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To cremate or not to cremate? Results are now in: Yes

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Many of the families leave gifts when visiting appropriate to their culture and their relatives' interests. Here a Russian family has left a small bottle of vodka, a rose and a chocolate bar on top of one of the crematories. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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The crematory at the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York houses several thousand urns. The majority of families are Asian, but there are many Jewish, Hispanic and Italians that have made Greenwood their eternal home. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Many Buddhist families visiting the Greenwood Cemetery like to burn in incense for religious reasons before visiting relatives' remains. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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An Asian-style crematory at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York that was recently completed. Cemetery officials believe it will take an estimated 30 years for the complex, which has space for 8,000 peoples' remains, to be at full capacity. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Urns can either be placed in locker-size cabinets or buried in urns in the ground, similar to a traditional burial. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Buddy Phaneuf's family had been in the funeral home business in Manchester, N.H., for more than 100 years, but a decade ago he decided to break with tradition.

Looking for a market niche to diversify his operations, he started a cremation society, which offers simple, low-cost cremations in place of the more expensive traditional burial services.

“We were looking for a new way to serve the market,” Phaneuf said. “Consumers immediately took to the idea.”

Today, his company derives half its revenue from the cremation society, which serves three times as many families as Phaneuf's traditional funeral services.

The number of Americans choosing cremation has tripled since the 1980s, fueled by lower costs, relaxed religious rules and societal acceptance. Many people sign up for membership in cremation societies before they die; people pay a nominal fee and then receive a discount at the time of cremation.

The cremation rate in the United States currently stands at about 32 percent. In Canada, the rate is 56 percent. By comparison, the cremation rate is 72 percent in the United Kingdom and 98 percent in Japan, according the Cremation Association of North America.

“The vast majority have this decision made prior to death,” said Armand Chevrette, a CANA board member who is president of a cemetery in Bridgeport, Conn. “They are discussing this with their families.”

One thing driving the cremation trend is the increased cost of funerals. An average service costs more than $6,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The price is high because more products and services are involved in the process.

On average, a cremation costs about $1,900 if done through a funeral home. The average cost of the service through a cremation society is $1,000, Phaneuf said. Direct cremation itself, involving no additional services or products, could cost as little as $500.

“Funeral prices have risen, and for many people a traditional funeral is out of their financial reach,” Phaneuf said.

Flexibility is also a driving force. Many urns containing the cremated remains are simply buried. They require less space in family plots at the nation's crowded urban cemeteries. People with environmental concerns choose cremation for the same reason.

Because there is greater flexibility in memorial services and portability of the remains, the appeal for many is what they can do with the ashes.

“A lot of what is happening now is personalization,” Chevrette said. “A lot of people scatter them anywhere where it's legal.”

That includes dispersing the ashes in space through the use of high-altitude balloons, in the ocean or in places that are important to the family. People are placing small amounts of cremated remains in jewelry or glass artwork or even Harley Davidson gas tanks, Chevrette said.

Shortly after a recent Catholic funeral Mass, the daughter of a woman who had chosen cremation approached Elisa Krcilek, gave her a hug and thanked her for her help with the process.

The woman’s father had been buried several years ago and cremation was never talked about, but her mother made the decision that she wanted to be cremated so she could be buried in the same spot as her husband, said Krcilek, the vice president of the Illinois Cremation Society.

“If graves are in shortage, as is the case with a lot of our cemeteries here, it gives families the opportunity to be together,” Krcilek said.

Religion has played a key role in the acceptance of cremation. Cremation rates in the United States and Canada are higher in the West Coast region, where there is a higher number of Buddhists and Hindus, who have traditionally cremated their dead.

A decision in 1962 by the Roman Catholic Church to change its long-standing policy against cremation led to a large increase in the cremation rate in the United States.

Some faiths still ban their followers from choosing cremation, including Islam, Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Judaism.

Ultimately, as the rate of cremation increases and people feel more comfortable talking about it, society becomes more accepting, experts say.

As demand for cremations increases, a shift is happening in the funeral industry. Many more funeral homes are adding cremation services, Krcilek said. She added the whole funeral industry needs to rethink its marketing and advertising, because it is losing a huge chunk of business to cremation companies.

“Cremation is here to stay, it’s not a fad,” she said. “There is no right or wrong. It's just different.”

E-mail: anb2118@columbia.edu