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VOL. 7 | NO. 36 | Saturday, August 30, 2014

Embracing Cremation

High cost of funerals drives search for end-of-life alternatives


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As business decisions go, this was a tricky one.

Jeff and Steve Murphy, owners of Music City Mortuary, opened their Nashville business in 2001, catering primarily to the needs of other funeral directors, providing transportation, embalming and preparation services, shipping – everything a mortuary business provides.

Soon came the question of whether to add cremation to their services? Was it the proper move and could they afford it?

Cremation was uncommon in Middle Tennessee when brothers Steve Murphy, left, and Jeff Murphy of Music City Mortuary decided to make the required investment. They got into the market at the right time, with the number of cremations in the area increasing.


When told they would need to conduct 100 cremations a year to break even on the “retort,” the chamber used for incineration, they were understandably nervous that they would not be able to pay for it.

But clients had an interest, so they bought the equipment despite the misgivings and installed the crematory in 2005.

“We did about 300 that year, and we were blown away,” Jeff Murphy says. “About that time it seems like there was a rapid increase of families who chose cremation. In 2007, our cremations had grown to the point to where we had to put in a second retort.”

There are only six active crematories in Davidson County, serving more than 50 funeral homes, and the Murphy brothers have had an increase every year since offering the service.

Last year they conducted 1,500 cremations.

The brothers have even added a pet crematory that handles 400-500 animals annually.

Mary Poindexter of Nashville Funeral and Cremation Service, says her business started as a trade embalming service, performing embalming and body removal for other funeral homes. In 2004, the business opened its doors to the public, offering affordable prices.

“We do our own cremations on site, and we do our own embalming,” she explains. “The only thing different from us than other funeral homes is that we don’t have a chapel. But we do our services at your venue, so it personalizes it for you. It is in the comfort of your own environment, around people you are comfortable with.”

Cremations on the rise

The number of cremations continues to rise in the United States, rising from 3.56 percent of people who died in the U.S. in 1960 to 42 percent in 2012, according to the Cremation Association of North America, which estimates the number will climb to nearly 50 percent by 2017.

Tennessee, however, ranks in the bottom 10 nationally for percentage of cremations at 31.7 percent. Nevada (74.2 percent) and Washington (72.6 percent) have the highest rates.

“Our cremation rate is about 40 percent now, but will continue to increase,” Poindexter says.

“One of the reasons is the pricing in the funeral business,” she adds. “With the economy, they can’t afford the traditional funeral service. We offer a very affordable package here, but even if they can afford our funeral package, they have the cemetery costs on top of that.

“In the Nashville area, a lot of the funeral homes are corporate and cemeteries are corporate, so they set their own rules and guidelines. So if you have $4,000 here, and another $3,500-$5,000 with cemetery costs, they are not seeing the value in that.”

The National Funeral Director’s Associations states the average cost of a funeral is $8,343, not including cemetery, monument or marker costs, which can easily be another $5,000. At Nashville Funeral Home and Cremation, a direct cremation with no service or viewing is $770.

Of course, it’s not just Tennessee, but the South in general, that seems to be slower to adopt cremation, despite the cost savings.

Joining Tennessee (31.7 percent) and Mississippi (16.9 percent) at the low end are Georgia (31.1 percent), Arkansas (29.5 percent), Louisiana (22.7 percent), Kentucky (22.4 percent) and Alabama (19.8 percent).

Needs of a transient nation

Brian Starkey of the East Tennessee Cremation Society is sure that won’t last forever. His family owns Rose Mortuary, the second-oldest business in Knoxville and the oldest funeral home, tracing its roots back to 1884.

Brian Starkey, whose family owns Rose Mortuary, says a more mobile society is contributing to an increase in cremations.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“It is 100 percent a rising trend,” he says of cremation. “The South is one of the last strongholds for tradition in the nation. But the South is really starting to see that increase in cremation and there are several reasons for it.”

Cost is one reason. Portability is another.

“Two generations ago kids lived where their parents lived,” Starkey explains. “You were born somewhere, lived there and died. That is changing now and families are more transient, moving around. Or mom or dad will come to live with you at those end times of life, but have no tie to where they pass away. Why bury them in Knoxville if they don’t know we will even be there?”

The Costs

Cost is arguably the biggest reason cremation is on the rise.

The median U.S. cost for a funeral in 2012 was $8,343, not including cemetery, monument or marker costs, or cash-advance items such as flowers and obituaries.

The average cost of direct cremation is less than $1,000.

Here’s the breakdown of the costs of a typical traditional funeral:

Non-declinable basic services fee: $1,975
Removal/transfer of remains to funeral home: $285
Embalming: $695
Other preparation of the body: $225
Use of facilities/staff for viewing: $400
Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony: $495
Use of a hearse: $295
Use of a service car/van: $130
Basic memorial printed package: $150
Metal casket: $2,395
Vault: $1,298

Source: National Funeral Director Association

Plus, when families choose cremation, they can control how and when the memorial service will be handled, something that has big appeal for busy families who don’t want to be rushed through a memorial.

“It gives freedom of time to a family,” Starkey says. “It is not like everyone has to catch a flight in two days to be there for a burial.”

Kayla Miller of Dogwood Cremation in Powell, just outside Knoxville, agrees traditional funerals still trump in Tennessee.

“So many families do it because that is what their family has always done,” she says.

But Starkey, 41, says adding cremation services two years ago to his family’s longtime funeral home only made sense, even as others wondered if he would be hurting his own business.

“We saw in the Knoxville market that there were 500 deaths a year where families chose not to use a funeral home, and we felt like we were the death care experts and wanted to be in that space,” he says. That’s when he formed the East Tennessee Cremation Society, offering low-cost cremations. “Those families who were choosing cremation over a full service funeral home, if they wanted that they were going to find it.”

Starkey got a cremation license in November 2012, and in the first month served 19 families. Last year it was 70, and so far this year, they have helped 100 families.

“Between our two funeral homes we serve 800 families annually, so there will be a time when this cremation society is serving 400-500 families a year,” Starkey says.

Cremations are done at East Tennessee Cremation Company, a co-op crematory built and owned by local family-owned funeral homes not affiliated with the cremation society.

“Several years ago, Rose Mortuary in Knoxville, Smith Mortuary in Maryville, Atchley Mortuary in Sevierville, we didn’t want to do our cremations with a third party, so we all got together and invested and built a crematory,” Starkey says.

Religion plays a part

While all Christian denominations allow cremation, along with Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, it is forbidden in others, including Orthodox Judaism and Islam.

Some religions have evolving opinions about it.

An assortment of urns at Music City Mortuary, including urns for pet ashes.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

“In 1963, the Vatican lifted the cremation ban, and since 1997 cremated remains have been allowed to be present at funeral mass, and are allowed to be given the same respect as remains in a casket.” says Deacon Hans Toecker with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville.

“It is pretty much as popular among Catholics as it is among non-Catholics at this point,” he explains, estimating about 28 percent of local Catholic deaths result in cremation, but in more populous areas of Catholics, the number is closer to the 40 percent national average.

But that doesn’t mean parishioners can keep grandma on the shelf or scatter the ashes in the ocean, if they want to remain compliant in the church, even though Toecker says people do it all the time.

“Cremated remains must be buried in a cemetery, crypt or other appropriate burial place,” Toecker says. “We need to give the dead the respect they deserve, and they need to be placed at rest.

“At some point in the grieving process we say farewell to the person who has died so we can be reunited again in heaven, and you can’t do that if you are constantly keeping the remains around.

Nashville’s Catholic cemetery, Calvary, has even expanded the area where cremated remains can be buried, and Starkey says in East Tennessee churches are able to offer that as well, a throwback to when regional cemeteries were attached to the church.

“Several churches nationwide are putting in mini-mausoleums for cremated remains,” Starkey says.

“It is a new concept, but a throwback to an old tradition of church cemeteries before they were managed by companies. Here in Knoxville, especially in the Episcopal church and some Presbyterian churches, they are offering that to their parishioners now.”

Overcoming misconceptions

It’s impossible for people in the cremation business to forget the discovery of the mass grave at Georgia’s Tri-State Crematory in 2002, when 334 bodies were found stashed all over the property instead of having actually been cremated.

To combat that memory, reputable businesses have an open-door policy, viewing room and more.

“People are still aware of that debacle and will have questions about that,” Murphy says. “Earlier on, we had more people who wanted to watch their loved ones go into the machine to make sure they are getting their mother back, but we employ an identification system here.”

Murphy employs a multi-level ID system and is inspected by the state twice a year.

“We want the family to be comfortable we are doing things the right way,” he says. “I understand people’s concerns because you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

“We encourage people to ask questions, and we will provide them with as much peace of mind as we can.”

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