In making their last of life’s decisions, more New Jersey residents are choosing cremation for their funerals.
Lower costs combined with tributes that can accommodate wide-ranging family geography are making cremation a more attractive option to traditional burial.
Cemeteries in southern New Jersey are taking notice and changing their business plans to reflect the preferences of local families.
“Just like any business venture, I had to determine what the costs are and what I can expect to recoup,” said Jay Newman, owner of Seaside Cemetery in Upper Township.
He is making plans to install his cemetery’s first columbarium, a large stone or marble mausoleum designed especially for urns.
“I would do it in 2005 if I could go back then,” said Newman, of Upper Township. “I hope by 2013 I’ll have it in. I have an idea what I want to do and how I want to set it up. I have to put the plan together.”
Nearly 1 million people were cremated in the United States in 2010. That represented about 41 percent of all funerals.
Cremations have become increasingly common since the mid-1980s, when they accounted for just 15 percent of all funerals. By 2015 cremations will figure into nearly half of American funerals, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Before she died in January, Frances Livore, 89, of Hamilton Township, chose to be cremated and inurned next to her late husband, Paul Livore, at the Atlantic County Veteran’s Cemetery.
The couple’s daughter, Susan Klein, 61, also of Hamilton Township, said cremation might not be her first option, but she respected her mother’s wishes.
Klein said she sometimes brought her mother to her late husband’s gravesite after he died in 2006.
“It gave my mother some comfort when I would take her there. When you see your name, somehow you know you’ve left your mark on the Earth,” Klein said. “Everyone who passed through here should leave their name.”
The choice for cremation in America depends largely on where the person dies. In the Pacific Northwest, cremation is preferred over traditional cemetery burial. The same is true for snowbird states such as Arizona and Florida. It is less common for families in New Jersey and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic.
Cremation gives families more flexibility, said Barbara Kemmis, director of the Cremation Association of North America.
“If you raised your family in New Jersey but you have a home in Arizona or Florida, you may make plans for cremation to make funeral arrangements easier for your family,” she said.
Likewise, as people move away from home to start their own families, they are less tied to old traditions, she said.
“If your family roots are in Massachusetts but your family now lives in California, are you likely to go back to the cemetery in Massachusetts to visit your family cemetery or will you start a new tradition in California?” she said.
While traditional funerals take place soon after the person dies, cremation gives families more time to organize a memorial for far-flung family members.
“What we hear is, ‘We live in nine states. Having everybody gathered in three days for a traditional memorial service was impossible. We couldn’t include everyone. So we chose cremation and had something in the summer when everyone could come together,’“ Kemmis said.
And then there are the costs. Cremation is significantly less expensive than cemetery burial, she said. The national average cost for a cremation and marker is $1,650 compared to $7,300 for a cemetery plot, Kemmis said.
Some religions such as Judaism and Islam prohibit cremation, while others such as Catholicism discourage the scattering of ashes in favor of inurnment.
Hinduism and Buddhism prescribe cremation. When the renowned peace activist Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi was shot and killed in New Delhi in 1948, he was cremated and his ashes were divided up and sent across India. They were scattered in all the world’s great rivers and seas.
Resurrection Cemetery on Route 83 in Dennis Township has plans to invest in a columbarium, Superintendent William Plexico said.
Like the one installed at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lower Township, where Plexico also serves as superintendent, the Resurrection columbarium would have pavers and landscaping, he said. The design would allow for expansion at a later date.
“The ones we’re looking at are made from granite materials,” said Plexico, of Middle Township.
Newman pored over his options to accommodate families who choose cremation. Some cemeteries build elaborate gardens or ponds where families can spread ashes.
“You can make a memorial garden where people can come and sit,” he said. “You can hang flower bouquets. Some columbaria are made of bronze or granite or stone. I wanted something that was more personalized so families could have a name engraved on it.”
Newman is looking at manufacturers in Vermont or Minnesota. The large custom-fit memorial walls require professional installation, he said.
“I have an idea where I’d like to do it. You want it to be accessible and visible,” he said. “You want it to be big enough that it lasts a long time, and make sure you have room to expand it.”
John and Marcia Sowa, of Middle Township, bought side-by-side niches in a stately marble columbarium at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lower Township.
Marcia Sowa, 67, said they put a lot of thought into the decision. Her father ran a funeral home in Brooklyn, N.Y. She witnessed thousands of funerals as a child.
“I get the feeling that standing at a gravesite watching your loved one lowered into the earth is a much more emotional and heart-wrenching event than cremation,” she said. “There’s so much greater sadness. There is more celebration of life and resurrection of the spirit with a cremation.”
She and her husband have been married for 48 years. The columbarium niches give them comfort they will be together for eternity, she said. Sometimes on their way to dinner in Cape May, they will stop by the cemetery.
“I like to see if we have any neighbors yet,” she said.
Grave plots are more expensive, she said. And even when they retire to Florida, they plan to have their funerals in Cape May County.
“With cremation it’s so much simpler and expedient to have the memorial at the cemetery when you’re ready,” she said. “I also like the idea of cremation jewelry. I intend to wear a locket with some of my husband’s ashes close to my heart forever and ever.”
Their niches bear plaques with their names and years of birth followed by a long dash. What year will follow is anyone’s guess. But Sowa said the dash is what’s important.
“It signifies how we lived our lives,” she said. “You’re facing your own mortality. It’s in your face. But so far we’re with the dash, living our lives.”
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