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Cremations on the rise in York County

DAVID WEISSMAN
YorkDispatch

The annual number of cremations is expected to soon overtake burials in America, and it might already be the preferred option in York County.

Joe Keffer, supervisor for Keffer Funeral Home's three locations in York, said cremation is used in about 64 percent of the deaths his company handles, and that percentage has increased every year.

Keffer said that number might be a little skewed because people seek his company knowing it has an on-site crematory. But, he said, the number was rising even before the crematory opened 13 years ago.

"Our funeral home has always served modest people," Keffer said. "And more and more, they're choosing cremation."

Cremation was performed for more than 45 percent of York County deaths in 2012, the most recent year data was released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That percentage has increased incrementally since 1990, when it was near 11 percent locally.

Flexibility: Ernie Heffner, president of Best Life Tributes Funeral Homes, said he's seen cremation rise to more than 50 percent at his company during the past two to three years. Best Life also houses its own crematory.

In his experience, Heffner said he has found more people choosing cremation — for themselves or loved ones — because of the flexibility it offers more than the lower cost.

Barbara Kemmis, executive director for the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), said cremation offers families more options than traditional burials. Remains can be scattered or divided into urns so multiple family members can keep loved ones close.

Recent rise: The national average for cremations was 45.3 percent in 2013, according to the most recent report compiled by CANA, a rapid ascension from the 24 percent reported in 1998.

Kemmis believes the recent rise may be attributed to baby boomers wanting to start their own traditions, she said.

"We have a nation of baby boomers that reimagined their lives, want everything personalized and to express that they mattered while they were alive," she said. "Cremation seems to support those desires."

In its 2013 report, CANA projected that cremation would rise to 50.3 percent in 2018, but Kennis said she thinks the statistic will surpass 50 percent by 2017 — possibly 2016, she said.

Also included in the report are five of the main reasons people are trending toward cremation. Along with flexibility, the list includes cost, environmental impact, geography and religious acceptance.

Religion: Kemmis said most major religions — besides Judaism and Islam — have accepted cremation as an option, with Hinduism requiring it.

Beyond that, she said, the increase in Americans without religious affiliation — referred to as "nones" — has also contributed to the rise.

"Our research suggests 'nones' are more likely to embrace new traditions," Kemmis said.

Geography: Cremation allows families to bring loved ones back to their hometowns for memorials, Kemmis said.

"We're a different society than we were 40 years ago," she said. "It's increasingly likely for families to be dispersed across multiple states, and it's difficult to bring people back in the three-day window necessary for proper burial.

"Once one person (in a family) chooses cremation, it opens up the conversation for others," she said.

Kemmis said scattering loved ones' remains in water or mountains is also becoming a more popular practice for those who had a love of nature.

Environment: Kemmis said cremation is perceived as "greener" than burials, which "pollute" the earth with caskets.

But Heffner said it's a common misconception that America could be in danger of running out of space to bury bodies. The average burial ground can accept 1,500 people per acre, he said.

"The reality is it's not an issue," Heffner said. "We could take all the bodies already in the ground and all the people currently alive and bury them in a space less than the size of Rhode Island."

State: Pennsylvania lags slightly behind the national average at 40.4 percent of cremations in 2013, according to CANA's report.

Kathleen Ryan, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, attributed that statistic to ethnic diversity in certain parts of the state.

In Philadelphia, about 39 percent of the dead were cremated in 2012. In Allegheny County, which houses Pittsburgh, that number is about 36 percent.

The U.S. percentage of cremations is well behind other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, which were at nearly 63 percent and more than 75 percent in 2013, respectively, according to CANA's report.

States' 2013 cremation percentages ranged from more than 74 percent in Nevada to less than 18 percent in Mississippi.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com.