Funeral traditions changing with growth of cremations

I had rarely given much thought to trends surrounding funeral choices. That changed when I joined the Morningside Cemetery Association’s board of trustees and began to look at files of recent burials in this historic cemetery. I noticed most were internments of ashes (or cremains), not casket burials containing the deceased; and that caused me to reflect on choices made by my own family.

My maternal grandfather died in the late 1960s when I was in high school. It was the first time I experienced the death of a close family member, and I still clearly recall many of the funeral arrangements. These arrangements were carried out by a funeral home in Burlington and included use of a casket, calling hours both in the afternoon and evening, a traditional funeral mass and internment of the casket at Resurrection Park. I doubt it occurred to my grandmother or other family members to consider cremation

The Morningside Cemetery and Morningside Drive are the focal point of a permitting issue that the Selectboard has been discussing all summer.Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Morningside Cemetery.Photo by Chea Waters Evans.

. Even if offered as an option, they would surely have dismissed it as inappropriate for a Catholic burial.

Fast forward to a stormy winter day in 2016 and my mother’s death. Before her passing, my mother had been clear about her wishes — she favored cremation.

The question of when to have a memorial service and internment for my mother’s ashes was a decision that required more discussion. My brother and I went back and forth about whether we should try to gather family and friends in mid to late December. We decided it would be difficult, and perhaps unsafe, for out-of-state participants to drive in from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey on snowy roads. Additionally, we weren’t keen to have a funeral service within days of Christmas. So, we postponed a memorial until June. Fr. Cray, then pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, was helpful and supportive of our choices.

As a member of the Morningside Cemetery Association, I know that the changes I’ve seen within my own family involving memorials, casket burials and cremation are reflected in many other families. In fact, across the United States cremations are now the choice of a majority of families. One online estimate indicated that, in 2021, cremations were used in approximately 54 percent of deaths in the country. The percentage is even higher in Vermont. The reasons are many, including cost. Traditional casket burials are expensive, often 8,000 to 10,000 dollars. Cremation costs are just a quarter to a third of that amount.

Environmental issues also come into play. The impact of casket burials on groundwater has been a growing concern. Convenience is another consideration. With cremation, a family can schedule a memorial at a time of their choosing, which can be important for those spread across the country and for those with demanding work or school schedules. The trend toward “at the convenience of the family” has been especially common since the COVID pandemic. Obituaries often state that memorials will be scheduled at a later time, presumably when warmer weather allows for outdoor gatherings and distancing.

With the shift to more cremations and fewer casket burials, cemeteries are rethinking their practices and options as well. Our neighbors in Shelburne have developed a cremation garden in the Town Cemetery. The Vermont Veterans Cemetery in Randolph Center offers both in-ground and columbarium options (a columbarium is a structure with niches for storage of urns). Morningside Cemetery is planning to develop a cremation garden in the near future. In the meantime, the association has updated its policies to allow for the burial of up to six cremation urns in each plot.

As we move forward, we will no doubt see other options being offered. For grieving families, this is important. Different choices make possible options that work well spiritually, emotionally and financially.

Charlotte residents interested in purchasing a plot at Morningside Cemetery may contact Nancy Richardson, 802-539-2110 to discuss their needs and available options.

(Cynthia Marshall, of Charlotte, is a trustee of Morningside Cemetery Association.)