, pendants and necklaces.

"It's not just burial or cremation," Kemmis notes. "It's a range of options that's mind-boggling. That's a challenge in the industry. They (baby boomers) like to do things their way, in a unique way that's really personal.

"Maybe the moral of the story is we want to die how we lived. We want to go out on our own terms."

Perhaps the evolution of the funeral industry is just a reflection on society in the 21st century, where the desire to be unique -- to stand out from the crowd and resist tradition -- happens from the moment you are born and given one of 30 different spellings for the name "Kali." Theme weddings and shooting your ashes into space are logical progressions.

How we die these days is beginning to say a lot about how we live. Or where we lived. Because up until the end of the Second World War, when cremation rates were in low single digits in Canada, it was not uncommon to be born, married and die in the same city or town and be buried in the same cemetery alongside your immediate ancestors.

Quick, ask yourself: Where are you going to be buried? A generation ago, that would have likely been a rhetorical question. Not anymore. Families are not only more likely to be scattered about the country, if not the globe, there is a far greater chance your parents are no longer married, perhaps remarried, with stepchildren of their own.

Maybe you've already lived in three or four cities since leaving your hometown 40 years ago.

So who gets buried where?

"It used to be, when you passed away everyone you knew was close to you," notes Sweryd.

Adds Douglas Maughan, vice-president of Cropo Funeral Home: "You kind of grew up knowing where your family was going to be. Now there's opportunities that can take you around the world."

In many cases, cremation equals mobility. Urns can be more easily transported, or even shared among family members. In other cases, cremation simply becomes a logical option for the growing number of Canadians who never really had a permanent address in life, either.

Then there's the religious component, from the relaxing of opposition to cremation -- in particular in the Catholic Church -- to the drop in congregation numbers in most denominations over the last 40 years.

"Definitely, religion plays a huge factor," says Sweryd, who notes strongly religious communities are more likely to have higher burial rates. "I think you'd see a pretty direct correlation. As the number of people who regularly attend religious services declines, the cremation rate rises."

To see how faiths are adapting, however, look no further than the St. Gianna's Roman Catholic Church now being constructed on Kenaston Boulevard in Winnipeg's fast-growing south end. The church, which is set to open in 2014, will include the Living Waters Columbarium in the lower level, with approximately 4,000 "niches," which each can accommodate two remains.

Monique Gauthier, director of the columbarium, said the Catholic Church has supported cremation since the early 1960s (not coincidentally when rates began to rise). For centuries before, the church had viewed cremation as a pagan practice that was expressly forbidden.

There are two stipulations, however:

óè The vigil service and the funeral mass are celebrated before the body of the deceased is cremated and the burial takes place after cremation.

óè The body of the deceased is cremated before the celebration of the vigil service and the funeral mass. The vessel containing the cremated remains is present at one or both events.

"While the church supports cremation," Gauthier notes, "we must treat cremated remains like a body in a casket."

On some level, however, it seems the church's adaptation to cremation might be a response to the aforementioned methods of disseminating ashes -- by concrete under the sea to rocket ships to the great beyond.

"Cremation has become more of a convenient option," Gauthier says. "With the rise, we have to look at the alarming trends that come with it."

However, it's not just that the Catholic Church -- at least when it comes to cremated remains -- draws a distinct line between the heavens and, well, Heaven. Ask enough questions and it becomes apparent one unspoken factor in the rise of cremation rates has little to do with money or a more mobile society.

"We don't want to face death," Gauthier says. "We don't want to think about or talk about it. They don't want to see a body in a casket, so let's get this done quick. But the thing about grief is you can run but you can't hide. You have to face the grief. Coming through it means working through it, not avoiding it."

 

óè óè óè

 

St. Vital Cemetery first opened a columbarium for keeping cremated remains in 2009.

"The feedback has been phenomenal," says the city's cemetery administrator, Jane Saxby. "They love it."

"They" meaning mostly dead people, one surmises.

Saxby is sitting on a small bench near the St. Vital columbarium on a brisk but sunny afternoon. Around her, the first offering of real estate for cremation in the public cemetery is filling up fast; from the option of simply having remains scattered in a memorial garden for $250 to marble memorials worth up to $10,000.

Asked how many Winnipeg residents will end up in this tranquil place, just north of Bishop Grandin Boulevard, Saxby replies: "Hundreds of thousands by the time it's full."

Saxby knows a little bit about the rites of death. Prior to immigrating to Canada, she worked for one of the busiest crematoriums in London. When Saxby was a child, her mother laid out the bodies of deceased family members in the front parlour.

Why? For closure, mostly, and to facilitate the grieving process.

So even while eschewing the virtues of St. Vital's cremation population, Saxby is wary of the trend where more deceased bodies are being cremated quicker, with less in the way of ceremony.

"If you go through those stages of the grieving process, it will heal you faster," she says. "But if you just wash your hands of everything, if you do the quickest, easiest way possible, it takes much longer to get over that grief. They think it's going to go away. It's not going away.

"People think there's that shortcut, to have the body collected from the hospital and have it cremated in the same day. And go to the church and the funeral tomorrow. Doing those rush things hurts many people. Because in a couple of months, maybe a year, that's when it will hit them.

"I think it's a way of not truly coping with the bereavement, the death," Saxby adds. "It's a way of going through the grieving process; a way of getting things out of the way quickly. If you look at how we deal with things generally today, we do things on a very rapid pace. If we have anything bad to do, we want to do it quick, get it done with, and run away from it."

Says Sweryd: "I think we're a death-defying culture. It only stands to reason that people choose cremation, because you don't have to see the casket, you don't have to see the body. I don't think it's the most healthy thing. Having some sort of service is helpful. It's therapeutic."

Richard Wojcik, of Wojcik's Funeral Chapel, used to do four or five casket burials a day. Now they're closer to once a week. The rest is cremation.

"Our society has become so fast-paced, we don't even have time to bury our own dead," Wojcik says. "Even our loved ones. We don't want to see the hole, we don't want to see the dirt. Now we don't even want to see the casket. We don't want to see the body.

"Our society is in trouble. We just want to camouflage everything. We're trying to hide reality."

Meanwhile, Saxby is wary of the practice of spreading remains at the family cottage or in grandpa's favourite fishing hole.

"I see the damage it does," she says. "I have people come to me trying to trace their family tree, and I can't tell them where their families are buried. And they're heartbroken. That's when the distress really kicks in. I think that's why people grieve longer now and don't cope very well.

"Seriously, think of how you're going to commemorate that person," she adds. "How you're going to memorialize them so that future relatives and grandchildren, people can come and find where they were buried. People in this day and age still want to come and sit in the cemetery and be where the person is buried."

Still, the evolution of cremation continues. On Nov. 9, the provincial government announced a policy allowing cremated remains to be scattered on Crown lands and waterways in Manitoba. The change was to "honour the last wishes of a loved one or follow cherished cultural or religious traditions," the provincial release said.

Meanwhile, the technology of cremation available to the general public is also changing. Canada's first and only alkaline hydrolysis system for cremation is located at Gray's Funeral Home in Prince Albert, Sask.

In short, alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based chemical process used to decompose the body as opposed to a 1,300 to 1,900 F oven. It takes longer for the body to decompose (36 hours) and there is almost double the amount of remains (400 cubic inches).

When owner Drew Gray was approached by a client in 1990 asking for a cremation, the request was so rare "we didn't know what to do." He adds: "It was almost taboo at one point. Like other things in society, it's become less taboo."

Today, about 60 per cent of Gray's clients want to be cremated, and almost half of them are opting for alkaline hydrolysis.

"It's been better than I expected," says Gray, in an interview with the Free Press. "Because it's so new, I thought we'd be getting two out of 10. But it's been half and half. I think people who choose cremation are less traditional than people who choose burial."

Alkaline hydrolysis is only allowed in Saskatchewan, which recently amended legislation to define cremation as the "reduction of human remains to bone fragments by the application of heat" as opposed to "the application of fire/flame." But Gray is convinced that since AH is considered a environmentally friendly option for cremation, it could become the wave of the future.

"It's emission free," he reasons. "If alkaline hydrolysis gets legislated in B.C., I think it would take off. You'd see cremation services clamouring for them."

Then Gray makes a very salient point: Whatever trends arise in cremation -- the climbing rates, the rise of countless, elaborate products to dispose of remains -- the genesis of the evolution comes from the public.

Funeral directors don't drive trends, Gray says. Few industries are more reactive to the public's desires, in fact.

"As an industry," he says, "we don't put things on people. We don't dream this stuff up."

 

óè óè óè

 

Cremation has its unique challenges. As one longtime funeral director quips, "You try to explain to a five-year-old girl how grandma got in that bottle."

But more and more, that's exactly where grandma is ending up. That's where grandma wants to remain.

As a result, the debate over our eternal resting places is an entirely new universe. A sometimes heated debate. You know, like creation.

"I talk to people who don't believe in cremation, like it's a religion," Kemmis says. "But it's a fact. People have strong feelings one way or the other."

And that's OK, says Owen McKenzie, president of the Manitoba Funeral Service Association.

"When we think (what happens when we die) is not important, that's when we're going to have a real problem in society," he says. "It's the respect of it. It matters what happens to the body. There's something important about this (debate)."

Back at the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, there is a painting hanging on the wall by the cremation oven. It depicts a rural family, circa 1850, standing at the gravesite of a loved one. There's a reason: Putting the body in the retort is no different, emotionally, than lowering it into a grave.

"That's been everybody's goodbye," Eirik Bardal says. "The hardest part for everybody is when they have to walk away from that grave. With cremation, when is the last goodbye?"

Standing by the oven, Bardal concludes, "It's goodbye to the body right here."

Less dust to dust, is all.

And more ashes to ashes.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: randyturner15

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 ??65532

History

Updated on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 11:56 AM CST: changed headline for web

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