Alfredo Angueira said he was surprised that his mother chose to be cremated, with her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery inside this bench.
CAITLIN OCHS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
By JAMES BARRON
AUGUST 10, 2017
An envelope was in Carmen Rosa’s desk in her apartment in Co-op City in the Bronx — an envelope that she had instructed her son not to open until after she died. Inside were more instructions, and they left her son, Alfredo Angueira, flabbergasted.
Ms. Rosa, the longtime district manager of Community Board 12 in the Bronx who died in March 2015 at age 69, directed that she was to be cremated and her remains placed at Woodlawn Cemetery. Mr. Angueira called that “a shocker.”
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted,” he said, explaining that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge where celebrities like Billie Holiday and Frankie Lymon are interred. So are at least four of Ms. Rosa’s relatives, including her mother.
But cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now, for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.
By comparison, burials accounted for 43.5 percent of funerals last year, down from 45.4 percent in 2015, and the president of the association, W. Ashley Cozine, predicted that the cremation rate would continue to rise. By 2025, the association is forecasting that 63.8 percent of the people who die in the United States will be cremated, and by 2035, 78.8 percent.
The reasons include the weakening hold of religion on American life as well as a loosening of strictures against cremation by some denominations. The proportion of consumers 40 and older who think it is important to have religion as part of a funeral has dropped by 20 percent since 2012, according to the funeral directors’ association.
Cost can also be a factor — cremation is usually less expensive than conventional burial.
“Most funeral directors have seen a lot of families move away from tradition, move away from ceremony,” said R. Bryant Hightower Jr., the secretary of the funeral directors’ association, “and in their minds, ceremony and tradition are tied to the burial side more than the cremation side. So they have said, ‘If I want it simple and I don’t want it in a church or a synagogue and I don’t want a rabbi or a minister, then I want cremation.’”
A natural setting that is one space at Woodlawn Cemetery where remains were placed.
CAITLIN OCHS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Roman Catholic Church has allowed cremation for decades — in 1963, the Vatican expressed a preference for burial but said that cremation was not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” and that funeral rites should not be denied to Catholics who sought cremation.
Last year the Vatican took note of what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation by encouraging Catholics to see that cremated remains were deposited in cemeteries or other approved places. Guidelines approved by Pope Francis were specific about cremation: Ashes were not to be scattered in any way.
Many Catholic cemeteries now have niches and above-ground mausoleums for cremated remains. Andrew Schafer, the executive director of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the cremation rate at the eight cemeteries he oversees had risen to 18 percent a year, up from 10 percent five years ago.
“Now we’re seeing steady growth of 1 percent a year,” he said. “Here in the Northeast, we’re a little more conservative with our traditions. That could be a reason we do not have the same numbers as on the West Coast, where the cremation rate is significantly higher.”
Mr. Hightower, a funeral director in Carrollton, Ga., said the economy also figured in people’s decisions on cremation. It typically costs less than a third of a funeral with a conventional burial, and for many families, the difference is crucial.
“The housing market here got crippled” in the recession, he said. “We saw people who had planned for the date and time of their loss. The family came in and said they had X dollars and if they could spend less, they could pay next month’s mortgage payment or the tuition payment for a grandson.”
Mitch Rose, the president and chief executive of Woodlawn and the first vice president of the Cremation Association of North America, said that interest in cremation was also rising because society is more mobile these days. “It’s tough to get people together for a funeral,” he said. “Cremation gives you options. It gives you the option for time to think about what to do with the remains.” A conventional burial would not.
CAITLIN OCHS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
In the metropolitan region, traditional burials still outnumbered cremations in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available — but not by much. The funeral directors’ association said 44.3 percent of the deaths in Connecticut ended in burials and 43.4 percent in cremations. The comparable figures for New York were 51.8 percent for burials and 41.9 percent for cremations, and in New Jersey, 47 percent for burials and 41.9 percent for cremations.
For urban cemeteries running short of space for burials, cremation offers a reprieve. Woodlawn, with 350,000 people buried in its 400 acres, is facing less of a space squeeze than some cemeteries: David L. Ison, its executive director, said it had room for another 40 to 50 years. But cremations allow Woodlawn to put unused spaces — too small to accommodate conventional burials — to profitable use.
That was the case with the granite bench that Mr. Angueira and his sister chose for Ms. Rosa’s cremated remains — a bench that he or anyone else visiting the cemetery can sit on. The remains, in a small sealed container, are in a cylinder-shaped urn, which was placed in a round space in the seat of the granite bench that was drilled out.
The bench occupies a patch of lawn in an older section of the cemetery, near formal columned mausoleums that date to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In one are the remains of F. W. Woolworth, the five-and-10-cent store mogul who died in 1919, and his granddaughter, the socialite Barbara Hutton, who died in 1979.
Mr. Angueira said he and his sister decided on the bench after considering other possibilities. “They can inter you in a rock with a brook running by,” he said. Woodlawn is expanding, putting more boulders by the stream, which runs to the Bronx River from a lake on the cemetery grounds.
Placing Ms. Rosa’s remains in a boulder appealed to him but not his sister, Linda. “I’m more eco-friendly,” he said.
But they were not sure that it fit instructions in Ms. Rosa’s letter that she preferred for her cremated remains to be above ground. So they decided on the bench, which cost about $30,000 and has space for as many as seven more sets of cremated remains.
“We weren’t sure how we’d feel sitting on it,” Mr. Angueira said, “but it’s supercomfortable.”