The reasons include the weakening hold of religion on American life as well as a loosening of strictures against cremation by some denominations. Cost can also be a factor.
NEW YORK — An envelope was in Carmen Rosa’s desk in her apartment in Co-op City in the Bronx — an envelope that she had instructed her son not to open until after she died. Inside were more instructions, and they left her son, Alfredo Angueira, flabbergasted.
Rosa, the longtime district manager of Community Board 12 in the Bronx who died in March 2015 at age 69, directed that she was to be cremated and her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery. Angueira called that “a shocker.”
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted,” he said, explaining that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge where celebrities like Billie Holiday and Frankie Lymon are interred. So are at least four of Rosa’s relatives, including her mother.
But cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now, for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.
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By comparison, burials accounted for 43.5 percent of funerals last year, down from 45.4 percent in 2015, and the president of the association, W. Ashley Cozine, predicted that the cremation rate would continue to rise. By 2025, the association is forecasting that 63.8 percent of the people who die in the United States will be cremated, and by 2035, 78.8 percent.
The reasons include the weakening hold of religion on American life as well as a loosening of strictures against cremation by some denominations. The proportion of consumers 40 and older who think it is important to have religion as part of a funeral has dropped by 20 percent since 2012, according to the funeral directors’ association.
Cost can also be a factor — cremation is usually less expensive than conventional burial.
“Most funeral directors have seen a lot of families move away from tradition, move away from ceremony,” said R. Bryant Hightower Jr., secretary of the Funeral Directors’ Association, “and in their minds, ceremony and tradition are tied to the burial side more than the cremation side. So they have said, ‘If I want it simple and I don’t want it in a church or a synagogue and I don’t want a rabbi or a minister, then I want cremation.’”
The Roman Catholic Church has allowed cremation for decades — in 1963, the Vatican expressed a preference for burial but said that cremation was not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” and that funeral rites should not be denied to Catholics who sought cremation.
Last year the Vatican took note of what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation by encouraging Catholics to see that cremated remains were deposited in cemeteries or other approved places. Guidelines approved by Pope Francis were specific about cremation: Ashes were not to be scattered in any way.
Many Catholic cemeteries now have niches and aboveground mausoleums for cremated remains. Andrew Schafer, executive director of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, said the cremation rate at the eight cemeteries he oversees had risen to 18 percent a year, up from 10 percent five years ago.
“Now we’re seeing steady growth of 1 percent a year,” he said. “Here in the Northeast, we’re a little more conservative with our traditions. That could be a reason we do not have the same numbers as on the West Coast, where the cremation rate is significantly higher.”
Hightower, a funeral director in Carrollton, Georgia, said the economy also figured in people’s decisions on cremation. It typically costs less than a third of a funeral with a conventional burial, and for many families, the difference is crucial.
“The housing market here got crippled” in the recession, he said. “We saw people who had planned for the date and time of their loss. The family came in and said they had X dollars and if they could spend less, they could pay next month’s mortgage payment or the tuition payment for a grandson.”
Mitch Rose, president and chief executive of Woodlawn and the first vice president of the Cremation Association of North America, said that interest in cremation was also rising because society is more mobile these days. “It’s tough to get people together for a funeral,” he said. “Cremation gives you options. It gives you the option for time to think about what to do with the remains.” A conventional burial would not.