Once rare, cremation is becoming the new norm
PITTSBURGH (AP) — When Scott Beinhauer’s forebears expanded their funeral business in 1921 with a location just south of the then-new Liberty Tunnel, they added a rare piece of equipment: a crematory.
For nearly a century it stood as the second-oldest crematory in use in the nation, although it would have received only occasional use for its first few decades, when more than 95 percent of Americans were still opting for burial.
That began to change in the 1960s, and now the nation has reached a cultural tipping point, with cremations outnumbering burials. The Memorial Day tradition of paying respects for the departed are increasingly taking place in columbariums rather than graveyards.
The Beinhauer funeral home on the Dormont-Beechview line has responded to the trend by replacing its historic crematory with a state-of-the-art one with computerized controls — and by expanding the chapel and family waiting area around it so that relatives can be there during the process and participate if they choose.
The LeMoyne Crematory, on the outskirts of Washington, Pennsylvania, may be the nation’s first crematory. The LeMoyne facility was designed so that flames would never touch the bodies being cremated. The first cremation took place there in 1876; the last in 1901.
Beinhauer, director of operations for the Beinhauer Family Funeral Homes and Cremation Services, said nearly half of its clients opt for cremation.
Although a basic cremation is less expensive than burial, that’s not the main reason for it.
Often it’s a “personal wish,” he said. “Some of it is religious or cultural.”
Some clients are members of Pittsburgh’s large Hindu community, who incorporate ancient rites and extensive family participation into the process. Others simply prefer cremation for reasons that vary from simplicity to environmental concerns to cost.
In a more mobile society, some families opt for cremation so that the loved one’s remains could be more easily moved if the family moves. Plus, it’s easier to schedule a memorial service weeks or months after the death if the body is already disposed of.
“The family that chooses cremation has so many more options,” Beinhauer said. “They can still have a celebration of life without the body present, with the urn present, without the urn present.”
Cremations outnumbered burials in the United States for the first time on record in 2015, the most recent figures available, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That year, cremations accounted for 49 percent of deaths compared with burials at 45 percent.
Patrick Lanigan, a former board member of the association and owner of a funeral home and crematory in East Pittsburgh, said that while a minority of clients who opt for cremation shun formal rituals, about three-quarters also do have such traditions as a church funeral, viewing or memorial service.
“Some people like the simplicity of it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s convenient when services are postponed for long periods of time. Sometimes it’s personal preference: Some people don’t want to be buried in the ground.”
The highest cremation rates are in more socially and religiously liberal states, accounting for three in four deaths in Oregon and Washington state. The lowest rates are in more conservative Bible Belt and Appalachian states such as Mississippi (21 percent) and West Virginia (32 percent).
The map of state cremation rates resembles a presidential Electoral College map, with the highest rates in Democratic-voting states and the lowest in Republican-trending states. (The main exception to the red-casket, blue-urn model is in the more libertarian Western states, which trend toward cremation and Republican votes).
The states with the lowest cremation rates also tend to be the same ones the Pew Research Center lists as most religious.
Cremation rates are in the middle in purple states like Pennsylvania (45 percent) and Ohio (44 percent). It’s common enough that Pennsylvania has 169 crematories and Ohio has 127, according to the association.
But while cremation may have once been a marker of the nation’s culture wars, it’s less so now.
The rate has been steadily increasing everywhere in the United States since the 1960s, when it rose above 5 percent for the first time.
That’s also when the Roman Catholic Church began to permit the practice, with restrictions. The church once used to forbid cremation as a symptom of religious deviance and what a 19th-century pope called a “detestable abuse.” Pope Paul VI decreed that cremation was permissible as long as it wasn’t conducted as a deliberate statement denying the doctrine of the resurrection.
The Catholic Church still voices preference for burial, and in cases of cremation, the church requires the family to make sure the body is respectfully interred in a cemetery or columbarium. The ashes cannot be scattered in nature, separated among loved ones, or stored in a home or similar setting, according to church rubrics.
The Rev. David Bonnar, pastor of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Mt. Lebanon, said he has seen a “marked increase in cremations” in his 29 years in the priesthood. “Cost is certainly a factor along with convenience,” he said.
His parish asks families who are having loved ones cremated to sign a form promising to have the remains interred. “It is a very sensitive topic that demands a pastoral touch,” he said.
Cremation has also become a common practice among Protestants, including more conservative evangelicals.
In his nearly 20 years of presiding at funerals at Orchard Hill Church, Rob Bohnenstengel said he has seen an increasing number of families opting for cremation.
But as evangelicals placing a high value on the authority of Scripture, they often seek assurance first that cremation is OK.
“That’s why they ask the questions,” said Bohnenstengel, the community care pastor at the large Franklin Park-based congregation. “The Bible doesn’t address it directly. In our faith we believe one day our bodies and our souls will all reunite and that would take place sometime in the future when Jesus comes back… If God created the heavens and the earth and mankind, why couldn’t he put us back together? So we go through that with families. They feel a little better.”
Some evangelicals continue to urge families to choose burial when possible, not so much as a mandate but as a statement.
They say it reaffirms the Christian view that the body is an integral part of the human self and will be raised up, rather than seeing the body as a temporary shell for a spirit.
They note that archaeologists traced the spread of Christianity in the Roman empire by the location of ancient tombs with bodies aligned on an east-west axis — a burial practice that contrasted sharply with the pagan practice of cremation.
That practice endured in Western countries for nearly two millennia.
“In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the ‘real’ person, the soul within,” wrote Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Covnention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord … , but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.”
Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews and Muslims all forbid cremation, say local leaders, while Mormons encourage burial but do not forbid cremation. More liberal Protestants and Jews are more open to cremation, although for Jews of all denominations, the practice has negative connotations because of the forced cremations of Holocaust victims.
In contrast, the practice is the norm in Eastern religions and is accompanied by rites that have been developed through the ages. In Hindu teaching, for example, cremation is seen as returning the body to the elements from which it came, according to a ritual guide published by the Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference of North America. The accompanying rituals help the jiva, or departed soul, move on from this life to a new incarnation.