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Cremation catches on in county

Merv Mathison, of Anderson Funeral Home in DeKalb, demonstrates with an empty box Wednesday how a body is placed into the cremator.
Merv Mathison, of Anderson Funeral Home in DeKalb, demonstrates with an empty box Wednesday how a body is placed into the cremator.

Michael Butala became the first funeral home director to install a crematory in DeKalb County in 1993.

That year, the county coroner issued only 105 cremation permits. Fast forward 19 years and that number has quadrupled, with 415 cremation permits issued compared to 184 burial permits. Butala, director of Butala Funeral Homes & Crematory in Sycamore, said he saw the trend toward cremations coming, but could not pinpoint a reason for the recent surge.

According to the Cremation Association of North America, the rate for cremations has grown from 26 percent of all deaths in 2000 to a projected 45 percent in 2015. Butala said that benchmark already has been reached at his funeral home, with almost 50 percent of his customers opting for cremation.

“I don’t think society is dictating it, I don’t think religion is dictating it, it’s just a trend,” Butala said. “Cost is a factor, geography is a factor, but I really don’t think there is just one reason.”

Although there are numerous reasons for the shift to cremations, Barry Melton, funeral director at Anderson Funeral Home in DeKalb, said cost is the largest factor.

Melton said traditional burials often cost more than $10,000 while full-service, high-end cremation options are less than $5,000. The discrepancy is even greater in larger cities, where it can cost thousands for a grave site, hundreds more for an opening fee and then all the costs of cement containers, caskets and other necessary items for burials.

Melton said those costs would only rise as cemetery space fills up. The increase in cremations led to Anderson Funeral Home adding a crematory about seven years ago, Melton said, because half the customers request that service.

“When I started 36 years ago, cremation was a bad word,” Melton said. “Now you can take ashes into churches and have them blessed and everything.”

Many religions have embraced cremations, including the Catholic church. Ken Anderson, pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in DeKalb, said the church constructed a columbarium on its cemetery about a year ago because of the increase in families choosing cremation over burials. The columbarium displays the urns and containers of cremains.

Anderson said he believes a major reason for the increase is the mobility of families, noting he has siblings spread out in Wisconsin and California. By opting for cremation, families have more time to unite for a memorial service.

“It is a surprise to me,” he said of the increase in cremations. “But between the breakup of families and mobility of families, it gives them a chance to do a service sometimes weeks later. We still prefer it is as immediate as possible, though.”

Butala and Melton said they believe the trend will continue, but there are already new trends starting slowly in the “green” movement. Butala said some states are seeing an increase in alkaline hydrolysis – an alternative to cremation that decomposes the body through a mixture of chemicals and heat, creating less carbon emissions than cremation.

Anderson said “green burials” also are popular in states such as Wisconsin. Those burials use no casket, cement or other preservation units as the body is buried directly in the ground.

All the changes, they said, are a reflection of a shift from traditions to more individual-oriented ceremonies.

“I can’t begin to tell you some of the unique things people do,” Melton said. “We have had people spread ashes on Wrigley Field, mail routes, fishing ponds – you name it.”

Loved ones can even be sent to the stars.

“You know you can be shot out into outer space?” Butala said. “It’s unbelievable.”

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