Have you decided yet on what will be your last decision?
Growing up in the United States, the culture of death that I was accustomed to was steeped in tradition. Tradition that the deceased was given a funeral in a church. Tradition that prior to the funeral, the deceased person was on display in an open casket as mourners paid tribute to the deceased family. Tradition that everyone who attended the funeral wore black. Tradition that the funeral service consisted of prayers, hymns, a eulogy, some family memories and a religious talk about what happens after death. Tradition that after the funeral service, the mourners climbed in their cars and followed a hearse to the burial site. Tradition that everyone said their last good-byes around an open hole in some manicured grass. Tradition that everyone got in their cars and left to continue on with their lives.
Today, much of that tradition doesn’t make sense. It is costly, morose, and final. There is another option that makes more sense for this day and age: cremation.
For one it is cheaper. The cost for a traditional burial can run upwards of $10,000 or more after you consider the mortuary and embalming, the casket, the grave site, the burial, and the head stone costs. Cremation costs between $800 and $1,500 depending on where you have it done, at a crematorium (cheaper) or a mortuary.
It is respectful. A body laying in an open casket for a viewing never, ever looks like the person that once lived. With cremation, your last visual memories are the photos in your mind, in picture frames, and in scrapbooks where you remember the deceased when they were healthy and vibrant.
Burial in one location is so final. That is why it is referred to as the final resting place. On the other hand, with cremation, you choose how and where the ashes are handled based on the deceased wishes. Some choose to have their remains scattered at their favorite location. For others, their remains are placed in an urn or similar container so that they can be kept near the family, especially if and when the family moves.
Cremation just makes sense.
I decided a few years ago that I want to be cremated. My husband isn’t there yet, and that’s OK; it takes time and lots of contemplation to change a tradition. When I discussed my choice with my parents, after their own soul searching, my dad decided that cremation was his choice too. My mom wasn’t there yet, and that’s OK.
When my dad passed away a few months ago, it made the final decision for his life easier– or so I thought. What I didn’t expect was the push back from well-intentioned family, church leaders, and friends. Because of their traditions, their misunderstandings, their uncomfortableness with cremation, they tried to talk my mom out of this decision. And because she wasn’t sold on the idea for herself, she became confused when people would say, “You shouldn’t do that,” or “Don’t worry what Bill wanted, you are in charge, do what you want,” or my favorite, “Don’t you want Bill to be at his services?” I kept reminding her that it was important to stick with Dad’s decision. It took some friends, when they came to pay their respects at the house, sharing how they have decided to be cremated and already have all their arrangements made, that my mom finally felt confident in going forward with my dad’s cremation.
We had a mortuary handle the cremation as it was owned by a family my mom knew and she felt strongly about giving them the business. The mortuary mentioned that 85% of their business today is for cremation. My dad had no preference as what to do with his ashes so that decision was left up to us. The mortuary said some families put their loved ones’ remains in a traditional urn; some have put the ashes in a mason jar, a beer can, or even a living room lamp. We decided to keep them in a nice sealed box that the mortuary provides until some definitive alternative is agreed upon.
What worried my mom the most was the tradition of a funeral. “How can you have a funeral service without a casket?” As a family, we came up with a service that blended the old traditions with cremation. The service was held at my parent’s church. We still had a room available prior to the service for people to come give their condolences to my mom and the rest of the family. Instead of an open casket in the room, we showed a video of my dad’s life. We also had my mom’s favorite still pictures of my dad on display along with a dish of his favorite candy.
The funeral service was more of a Celebration of Life. My dad was a huge USC fan, so to honor him, instead of wearing black, the family all wore USC colors: cardinal and gold. In front of the chapel where a casket would have been, we created a memorial with my dad’s picture and a bouquet of red and gold roses.
The program had traditional hymns, a musical selection performed by a grandson-in-law, followed by me giving my dad’s life story. My two sisters then shared their memories of our dad. After, a talk about our religious beliefs on death was presented by a local church authority that my dad was close to. The Bishop of my parent’s congregation gave some final remarks and words of comfort for the family to end the service. The memorial lasted one hour followed by a luncheon for guests.
The family (especially my mom) were all pleased with how everything turned out with my dad’s cremation decision. Several of my parent’s friends remarked after the service how they wanted to be cremated but were getting push back from family and that they didn’t know how to break from tradition. How we handled the service gave them comfort in moving ahead with their own cremation decision.
Changing long held traditions is never easy. With the right balance of respect for the past and confidence for the future, new traditions — like cremation — can be started and embraced.