The last transaction

cemetery“Everybody will die, but very few people want to be reminded of that fact.”

— Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy

 

About 1,500 people died in 2010 in Ulster County. That’s the most recent year for which the state has, well, final statistics. In 2010 about 1,500 important decisions had to be made. Would there be a service? A burial? Cremation?

According to the New York State Funeral Directors Association website, cremation is a growing choice, though they say it’s increasing slowly — from about 20 percent of deaths in 2001 to 25 percent in 2006.

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Ulster County funeral directors say that’s an understatement. About half the funeral services they provide end with cremation.

Luke Keyser is the fifth generation at Keyser Funeral Home in Kingston. He joined the family business four years ago. “In 1980, only about 2 and a half percent of the funerals we handled involved cremation,” he said. “Now it’s 50 percent.”

Patrick Buono of Buono Funeral Services in Saugerties agreed, and explained there’s something worth noting about that trend. “Back in the ’80s, most of the cremations we were asked to do were what we call direct cremations,” he said. “No services, just cremation. We’re doing a lot more cremations now, but families are asking for the services and memorials we have always associated with traditional burials. The only difference is that final step. So people want the service and the memorial, but they’re choosing cremation at the end. The number of what we call direct cremations hasn’t really changed much since the ’80s.”

Buono said cremation has been the preferred final choice on the West Coast and Europe. Although cremation is a less expensive option, starting at around $1,500 and not requiring the same kind of casket, or the cost of a burial plot and associated costs, he doesn’t believe it’s economics that’s driving the shift toward cremation.

“We’ve become more itinerant on the East Coast,” Buono said. “People move around so much that there’s not that deep attachment to place that used to drive families to want to be buried together in a family plot. We’re seeing people either scatter the ashes somewhere that meant something to the family member, or even keep the ashes with them and burying them once they’ve settled in one area.”

If there is still that sense of place, Buono contended, cremation actually can make it possible for widely scattered families to finally come “home.” “There’s a local family with an old family farm, but most of the family is scattered all over the country,” he said. “When one of them dies, they bring the ashes back and scatter them on the property. It would be cost-prohibitive to ship a body all the way back, but this creates a wonderful moment of closure. The family gathers again at the old family place and another family member is brought home for the last time.”

Keyser said he’s finding that 30 to 40 percent of families choose to have no services. But he said many plan to hold services later.

The particulars of cremation

What do you have to know about cremation? First, you should know it isn’t usually done at the funeral home. That’s because of state laws. In Kingston, cremations are done at Wiltwyck Cemetery.

If you choose cremation, there’s still a casket. But there’s no need to buy an expensive casket. Though state law prohibits the re-use of caskets, it allows funeral homes to provide a ceremonial casket which fits outside an inner container. That container, with all the lining and the remains, can then be transferred undisturbed to a casket designed for cremation.

What’s the cost? Buono said Social Services budgets $1,500 for cremation. But the cost can go as high as the family wants to go.

Families have the choice — they can keep the “cremains” (what we know as ashes) or they can choose to bury them in the cemetery if the family already has a plot. Obviously, many more family members can use a plot if they choose cremation.

In contrast, interment requires the purchase of a plot and the payment for interment, while a burial vault and winter and weekend fees could cost even more. For both, flowers, musicians and officiants are added costs. And don’t forget the obituary — that can cost as much as $250 in one local paper, the Daily Freeman.

Keyser said that interment is generally costs about a thousand dollars more, depending on the casket chosen. There are solid bronze caskets made that go for $20,000, though Buono said he’s never seen one. That’s the kind of casket someone like Michael Jackson might use.

“Caskets are like automobiles,” said Buono. “It’s a personal choice how fancy you want to get.”

Even if you don’t have the King of Pop’s budget, a casket can be personalized. Caskets are now made with panels which can reflect the interests of the deceased. A casket can sport a team logo for the lifelong fan or be decorated to glorify one’s favorite band. Buono said there’s even a NASCAR-themed casket.

Buono said he’s seeing trend toward more personalized services and a move away from traditional church funerals. “People are still spiritual,” he said, “but we’re seeing a move away from the church service with more of a focus on celebrating the life of the person who is being remembered. It’s more personal.”

Buono has had motorcycle escorts for a funeral, outdoor services or services at the deceased’s favorite location. “There’s nothing we won’t make an attempt at if people want to do something different.”

But there’s always going to be families who want the comfort of a traditional church service. “Baptisms, weddings and funerals,” Buono said, “they’re the three events that, for some people, you need to go to church.”

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