Bearing burdens now will widen choices after death

Over decades at The Enterprise, we’ve seen large trends through a local lens. Two of them came together this week in a way that we found both startling and enlightening.

Over the last decade, we’ve run dozens of letters to the editor from small rural cemeteries trying to remain solvent, and asking for contributions. We covered the story of a cemetery in Guilderland Center that no longer had the means to carry on and, as required by law, was given over to the town. We also wrote about a cemetery in New Scotland as controversy centered on whether to allow a cellular tower there. The tower was erected, providing income for the financially strapped cemetery.

Last week, we ran a front-page story on the premier cemetery in Guilderland — Prospect Hill. A green oasis on the hillside above a busy Western Avenue, the cemetery stretches over 50 acres and, in centuries past, had served as a central meeting place for townsfolk. John O’Mara, the vice president of the cemetery’s board of trustees, said he is concerned the not-for-profit cemetery association may have to turn the burial ground over to the town if it can’t find a way to stay solvent.

The pages of our paper for the last 130 years have chronicled the burials and gatherings that took place at Prospect Hill. When Guilderland was celebrating its bicentennial, the town historian, Alice Begley, looked for a center to the sprawling suburban town in which to hold a ceremony; she settled on the cemetery. There, where many in years’ past had assembled to hear speakers talking from the porch of the Victorian caretaker’s cottage, a more modern gathering was held.

Begley emulated the sort of get-together that, in 1890, saw Guilderland poet Magdalena L. LaGrange read her tribute to the fallen Civil War soldiers while surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic listened: “They died — they rest in tranquil peace — and we our tributes pay/ The flowers fair we place with care o’er where our soldiers lay.”

Cemeteries provided a place where friends and families of the dead could mourn for as long as they lived. Besides planned and public gatherings, there were often spontaneous and personal ones, too.

“I can remember going early to a cemetery where my grandparents were buried and we would pack a picnic and sit around for several hours,” Begley told our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden Harwood. “Once in a while, somebody would say, ‘Don’t walk on Grandpa.’”

Many of the markers that still stand are no longer visited by families, no longer honored with flowers. Bill James makes a point every Memorial Day of working with a group of Boy Scouts and members of veterans’ organizations to plant American flags by the graves of otherwise forgotten soldiers — soldiers they never knew.

Americans’ burial and mourning habits have changed.

That is the second trend we’ve noticed over our years at The Enterprise. We run full obituaries in our paper, free of charge, because we believe it is important to record the lives of people who make up our community. Years ago, cremations were few and far between. Recently, we’ve noticed that about half of the obituaries we print have traditional burials and the other half have cremations.

This is part of a nationwide trend. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, 42 percent of the 2.5 million Americans who died were cremated. That is a stunning increase from 3.56 percent in 1960.

Based on its records, graphed like a steadily rising slope, the Cremation Association of North America predicts a rate of 55.65 percent in 2025. The rate varies from state to state, with the highest cremation rates in the West; in Nevada, it is 74 percent. Other states with high rates are Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, Montana, Arizona, Maine, and Colorado. The lowest rates are in the South with Mississippi at 16 percent. New York is in the middle.

The reasons for rising rates of cremation are diverse.  Money is the leading reason, according to the 2012 Cremation Association’s annual report; the national average cost for a cremation is $1,650 compared to the national average for burial at $7,300. Another reason is portability; it’s expensive to exhume and relocate buried bodies. As families have scattered and are less likely to live near a central burial place, ashes have become popular.

Cremation is considered to be more environmentally friendly. There has been a movement in the United States towards “green funerals,” which favors ashes or, if burying a body, using a coffin of wood or woven willow that will decompose along with a body that has not been embalmed.

Also, there has been a change in some churches’ stances on cremation. In 1963, the Roman Catholic Church — about a fifth of the United States population is Catholic — lifted its ban on cremation and then, in the 1990s, allowed cremated remains to be present at a Catholic funeral.

The Scripps Howard News Service did a study that showed the states with the higher rates of church attendance generally have lower rates of cremation. States with large numbers of evangelical Protestants who believe in the resurrection of the body tend to have lower rates of cremation. Jewish tradition, based in the Torah, does not allow embalming and forbids a body to remain unburied overnight.

The highest cremation rate, worldwide, is in Japan at over 99 percent. India also has a high rate, over 85 percent, as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains typically cremate their dead.

Americans follow many different faiths and hold many different beliefs. There is no right way to mourn; it is a personal choice. But it can be instructive to look at our history as we consider our future.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, founded in 1854, is emblematic of mid-19th-Century cemeteries across our land. “The typical funeral that is popular in modern day America,” writes Dr. Jay D. Schvaneveldt, a professor with the Department of Family and Human Development at Utah State University, in “Remembering at Death: Funeral and Related Rituals,” “is a very recent happening. In the past, funerals tended to be very plain, a pine box, family and friends caring for the body, and simple burial. This is in dramatic contrast to the modern funeral that is carried out by professionals who transform the dead body into a living memorial.”

Native Americans cremated remains, and early settlers buried their dead in small churchyards or in family plots. With industrialization, as cities grew, large tracts of land — like that at Prospect Hill Cemetery — were set aside for burial. The earlier simple grave markers or piles of rocks were replaced by more elaborate memorials for those who could afford them

Embalming was not regularly used until the Civil War era, and became widespread in the late 1800s. “Embalming the dead for eternity is indeed a very recent and foreign practice to what Americans have done for many centuries,” writes Schvaneveldt. “With embalming and modern funeral practices has come a general denial of death in America. This denial is illustrated in words used at the time of death. For example, the words mortician and funeral director have replaced undertaker. The corpse is now the loved one. Loved ones are now interred, not buried. The coffin has become a casket and embalming is now preparation....”

We would not deny anyone the comfort they need in a time of bereavement. But, as we look at the national trends, playing out locally, we think the advice we quoted last week from the state’s Division of Cemeteries long won’t sustain burial grounds as we’ve known them.

The town’s supervisor, Kenneth Runion, told us this week, if Prospect Hill were to cede control to Guilderland, the town would honor the burial plots that have already been purchased — as it has with the cemetery it now maintains in Guilderland Center — but it would not get into the business of selling lots for future burials.

We believe the cemeteries we have are valuable. We look to cities like Boston and Philadelphia that have preserved theirs, providing a sense of place and concrete history. But that does not speak to the very personal need that Begley raised when she said it is “important in family life to have your cemetery with your departed ones close by.” Begley’s plot, next to where her husband is buried, is already guaranteed to her, whether or not the town takes over Prospect Hill Cemetery.

But if there are others in our community who value a burial with that kind of proximity, now is the time to step up and join the ranks — at Prospect Hill and other cemeteries — of the graying trustees who can no longer carry on.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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