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A phoenix in the ashes

As people live longer and funeral costs increase, cremation is a more popular option. While the traditional funeral industry has struggled in recent years, companies offering cremation services see growth in the future.

A staunch Catholic, Peggy Tammany knew precisely how she wanted to be treated when she died.

She pictured a serene memorial service in St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenwich, Conn., where decades ago she had been baptized, had her first communion and was married. Her remains were to be placed in the same Greenwich cemetery where her parents, her siblings and her in-laws were buried.

And she left her husband, Ed, with one last request. Something that used to be a rather un-Catholic thing to do: cremation.

"When I was growing up, cremation was (viewed as) a terrible thing," said Ed Tammany, who carried out the wishes of his wife of 48 years when she died a year ago this month. Ed, 69, has decided to be cremated as well, as have many neighbors in the South Pasadena condo where he has lived since retirement.

"I would never have imagined it years ago," he said. "The church has become a little more liberal."

Cremation _ burning a dead body to skeletal remains that are then pulverized into ashes _ has become more than acceptable these days to those of many religions and backgrounds.

Nationally, about 24 percent of those who died in 1998 were cremated, up from about 6 percent in 1973.

In parts of the country it is quickly becoming more popular than a traditional, full service burial. In Florida, the cremation rate in 1998 was 43 percent, on pace to reach about 60 percent within 10 years.

1998 was actually a milestone in the tombstone business. For the first time, the number of cremations conducted in Florida exceeded the number of in-state internments: 63,000 cremations to 61,000 burials. (Overall, more Florida residents were buried than cremated because some bodies were sent out of state for internment.)

In Pinellas County, which leads the state in number of cremations, more than half of residents choose cremation over burial. Nearby, Sarasota boasts one of the highest cremation rates in the country: 70 percent.

"Burials will remain stagnant the next 10 to 15 years," predicted Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. "Any increase will all be taken up by cremation. All segments of the industry realize that."

For funeral homes that were accustomed to a cremation rate of less than 15 percent in the 1980s, the emergence of the industry has been a wake-up call.

North America's two biggest funeral-services companies are struggling to cope with a crisis brought on by a combination of bad business decisions, more people living longer and more cremations.

Service Corp. International of Houston, the biggest player, is selling 50 of its funeral homes and cutting 1,100 jobs in a $273-million restructuring announced this month. Last month, Loewen Group Inc. of Vancouver said it would sell about 425 U.S. funeral homes and cemeteries _ about a fourth of its sites _ as it continues to maneuver through bankruptcy reorganizations.

Lee Wilder, who tracks the funeral industry for the investment firm of J.C. Bradford in Atlanta, said the loss of business to cremation companies has contributed to SCI's "fairly pathetic" bottom line even though it operates its own cremation subsidiary. Making matters worse, she said, is pressure on funeral homes to cut prices as more consumers become aware of the price gap between a cremation and a traditional funeral.

Consider the pitch of the Neptune Society, a cremation-only California company that went public last year with the lure of arranging prepaid cremations over the Internet for a $1,200 package deal. Even simple burials are easily twice as expensive. A deluxe package of services from an upscale funeral home can push $10,000, not including cemetery charges such as grave space, crypts, monuments or markers.

Funeral home owners who used to think of cremations as a side business (often a money-losing one) have been trying to adapt for years. Many have moved beyond their traditional money-making device _ the casket _ to position themselves as full-service death handlers. And they handle cremations for customers, along with providing the caskets, memorial services and urns that add to profit.

In 1983, Service Corp. International bought a small cremation company in Florida called the National Cremation Society. The subsidiary now operates in four states, with registration pending in seven more. The cremation offices get business through referrals from funeral homes in the SCI network along with customers contacting them directly.

In Florida, the National Cremation Society holds more than $35-million in trust for prearranged cremations and services in its 24 locations.

Most of SCI's cremation offices are storefront locations that are licensed by the state only as "direct disposer" sites. Direct disposers are not allowed to hold memorial services or provide other funeral services for the deceased.

Offices of the National Cremation Society betray little evidence of the funeral home chain that owns it.

That's just as well for business. It gives the company access to customers who have chosen cremation and want nothing to do with a funeral home. "There is an element that believes cremation is not a service that they purchase from a funeral home," said Tom Snyder, who runs the cremation company out of the Houston headquarters of its parent company.

As with so much that involves death, cremation companies tend toward the soothing euphemism. (A cremation you pay for while you're alive is a "preneed plan." Figuring out what to do with the ashes is "disposition of the deceased.")

The tendency extends to their business names. The National Cremation Society and the rival Neptune Society are profit-making businesses, but calling them "societies" presents the loftier image of a non-profit educational organization.

Unlike the hybrids run by funeral homes, companies such as the Neptune Society are single-minded in their focus on cremation.

Formed 25 years ago, Neptune was named after the mythological god of the sea because of the popularity of scattering ashes on the water. Its two strongholds have been Florida and California, where it handled cremations for such celebrities as Cary Grant and William Holden.

Flush with $7-million raised in a public offering last fall, the company is starting to eye new markets.

"In the old days, we would never consider expanding into the Bible Belt area," said Hara Ahrens, Neptune vice president of operations for Florida. "Now we're getting inquiries there every day."

Neptune's Web site (www.neptunesociety.com) debuted in October, billing itself as "the hottest e-commerce Web site of the year."

Like others in its niche, Neptune's sales of prepaid cremations spiked last year after the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his Catholic family's decision to have his remains cremated and buried at sea. In recent decades, the Catholic Church gradually has opened the door to cremation _ first allowing the procedure, then allowing memorial services in church for people who are cremated.

Many mainstream Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal church, have increasingly supported cremation. Conservative Jews are not staunchly opposed to cremation but generally follow Orthodox Jewish tradition which forbids cremation; Reform Judaism considers it a matter of personal choice. Muslims do not allow cremation; Buddhists and Hindus require it.

The reasons for cremation's popularity today, though, go far beyond the loosening of religious standards. Cremation is easier and cheaper than burial and saves land now reserved for cemetery plots.

Moreover, today's increasingly mobile society has led to more retirees moving to Florida and other locales far from their hometowns. They're less likely to ask that their body be flown back "home" when they die.

Springer of the cremation association said people are sometimes surprised to learn that cremation is more popular among older people than younger people who might seem more inclined to try something different.

"As they get older, people are no longer enamored with their bodies," he said.

In addition to the elderly, cremation is more popular among the well-educated, wealthy and those who live near a large body of water, the association found in its latest survey. People who had family scattered across the country also were likely candidates.

That helps explain why the cremation industry has prospered in Florida, a place where only 17 percent of the people who died in the state in 1998 had been born in the state.

In surveys, price repeatedly shows up as a top incentive for choosing cremation.

A casket at a funeral home today costs $2,200 on average, according to the latest general price list from the National Funeral Directors Association. Funeral directors collect up to $2,800 more, on average, through general service charges ($1,182), embalming ($400), visitations ($314), a service at the funeral home ($356) and other fees.

Cremation can be a cost-cutting route, particularly when it comes to the casket's price tag and cemetery costs. Just as with funerals, though, the price of a cremation can rise dramatically with a willing buyer.

Inside the National Cremation Society's offices in Clearwater, visitors browse through a display room with dozens of sample coffins and urns.

At the low end, a coffin-shaped cardboard box, just to carry remains into the crematory oven, retails for $95. And a big seller is "the mini," a simple chipboard coffin that retails for $195.

But loved ones who want a fine casket to display at a memorial service before cremation _ or in some cases to bury the ashes after cremation _ can spend $1,775 on the "Allendale Mahogany" coffin with a polished finish and a velvet interior.

Urns to hold ashes after cremation are equally eclectic. Bronze urns. Marble urns. Sheet-metal urns. Small, keepsake urns for families who want to distribute ashes among survivors.

Want to keep part of your loved one with you wherever you go? Buy a necklace with an ashes-filled locket to wear around your neck. Or perhaps a ring.

But surveys show simplicity is part of the appeal of cremation, and many who choose it for themselves or their loved ones have little interest in such extras and amenities.

Robert Hall of St. Petersburg had the option in 1994 of burying his wife at Arlington National Cemetery because he had served in the Navy. He chose cremation at her request.

"She wanted it to be simple. She didn't want to be on view dead," Hall said. "The quicker, the cheaper, the better it was for her. She was that way."

A growing option

Cremation has been a more popular option in Florida than in the nation.

Cremations in Florida, United States

FLORIDA U.S.

Number of crematories 126 1,366

1998 cremations 68,907 553,364

1998 deaths 159,354 2,330,403

Top 10 States

Here are the top 10 states by number of cremations in 1998:

California 98,218

Florida 68,907

New York 29,455

Pennsylvania 23,653

Washington 23,414

Michigan 22,925

Texas 19,815

Illinois 19,771

Arizona 19,578

Ohio 18,687

Source: Cremation Association of America

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