cremation, religion, death

Economy Down but Urn-ings Up: Cremation Gaining Popularity

August 13, 2008 07:59 AM
by Denis Cummings
The number of cremations is increasing, but the process has received objections based on religious and environmental concerns.

Cremations on the Rise

Cremations have been steadily increasing in popularity for years, but the economic downturn has led to a sharp rise. Cemeteries in New York, where cremations have typically increased by 10 percent a year, are reporting that they’re up nearly 30 percent in 2008.

“Our cremations in total volume with our funeral homes have doubled and that’s primarily due to the cost of ground burial and entombment,” said Frank Sinatra, Jr. of Sinatra Memorial Home.

Cremations typically cost around $400, less than one-tenth the cost of a traditional burial. In New York, ground burials cost around $5,000 and crypts cost at least $8,500.
However, cremation has been the subject of controversy on both religious and environmental grounds. Jewish and Catholic leaders have debated whether to accept the practice, which has traditionally been forbidden by their religious laws. In Britain, Hindus are awaiting a court decision in their fight to legalize open-air cremations, a traditional Hindu practice.

Crematories have received resistance from local residents who fear that cremation releases toxic chemicals into the air. The Atlanta suburb of Snellville is the latest community to hold a heated debate over the opening of a crematory.

Background: Cremation controversy

Religious issues
In many religions cremations are forbidden or discouraged. Jewish law forbids cremation, and for many Jews the practice evokes images of the Holocaust. Cremation has become a very controversial subject in Israel, especially after Orthodox Jews burned the country’s only crematory last August.
Catholicism prohibited cremation until 1963, and still strongly encourages burial. Last year, in response to the increase in cremations, a New Jersey diocese became the first diocese in the U.S. to build a crematory. “It is the wave of the future,” said the bishop of the diocese. “We’re going along with what our Catholic population is looking for.”
Hindus traditionally perform public, open-air cremations over a wood-fire, believing that it raises the body to heaven. The practice, which takes up to six hours, is harmful to the environment by consuming an estimated 50 millions trees and producing 8 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Environmental issues
In many towns and cities, residents have objected to crematories being built. Many argue that crematories pose an environmental hazard because they release toxic chemicals into the air. Of particular concern is mercury, which is released when a corpse’s dental fillings are burned.
“You’re burning bodies, and the emissions are going up into the air,” said a crematory protester in Richmond, Calif. “They can put it somewhere else, away from where people live.”
Lawmakers in Minnesota and Maine have proposed bills that would force crematories to install smokestack filter—at a cost around a half-million dollars—or agree to remove fillings from the corpses. None of the bills have passed.
There have been relatively few studies on the issue, but most have found that crematories release only a small amount of toxic chemicals into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted little research, but a 2005 study (PDF) predicted “an increase in emissions for the next several decades, followed by a decrease.”
Paul Rahill, president of Matthews Cremation Division, discusses the issue in a 2008 report (PDF). He cites a recent British study that tested the release of mercury in cremations much more extensively than any previous studies. It found that the average body with dental fillings released just .558 grams of mercury, below a level that the EPA had found acceptable.

Reference: Funeral planning


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