Economics and generational differences among deciding factors

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 20, 2013

A recent article in Time magazine predicts that cremation rates nationwide will reach 50 percent by 2017. Local funeral directors say that trend is driven mainly by the economy.
Summie Carter and his father, the late Don Carter, saw the trend coming.
“That was the reason we put in a crematory years ago. We saw that the percentage was going up,” says Carter, president of Summersett Funeral Home and Crematory. “We were the first funeral home in Rowan County to license a crematory.”
That was in 1999.
“Back then,” Carter says, “we were like 17 percent cremation. But the prediction was that the percentage would be up to 30 to 40 percent by now. We knew we needed to serve those people.”
The predictions have proved correct. According to Carter, there were 81,798 deaths in North Carolina in 2012. Of that figure, there were 28,318 cremations, or 34.6 percent.
Last year, the Rowan County total was 529 cremations in 1,501 deaths, or 35.2 percent. Summersett’s own statistics last year were 318 deaths with 115 cremations or 36.1 percent.
“We’re a little above Rowan County and a little above the state,” Carter says. “In 2010, that percentage was 28.6, so you can see it has risen.”
The choice seems to be generational in nature, says Carter, 63. “In my generation, the trend is that we’re gonna bury Mom and Dad, but we’re going to be cremated. We kept hearing that over and over again. Just this month, we put a whole new sign out front. We want families to know that we’re not only a funeral home, we’re a cremation center, too.”
A traditional funeral with earth burial can cost between $9,000 and $10,000, Carter says. Cremation runs roughly one-quarter of the cost at about $2,500.
“Cremation is becoming more acceptable, but I still think the No. 1 reason is money,” he says.
A second reason is that many people have moved away from where they were born and raised and went to school, Carter says. For example, cremation rates in Nevada are 73 percent, and over 50 percent in Florida.
“There’s no tie to the area, so why have a big, traditional funeral?” Carter says.
Yet a big, traditional funeral is still the norm in the South, especially in more rural areas.
“I’m sure there are people who have never, ever left Rowan County their entire lives,” says Brent Lyerly, president of Lyerly Funeral Home. “We do a strong business out in the county, and funerals there tend to be traditional.”
He estimates that his funeral home has 75 percent traditional funerals versus 25 percent cremations — but that the number of cremations is going up.
“Anything that goes on up North or out West eventually comes to the South,” he says.
Lyerly, 58, knows people are hurting financially.
“If I had to choose between putting food on the table or burying somebody, the choice is pretty clear,” he says.
Lyerly Funeral Home opened Cremation Concepts in 2009. That business cremates humans and pets in separate retorts. A retort is the machine in which cremation takes place.
Another trend that Lyerly has seen is having a body present for a funeral, after which the body is cremated.
“It’s kind of the best of two worlds,” Lyerly says.
James Alexander, president of Noble and Kelsey funeral home, has also seen this trend.
“We are seeing a good bit of that,” Alexander says. “But we seldom mention there is a cremation after the service. We try to get families an option, especially, if they’re working within a budget.”
Alexander says that Noble and Kelsey has about 70 percent traditional funerals vs. 30 percent cremation, but that the figure is increasing, especially among younger generations.
Noble and Kelsey does not have a crematory onsite but works with Cremation Concepts, located just blocks away.
Alexander, 45, has been in the funeral business for 26 years.
“We consider it as a business, but we also consider it a ministry of helping people. We know that families are at the lowest point of their lives,” he says.
Although funeral homes here traditionally serve either white or black clients, Alexander has seen that change, too.
“It’s not about black or white,” he says. “It’s about who can give the best service and the best deal.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

Death comes to us all, even funeral directors. And as you might imagine, local funeral directors have different plans for when that time comes.
“I plan to do a traditional funeral,” says Summie Carter, president of Summersett Funeral Home and Crematory. “No one on my side of the family has ever been cremated.”
His wife, Debbie, however, does want to be cremated.
“I told my wife I do want to be buried,” says James Alexander, president of Noble and Kelsey Funeral Home. His wife, Cathy, also plans to be buried.
“The main thing is that I want to be remembered in this community for helping the folk in their time of need.”
He adds, “We really don’t think about it ourselves,” he says, “because we deal with everybody else. It has crossed my mind.”
Not Brent Lyerly’s.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” says Lyerly, president of Lyerly Funeral Home.

As cremation trends continue to rise, local churches are installing columbariums to meet the needs of their members.
A columbarium is a place where a person’s ashes or cremains can be inurned. They can also be dispersed in a scatter garden.
In Salisbury, St. John’s, Gloria Dei and Calvary Lutheran churches all have columbariums, as do St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, First Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church. First Baptist Church opened its columbarium in September.
Pat Nelson’s husband, Richard, was the first person whose cremains were placed in the columbarium at St. John’s following his memorial service in 1998. The columbarium was dedicated in 1997 as part of the church’s 250th anniversary celebration.
“I wanted to be buried at my church,” Nelson says. “In the city, you can’t have a cemetery. On Sunday mornings, I go by the columbarium and look up and see his name, and I feel good that he’s there.”
The religious restrictions regarding cremation are no longer in place, says Summie Carter, president of Summersett Funeral Home. The funeral home recently handled two Jewish cremations in which the cremains were buried in the Jewish section of City Memorial Park. Cremations for those who are Catholic are also now allowed, as long as the cremains are buried.
The options surrounding cremation are myriad.
Because a body must be in a container to be cremated, you can either choose a cardboard box, or you can buy a casket in which to be cremated.
Your ashes or cremains may be scattered or buried or kept with the family. Summersett displays a whole wall full of urns — from marble to bronze to cloisonné jars and more. There’s even cremation jewelry, in which a small amount of ashes is put into a cross or other type of jewelry.
Summersett’s Crematory is behind the funeral home, in the last bay of a four-bay garage. It takes two to three hours for a body to burn once it’s placed in the retort. Temperatures reach 1,600-1,700 degrees. The ashes then cool for one hour and are placed in a processor.
Bodies are cremated one at a time, all with proper identification and paperwork in place.
“I’m thankful that North Carolina has strict laws in place, for us and for the families,” Carter says.
“We as funeral directors in the state of North Carolina have pushed for these laws just as hard as anybody else,” adds Brent Lyerly, president of Lyerly Funeral Home.