Not so long ago, the Catholic Church frowned upon cremation. That time has passed, however, and cremation has not only gained acceptance in the church, but in the past decade has seen a surge in popularity, according to Jim Weisbeck, executive director of Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Twelve years ago cremations accounted for just 10 percent of the deaths Holy Sepulchre handled each year, Weisbeck said. That number doubled in just a decade, with cremations currently accounting for 20 percent of deaths the cemetery handles, he said.
“That 20 percent number has held steady for the past two to three years,” he added.
This represents a significant shift in Catholics’ attitudes regarding cremation since 1963, when the Vatican first ruled that cremation was permissible for Catholics as long as they had not chosen cremation as an expression of disbelief in the Resurrection and the sacredness of the human body. Prior to 1963, cremation was considered a sign of aversion to the church and its beliefs, and the 1917 Code of Canon Law denied a Catholic funeral liturgy to Catholics choosing cremation.
Church teaching still requires that cremated remains be buried or entombed. These remains must be given the same respect as the body, so they cannot be scattered, kept in a home or divided among family members, according to the New York State Catholic Conference.
Catholics are not the only ones rethinking their attitudes about cremation. In fact, the rate of cremation is even higher among the general public than among Catholics, according to the Cremation Association of North America. About 28 percent of U.S. deaths resulted in cremation in the year 2002, compared to 35 percent in 2007, and the association projects that more than 50 percent of deaths will result in cremation by 2025.
“In some western states it is (already) over 50 percent, and as high as 80 percent in Hawaii and Washington,” Weisbeck said.
The decision to opt for cremation vs. full-body burial or entombment is a personal choice people make for a variety of reasons, he said. There are, however, several key trends affecting cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, which cites the longer life span of today’s Americans and the increased mobility of senior citizens as two of them. As religious restrictions, regional differences and traditional ties lessen, more and more people are choosing cremation, which also offers greater flexibility in memorialization services, according to the association.
An increasingly educated public now perceives cremation as more acceptable, and cremation is often seen as the more “green” and environmentally friendly option, Weisbeck noted.
Cost is often a deciding factor as well, said Sandy Cooke, business manager for the cluster of St. Felix, St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Clifton Springs, Phelps and Shortsville. The cluster maintains St. Rose Cemetery and Mausoleum, and during the 2007-08 fiscal year, more cremated remains than full bodies were interred at the cemetery, Cooke said.
“I think that there’s a lot more people being cremated now than there were a couple years ago,” Cooke said. “I think the cost has a lot to do with it. It’s a lot less expensive now to be cremated and have your ashes buried.”
The cost savings is due to the facts that urns are less expensive than coffins and that a smaller ground opening is required for burial of cremated remains than for full bodies, she said.
A 2005 survey of 371 individuals who chose cremation when preplanning their burial arrangements found that 30 percent of them said they chose this option because it was less expensive, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Another 13 percent said they chose cremation because it saves land, while 8 percent said they chose cremation because it was simpler.
Holy Sepulchre is one of a handful of local Catholic cemeteries that offers both in-ground interment and mausoleum entombment options. In September Bishop Matthew H. Clark dedicated Holy Sepulchre’s new Christ Our Light Mausoleum, which contains 7,580 spaces. More than 5,000 of these spaces are crypts used when entombing caskets, and the rest are niches for cremated remains.