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  • Tampa Bay Times

    Cremation, green burials and celebrations of life: how Florida’s funeral norms are changing

    By Lauren Peace,

    Arin Rudd, funeral director for Florida Mortuary, holds a parting stone — one of a number of options for the preservation of cremated remains. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

    Erica Fresh was 18 the first time she attended a funeral with an open casket. She remembers looking at her cousin’s lifeless body and feeling heavy with dread.

    “I had these horrible nightmares that night,” said Fresh, now a 38-year-old Dunedin resident. “I thought to myself, ‘Nope, that is not what I want to happen to me.’”

    Customs around death are changing in the U.S. Just 30 years ago, traditional burials accounted for almost 80% of all end-of-life arrangements.

    Today, that number has dropped to fewer than 40%, with the majority of people choosing cremation for themselves or their loved ones.

    Such choices vary dramatically by state. In Mississippi, for example, some 34% of people who died last year were cremated, compared to nearly 72% in Florida. But cremation rates across the country continue to rise.

    Driving the change are things like cost, transient populations and shifting religious values.

    And though choosing cremation doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing a service or placement in a cemetery, research has found that about one in four American households keep cremated remains at home, with no plans for scattering or permanent memorialization.

    “People decide they want to be cremated but don’t specify what they want to happen after,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.
    Archie Allen, family service advisor with Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes, hosts a pre-planning luncheon where Allen speaks to people about how to plan for end-of-life arrangements. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

    Kemmis said she’s heard stories of people contacting funeral homes with three or four urns — the ashes of loved ones who passed years before — unsure of what to do with the ashes and fearful of inheriting more.

    The good news, said Kemmis, is a bevy of newer end-of-life options offer possible solutions. The key is knowing they exist.

    Shifting norms

    It took a while for cremation to catch on.

    The country’s first crematory opened in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1876. Almost 100 years later, in 1970, only 5% of people who had died nationwide were cremated.

    But between 1970 and today, that percentage has skyrocketed. Last year, according to preliminary data, the national cremation rate was about 61%.

    Kemmis said cremation is often the more cost-effective option for families. As budgets tighten, she said, people gravitate toward affordability.

    Last year, a full-service burial in the U.S. cost an average of around $8,300, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Direct cremation — without a service — can ring up at about $1,000.
    Kevin Hoobin, family service advisor with Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes, holds pamphlets before an informational luncheon to help people plan for end-of-life memorials. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

    Cultural shifts are also at play, Kemmis said. Fewer people today are religious, with more than a fourth of adults identifying as atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated. For those who are religious, traditions around death are evolving, too. In the 1960s, for example, the Catholic church ruled that cremation was an acceptable way to handle remains so long as the ashes were kept together, opening the option to congregants.

    Today, families are more spread out than in the past, Kemmis said. People move from their hometowns, then move again. That can make choosing a final resting spot more difficult than in decades prior.

    Cremation provides flexibility, Kemmis said, even for those who want to be memorialized in a cemetery.

    “My father is buried in New York, and I’m going to be buried in the plot with him,” said JoAnn DeFrancesco, a 62-year-old Palm Harbor resident who moved south from Queens 22 years ago. “Shipping my body there would be astronomically expensive, so being cremated and then taken there is a lot easier.”

    In a place like Florida, where 165,986 people were cremated last year — the second-most of all states — it’s an especially common story because of the transient population.
    Urns and urn pendants keep sake jewelry on display at the Anderson McQueen Family Tribute Center, 7820 38th Ave. North, on April 18, 2024 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

    And in urban areas where land is limited, Kemmis said cremation helps extend the life of cemeteries. More cemeteries are offering options for cremated remains, such as the ability to entomb ashes or scatter them at designated sites.

    Doing so at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, which was expected to run out of room by the mid-2050s, has extended the life of the cemetery by 150 years.

    Meeting needs

    Death care professionals have had to adjust to the changing desires of clients, Kemmis said, and more crematories have opened to keep up.

    Still, backlogs are extremely uncommon. The normal wait time for a cremation is about 5 to 10 days, experts said, but that can vary depending on factors like delays in legal paperwork or a body being released to the care of a funeral home.

    Arin Rudd, lead funeral director of Florida Mortuary Funeral & Cremation Services in Tampa, said cremation accounts for about 90% of the services completed by her parent company, Foundation Partners, which operates more than 260 funeral homes and crematories across the country.

    Rudd, a 30-year industry veteran, said the shift from burials to cremations has been accompanied by changes in attitudes around death and end-of-life commemoration, too. When she first started in the field, she said, funerals were times of mourning: people clad in black, quiet and respectful.

    “Now, instead of the classic funeral with the casket, people are leaning more toward celebrations of life,” Rudd said.
    Arin Rudd, lead funeral director of Florida Mortuary Funeral & Cremation Services, adjust lighting in the chapel housed within her funeral home. [ Lauren Peace ]

    Rudd said that’s meant being more creative and flexible to ensure clients’ needs are met.

    An infographic from the Cremation Association’s annual report, released earlier this year, also urged workers to be adaptive.

    “Consumers want to create a celebration of a life lived and will do so with or without the help of a funeral professional,” the infographic read. “Are you equipped to host families and provide the experience they want?”

    A personalized touch

    Through her work, Rudd has seen it all: People gathered in the parking lot, tailgate style, cracking beers with friends and family while sharing stories of their loved one before a service; funny slideshows and bubbling champagne, and the descendants’ favorite cookie being passed around the room.

    At one family’s request, she placed a man in a canoe instead of a casket for the viewing — he was an avid outdoorsman who hated tight spaces. Another, she said, had his ashes propped up on the seat of his golf cart during his memorial.

    As norms change, Rudd said, the options available to families have greatly expanded.

    Today, there are green burials and tree pod burials, in which a body is laid to rest under a tree and acts as a source of nutrients for plant growth. Cremated remains can be made into remembrance stones and eternal reefs. DNA can be preserved.

    “There’s so much more than the classic funeral,” Rudd said.
    Exterior of Florida Mortuary Funeral & Cremation Services, where lead funeral director Arin Rudd works to help families choose end-of-life arrangements that best match their values and reflect the life of the person being memorialize. [ Lauren Peace ]

    Alie Shaw, a Palm Harbor native, said she hadn’t thought much about her arrangements until she had kids a few years ago. When she learned that cremated remains could be turned into jewelry, she got excited.

    Shaw said she wants her ashes to be made into a ring or a bracelet — a family heirloom that can be passed down for generations.

    “My parents have burial plots, so they’re going the traditional route,” said Shaw, 32. “Just turn me into something beautiful.”

    Despina Collins, 21, said she wants to be cremated and for her tattoos to be preserved and framed like art for those left behind.

    “I’m a tattoo artist and I think it would be super cool,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t want a bunch of money to be spent just to put me in the ground.”

    And for Fresh, the Dunedin resident who wants to be cremated, her request is simple. She said she wants her ashes to be mixed with those of her husband and her dogs, then to be scattered in the Gulf.

    “I’m a Florida girl, born and raised, and all I want is to be back in the water,” Fresh said.

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