Sunday, March 07, 1999

Ashes to ashes - faster


Funeral industry adapting to increasing demand for cremation

BY JOHN ECKBERG
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lois Lael was not committed to cremation when her late husband, Robert, died in July 1998. She would have preferred a traditional funeral, but she abided by his last wishes and had him cremated so his ashes could be shipped to a military cemetery in Hawaii.

        Mrs. Lael, owner of New Rays Yamaha, a motorcycle dealership in Covington, is like hundreds of Greater Cincinnatians and millions of Americans who are choosing cremation for their loved ones instead of traditional burial.

        “I don't think it's a question of money or expense,” Mrs. Lael said. “I think if there are older members of the family left, cremation is easier on them.”

        With the rate cremation in Cincinnati approaching 10 percent doubling in a decade — some local funeral providers are investing millions in on-site crematories to get ready for the growth.

        Late last month, Fares J. Radel opened a high-profile funeral home and crematory at Interstate 275 and Kellogg Avenue — a $2 million complex that will couple traditional funeral services with the simplicity and convenience of cremation.

        “We are going to raise the bar for the funeral industry here and in the United States,” said Mr. Radel, the third generation of Radel to own and operate a funeral business in Southwest Ohio. “The days are gone when a lot of money has to be made on the burial of one person.”

        The Fares J. Radel facility is not alone. The Craver-Riggs Funeral Home and Crematory in Milford opened its on-site crematory in late February.

        “Cremations are on the rise because cremation is becoming a more accepted form of final disposition,” said Howard Riggs, owner of the Milford funeral home and crematory. “In the past, cremation facilities have not been well-understood.

        “We put ours in to meet the needs of consumers and to do the cremation under one roof and one facility. That allows for greater peace of mind for families.”

        The trend has not been overlooked at Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, the second-largest non-governmental cemetery in the nation, where interments of cremated remains have risen from about 6 percent of all burials in 1980 to 19 percent in 1998. Hillside Chapel in University Heights is another local provider of cremation services in a chapellike setting.

        “Cincinnati is usually behind the coasts in any kind of trend,” said Andrew J. Conroy, president of Spring Grove, where a $5 million funeral home, chapel, music room and video and reception center opens this fall to accompany an existing crematory. “People are realizing that you can still do great memorialization with cremation.”

        People make cremation their final choice for a number of reasons, agreed Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. Convenience, the mobile nature of society and the comparatively lower cost of cremation have all contributed.

        “People are dying older and away from home,” he said. “And the simplicity of cremation is the major reason for people who choose it — particularly in Florida, Arizona and Nevada.”

        The association, a trade group based in Chicago with 1,300 members, found in a recent survey that 43 percent of Americans plan to be cremated — up from 35 percent in 1990. In some places, such as Alaska at 58 percent, Nevada at 61 percent and Arizona at 53 percent, families choosing cremation are already in the majority.

        In Ohio, 19 percent of the 105,446 people who died in 1997 were cremated, the association determined, a figure that is projected to climb to 28 percent in 2010. Kentucky had a cremation rate of 6 percent of the 38,256 deaths that occurred in 1997, which is projected to climb to 9 percent in 2010.

        Families seeking cremation in Greater Cincinnati can authorize any funeral home for the service. Remains can be buried, placed in a mausoleum, put in an urn at home or scattered, although some communities discourage the practice.

        Mr. Radel said the era of the ornate funeral parlor is ending. Like many small-business owners in the late 1990s, Mr. Radel thinks future funeral revenues will be driven by customer service. The challenge is to provide cremation services accompanied by spiritual pageants of music, memories and serenity.

        Mr. Radel's brick building has amenities not usually found at traditional funeral homes with roots in Victorian America. There is a cenotaph — a memorial and reflecting pool that will hold name plaques and be open to grieving families seeking a quiet place in the days, months and years after a death.

        A conservatory/atrium holds informal family gatherings, and during memorial services, music comes from a library of 200 compact discs. There is a “Florida” room overlooking the conservatory and an art gallery of student paintings with half the proceeds going to the deceased's favorite charity and the other half to the artist.

        A children's area has a greenhouse, and a personal concierge will be on staff to assist families. A certified baby sitter is available.

        Services may include a multimedia presentation about the deceased through a sound system and wide-screen television where photos are digitally reproduced. The company offers DNA storage for $320. Although traditional embalming and burial are available, cremations are the focus.

        There is no doubt that more people are choosing cremation, agreed David F. Hodapp, funeral director of John Hodapp Sons Funeral Homes, which owns three funeral homes in Greater Cincinnati. “People are moving around more,” he said. “Maybe they have no relatives in the area — no one interested in coming to the funeral. ... From our point of view, cremation is clearly increasing.”

        Mr. Radel thinks the trend is only going to gather speed as more educated and affluent baby-boomers die. “The traditional funeral home doesn't like cremations,” Mr. Radel said. “They treat cremation families with respectful indifference.”

        Of 18,000 to 20,000 people who die in Greater Cincinnati annually, more than 1,900 will be cremated in 1999, experts estimated.

        “In the early 1960s, it was probably 2 percent,” said Bernie Naegele, president of the Greater Cincinnati Funeral Service Association and owner of Naegele, Kleb & Ihlendorf Funeral Home Inc. of Norwood. “It was rare to have a cremation back then.”

        The Fares J. Radel and Craver-Riggs crematories differ from most because cremations can occur in a living-room setting adjoining the crematory. At the Radel and Craver-Riggs facilities, family members can light the funeral pyre, an act that commonly occurs in Hindu and some Asian cultures.

        “Usually the crematory is in a garagelike setting,” Mr. Radel said, “an industrial setting.”

        Mr. Riggs agreed. “In a few years, it won't be all that unique for funeral homes to have crematories that are attractive and in accessible settings,” he said.

        At the Radel facility, the basic cremation fee is $995. Add $760 for a family gathering at the facility. A memorial video and collage are $280. A package that includes a memorial video, cremation, a $200 urn, upgraded cremation casket and full concierge service will cost $2,300. Rental or temporary display caskets are also available.

        “In this day and age of the educated consumer, we have to offer a full range of services. Everything from a basic cremation to a high-profile memorial event, something fitting for a governor or senator,” Mr. Radel said.

        Although cremations are on the rise, the number of crematories has not grown much, said Ann Cunningham, executive director of the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors of Ohio. The Craver-Riggs and Radel facilities are the latest to open. Ohio has about 60 crematories. While many think cremations are cheaper than funerals, Ms. Cunningham said, that that may not be the case.

        “Will there be a viewing? Is a casket going to be bought? Is cremation itself cheaper than embalming? It depends,” she said.

        Mr. Hodapp said that a 1996 survey of 749 funeral homes by the National Funeral Directors Association of America found average charges of $4,625 for services and casket. Expenses like flowers, a marker and grave opening can send the bill to more than $7,000.

        Darla McCollister, an Anderson Township resident, appreciates the simplicity of cremation. Her late husband, David Montondo, who died in 1996, was cremated with services handled by the Fares J. Radel Funeral Home. “It's still ashes to ashes, only faster,” she said.

        When bodies have to be transported a long distance, cremation becomes the most affordable alternative.

        Darren Baxter, vice president of Baxter Burial Vault Service, a St. Bernard crematory and vault manufacturer, has seen local cremations quadruple in a decade. The company provides cremations for traditional funeral homes in the region.

        An about-face by the Catholic Church on cremations helped launch the trend locally, he said. One out of three Greater Cincinnatians is Catholic. In 1917, cremations were banned under Catholic canon law, a prohibition that ended in 1963. The new church position was reinforced in 1996 with a statement from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

        “Economic, geographic, ecological or family factors on occasion make the cremation of a body the only feasible choice,” the church determined. The funeral liturgy, however, cannot change.

        “I can't remember many Catholics coming in before,” Mr. Baxter said. “Another trend is baby boomers. They're kind of indifferent as to how their remains are taken care of.”

        Chris Lowery, marketing director for Options by Batesville, said the company expects cremations to increase by one percentage point annually and offers 80 varieties of urns: from plain masonite containers to stunning bronze statuary.

        Options by Batesville is the cremation-products division of Batesville Casket Co., a Batesville, Ind., subsidiary of Hillenbrand Industries, the nation's largest casket company.

        Some think the cremation curve will soon plateau. “I don't think we'll ever hit a 75 percent cremation rate in my lifetime,” Mr. Baxter said.

        Mr. Radel sees no plateau any time soon: “It's not just a trend. This is a megatrend.”

THE COST OF FUNERALS
        A 1996 survey of 749 funeral homes by the National Funeral Directors Association of America found funeral homes on average charged $4,625 for services and a casket. Add $2,000 for a grave, marker and the grave opening and closing, plus $500 for flowers and incidentals, and a traditional burial can easily top $7,000.

        At the Fares J. Radel facility, the basic cremation fee is $995. Add $760 for a family gathering at the facility. A memorial video and collage are $280. A package that includes a memorial video, cremation, a $200 urn, upgraded cremation casket and full concierge service costs $2,300. Rental or temporary display caskets are also available.

       



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