Cremations Vs. Traditional burial: A shift in final resting place dynamics

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

At what point in life does one start thinking about their eternal resting location? Will it be six feet under ground or an urn in a columbarium niche? If you are an obituary reader, you will have noticed that as per most wishes, cremation has taken place, with a celebration of life set to take place at a later date.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), out of the 306,468 deaths that occurred in Canada in 2020, 224,081 were cremated, accounting for 73.1 per cent of who agreed or had their family sign a cremation certificate. This is an increase from the 72.2 per cent cremation rate reported by CANA in 2019. In 2018, the cremation rate was 71.6 per cent, marginally lower than both proceeding years. There is no national cremation society in Canada.

Funeral homes and managing directors across Canada who have been in the industry for decades have seen the shift to cremations gain exponential popularity over the years.

Brad Carlson, managing funeral director at Green Funeral Home in Fort Frances has been in the funeral industry for 42 years. He said the cremation rate was about 11 per cent when he started, and has since climbed to the 70 per cent range.

“It’s taken 42 years, but it’s been a constant ramp up to get to where it is now,” Carlson said. “I think this is because of a combination of factors, one is because families seem to be more transient than ever. The death can take place today, but the service may take place a month or two down the line.”

Carlson said it is more convenient for a family that lives in Toronto and cannot come to Fort Frances on short notice to opt for cremation and delay having a service.

This convenience increased during the pandemic where travel and indoor gatherings were heavily restricted.

“Another reason for cremation is that families will sometimes scatter cremated remains,” Carlson said. “They may do it at the lake, at their cottage or any other place. That’s an option that you have with cremation where you don’t have with earth burial.”

Families are also opting for a celebration of life, as some of the religious connotation has gone out of funerals, Carlson added.

Although convenience has been attributed as the main reason for an increase in cremation rates, there are also other factors that shape the ever-growing phenomena.

Jason Lilley, owner and director of Northridge Funeral Home Ltd. in Emo, said cost is also a determining factor.

Lilley said cremation does not require the purchase of a casket, therefore diminishing the cost of what would otherwise be required for earth burial.

A single grave here may be in the range of $300 on average throughout the Rainy River District to be used for either a full burial or up to four cremated remains, Lilley said. While not a significant sum of money, this is not the case in larger centres of the province where you could be looking at five to six thousand dollars per plot.

“Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto has some of the highest real estate in the province because there is no more land being made in Toronto,” Lilley said. “We haven’t seen the great increases in land values here. But certainly, in other parts of the province it definitely has been a factor for families wishing to go with cremation and using columbarium. You’re not seeing the $15,000 funeral. With a memorial service you could be sitting at $5,000.”

While grave plot prices experience more inflation in southern Ontario than here in northwestern Ontario, cremation demand found the Town of Fort Frances purchasing three columbaria located at the Riverview Cemetery in Fort Frances.

Travis Rob, operations and facilities manager at the Town of Fort Frances, said the town has sold 41 out of the 336 niches for sale in the three new columbaria. There are now five columbaria in Fort Frances. The first two were purchased in 2006 and are fully sold out.

Each unit located on the two upper rows of the columbaria cost $1,467.64. Units on the middle four rows are $1,809.33. The bottom two row units cost $1,211.30. All these prices include care and maintenance but exclude taxes.

Rob said the prices are subject to the town’s annual user fee increase. Every December, council reviews the user fees and applies an increase factor to them. This factor is usually around inflation.

Carlson said cost could be a factor, depending on the type of service chosen.

“If you had a full traditional funeral, with cremation to follow, it’s very similar as a full traditional funeral with burial,” Carlson said. “The only difference in cost would be the actual price of the cemetery versus the price of the crematorium.”

Green Funeral Home uses the crematorium in International Falls and pays about $700 in cremation fees. Depending on the type of service, funeral home and crematorium charges, you can be paying anywhere from about $2,700 and beyond, Carlson said.

Although both Carlson and Lilley attribute the rise in cremation rates to convenience and cost, they said earth burial also has its own advantages.

Lilley said people need to see and touch the deceased body in order to fully understand that death has occurred.

“I find that folks who do immediate cremation with either no services or limited services or haven’t had a chance to see the person pass away or actually be up to the casket sometimes have a difficult grieving process,” Lilley said.

While some people may consider earth burial barbaric, Lilley said, psychiatrists in the Rainy River District stated that the grieving process is much longer and sometimes complicated if people did not get the chance to say their final goodbyes.

“Seeing a casket is not going to save you at the end of the day, but at least it provides an avenue for someone to realize that the person’s gone,” Lilley said. “The biggest thing is psychological. You physically see the person, or at least you can touch the casket. A little 8 by 10 box is a different story compared to seeing a casket.”

Lilley said that in his 29 years of being in the funeral industry, he also noticed that parents of a deceased child opt for earth burial over cremation.

“I think it’s the loss of life that’s not been lived,” Lilley said. “That’s not always the case. But we just see that here. I think it’s the grieving process because when a parent buries a child it provides [closure]. There’s more of an attachment when a parent buries a child. When it’s the other way around, the life has been lived. Yes, we lose them and we’re sad when a parent goes, but that’s the normality of life.”

The cremation decision is usually communicated by an individual to the funeral home, an executor or a family member. When death occurs, it is quite rare that the family is left not knowing what to do.

“We very seldom ever run across a situation where we’ve got a stalemate going on at the desk,” Lilley said.

While there are certain circumstances where family squabbles over ashes, Lilley said they are rare and would go to the legal next of kin or the executor.

Carlson said they go to International Falls twice a week and the cremation process takes about three hours.

On average, the ash of a deceased person weighs about two to four pounds, Lilley said, because ashes are bone structure.

“The size of the person doesn’t matter when it comes to cremation, you can have a big, obese person and you can have 95-year-old grandma,” Lilley said. “It’s not the body mass itself because it will disappear with the cremation process. You might have only a few pounds of ashes with a 95-year-old grandma, where you may have four pounds of ashes with someone much larger and much younger. Bone density is what makes up. So, on average, you’ll have about 200 cubic inches of ashes.”

The only time where earth burial has to occur is when the deceased is indigent, which means they do not have family, next of kin or an executer, and does not have a formal record at a funeral home of post-death plans.

“We are required to bury them just in case something ever came out of the woodwork, and somebody says they did not want to be cremated and you went ahead and cremated them,” Lilley said.