Baby boomers, myself included, are working hard to accept that our beloved adult children do not, in large measure, want our stuff when we die.
They don’t want our china or crystal. They don’t want our art. They don’t want our furniture. And they sure as heck don’t want our photo albums.
They’re more mobile and practical, less about things and more about experiences.
I say, good for you, kids. (And while I have your attention, what should I do with your 10 boxes of elementary school art?)
But, seriously, as boomers begin to downsize, a growing number of people would be wise to discuss long-term plans for another item they’ll be leaving behind.
In a quiet but stunning shift, cremation overtook traditional burial as the most common end-of-life option in 2016. The rate of cremation in the United States is nearing 53 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Minnesota’s cremation rate is 61 percent.
By 2030, more than 70 percent of Americans will choose cremation, the NFDA predicts. Driving those numbers are boomers, the leading edge of whom are now in their 70s.
While families are growing comfortable talking about cremation vs. burial, they are leaving an important step out of the equation, industry leaders say, causing unnecessary confusion and guilt.
“If you’re burying a casket, you know exactly what’s going to happen,” said Bill McReavy, president of Twin Cities-based Washburn McReavy Funeral and Cremation Services.
But many families — due to grief or exhaustion or simple confusion about what’s legal — don’t discuss the long-term ramifications of a loved one’s cremated remains. If those remains are not immediately buried or dispersed among children, for example, what are survivors to do with them 10 or 20 years from now?
“Every funeral home in America has a collection of cremated remains,” McReavy said. Others have a loved one’s urn stored in the garage or a closet for years, guilt-ridden when they remarry or move on emotionally or need to sell the house.
While cremation is not new, McReavy said the trend “of not wanting to commit to a location is new. If people can leave the decision in a holding pattern, they’ll leave it in a holding pattern.”
McReavy points to the funeral home of a colleague in Albuquerque, N.M., which addressed this issue head-on in August with an event called Scatter Day.
People were invited to scatter cremated remains at two specified areas in Albuquerque’s Sunset Memorial Park all day long for free.
“As we prepared, we wondered, ‘What happens if nobody shows up?’ ” said French Funerals and Cremations president Tom Antram, who organized Scatter Day.
“Obviously, that wasn’t the case.”
French received more than 300 phone calls in lead-up to the day. Close to 600 people participated in 115 scatterings (after first signing a legal document assuring that they were next-of-kin), Antram said.
Some came accompanied by young children. Others were aging widows and widowers. They arrived in beat-up trucks or dressed in fine suits.
“One gentleman had kept his son’s remains for 40 years,” said Antram, noting that one in five families has cremated remains at home.
The man carried his son’s remains in a beautiful box he crafted himself.
Families could choose to scatter the ashes in an underground ossuary or a rose garden at the top of a hill, where loved ones’ names were inscribed.
“The stories we got came down to this,” Antram said. “At the time you lose a loved one, there are a lot of decisions you’re making. Choosing a place [for the cremains] can be just overwhelming. They said, ‘We were going to scatter her up in the mountains but … ’ or ‘Mom’s been on the mantel for five years and I feel bad.’
“This allowed them to honor their loved ones,” he said. “I’d love to see this across the country.”
Kevin Waterston, general manager of the Cremation Society of Minnesota, understands the appeal of a Scatter Day.
“The longer you have them, the more you wonder what to do with them,” Waterston said.
A concept like Scatter Day, he said, “is not a bad idea.”
He said, “Everybody experiences grief differently. The grief of losing a child, for example, lingers forever, but maybe parents eventually are looking at their own mortality. This option gives them somewhere to place their loved one with dignity.”
Most religions allow cremation, with the exception of the Islamic, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox and some fundamentalist Christian faiths. The Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed in 2016 that, while the church prefers burial, it now allows cremation for reasons compatible with church teachings, according to the Cremation Association of North America. It does not sanction the scattering of remains, however, and prefers the presence of the body during the liturgy, before cremation.
Cremation is appealing for many reasons, not the least of which is cost. The national median price of a funeral with viewing and burial was around $7,000 in 2014, according to the NFDA.
A basic cremation runs about one-fourth of that, although the price can jump up if a family chooses a casket, viewing, embalming or other cremation-related options.
Others are driven to cremation by a desire to be kind to the Earth by taking up less of it. And many are witnessing the realities of mobility, knowing that their progeny are unlikely to set down roots in any one place for long.
While the discussion can be difficult, it’s important. And it’s kind.
You might tell the kids that, with time, memories of you will become more comforting than a vase in the closet and that they have your blessing to scatter your ashes, or turn them into a lovely piece of jewelry, or a tattoo or a reef or handblown glass, all of which are cremains options.
But do have the talk.
“The advice I would give to any and all families is to simply talk about the big picture,” McReavy said. “We refer to them as ‘The Significant Three.’ Number one, do you want traditional burial or cremation? Number two, where would you like the service to take place? And number three, where would you like your final resting place to be for either a casket or cremated remains?
“This should be a part of everyone’s planning,” he said, “along with a health care directive and a living will.”