Brian Gustafson talks about what he wants done with his body after he dies like it’s the clothes gaining cobwebs in the back of his closet.
“I’m going to donate whatever they can take and burn what’s left,” said the Rock Island County Coroner and president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. “Why should I take up God’s green earth?”
Not all can put it so bluntly, but Gustafson’s relaxed sentiment toward cremation illustrates how far the country has come. Cremations rates were in the single digits 35 years ago, but today, 42.5 percent of dead bodies in the U.S. are cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Accelerated by families seeking a lower-cost option during tough financial times, the once-taboo alternative to burials is on the verge of becoming the country’s go-to.
The tide turned long ago within McHenry County. Of 1,491 McHenry County deaths last year, 941 bodies were cremated – a rate of 63 percent, up from 54 percent in 2007.
Several reasons for increase
Experts don’t point to any one reason as to why cremations are growing in popularity. Finances are a key role as of late, most agree. Some think the ease of the process is attractive, and others assert a cremation is a more transparent transaction than a burial.
Religious and cultural background is important, too. Although the Vatican still recommends burial, the Catholic Church began allowing funeral Masses in the presence of cremated remains in 1997.
“Now the cremation rate among Catholics in the Chicagoland area is probably 25 [percent] to 30 percent,” said Jerry Sullivan, an Illinois native and the first resident of the United States to be president of the International Cremation Federation.
Sullivan has studied cremation rates all over the world, and can rattle off the statistics to prove it. Japan has a 99 percent cremation rate. Burials dominate Greece, although the country adopted a law six years ago to allow cremation. Hinduism and Buddhism call for cremation. Islam and Judaism disapprove of it.
England – which has a cremation rate of about 75 percent – began a slow change from burials to cremation after World War II, as families flocked to suburban areas toward which they didn’t have a generational tie, Sullivan said.
Applying that concept locally, he said, you might start to uncover a reason why, despite a typically affluent demographic that would seem to welcome burials, McHenry County is dominated by cremation.
“It’s hugely built up with people that have no tie to any cemetery, or any reason to buy a plot that people would go back to,” said Sullivan, who also heads the Cremation Society of Illinois.
Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sullivan remembers McHenry County’s cremation rate was about 14 percent, while the rest of the state sat around 10 percent.
Today, the county’s 63 percent rate is far higher than the state’s 36 percent. Bible Belt states possess some of the lowest cremation rates in the country, while the Pacific Northwest has some of the highest.
People across the county have other theories as to why McHenry County has such a high cremation rate. McHenry County Coroner Anne Majewski is perplexed by the trend, but noted the high number of hospice deaths here.
Given the time to think it through, many decide to go the cremation route, she said.
“Once people go to hospice, I don’t know if they’re as attached to the body, or if they have more of a resolution that death is coming,” Majewski said.
Tom Fashingbauer, owner of McHenry County Burial & Cremation Society, thinks money is the No. 1 reason for cremation’s rise across the country, but he struggles with why it’s so popular in McHenry County.
“It’s not a matter so much of economics because this is overall a wealthier [community],” Fashingbauer said. “It’s getting to be more of how people are thinking.”
Cremation, Fashingbauer said, offers several positives – it’s a simpler transaction and takes less time. People don’t view an expensive casket and burial as a reward for a long, hard life, as they once did, he said.
Instead, some are viewing a post-funeral cremation as the best of both worlds, said Carol DeFiore, co-owner of DeFiore Jorgensen Funeral & Cremation Service in Huntley. A funeral allows loved ones to pay their respects, and the family can decide afterward what to do with the body.
“I don’t really think it is about money,” DeFiore said. “I think it’s really a choice that has become acceptable, that wasn’t acceptable 20 years ago.
“People [are] coming to a sense that it really is just a choice of disposition,” she added. “Some people are buried and some are cremated.”
DeFiore said she thinks that puts a greater responsibility on funeral directors to educate families about their options.
Kelly Hulata, regional manager of Stonemor Partners, which owns various cemeteries in McHenry County and the surrounding area, said more attention is being paid to how to appropriately memorialize cremation remains.
Glass-front niches have risen in popularity, and Stonemor’s Windridge Funeral Home in Cary offers burial of cremation remains along a nature trail.
“Traditional in-ground burial of cremains still does take place, but kids say, ‘Grandma has been sitting in the closet for 15 years,’” Hulata said. “That’s why the cemetery is so important. It’s more for the living than for the deceased.”
Funeral homes and cemeteries likely will need to continue to find ways to accommodate a growing number of families opting for cremation.
Sullivan sees the U.S. cremation rate growing to as high as 70 percent or 75 percent before stabilizing.
“There’s been a lot of conversation in the industry that it will level off once it’s at 50 percent,” he said. “I just don’t see that happening.”
• U.S.: 42.5 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA)
• Illinois: 36 percent, according to the Cremation Society of Illinois
• McHenry County: 63 percent, according to the McHenry County Coroner’s Office
Rise in U.S. cremation rates through the years, according to CANA:
• 1985: 14.5 percent
• 1995: 19.2 percent
• 2000: 26.2 percent
• 2005: 32.3 percent
• 2012: 42.5 percent