U.S. cemeteries are banking on the country’s growing cremation rate — projected to overtake that of casketed burials for this first time this year — to keep them open and accepting remains for as long as possible. In their remaining acreage and patches of grass, cemeteries are finding places that might not fit a coffin but could fit several urns.
In urban areas, like Manhattan and Washington, D.C., cemetery expansion isn’t just expensive; it’s often impossible. But cremation’s increasing popularity is delaying these cemeteries’ inevitable closure. In just over half a century, nationwide cremation rates have increased 12-fold, skyrocketing from 3.6 percent in 1960 to 45.3 percent in 2013, according to an annual report from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA).
Cremation, which is generally less expensive than in-ground burial, increased during the recession more than expected, according to the association’s executive director Barbara Kemmis. From 1997 to 2002 and from 2002 to 2007, the cremation rate increased 5.1 percent and 6.0 percent, respectively. From 2007 to 2012, which included the recession, cremation increased 9.3 percent.
That increase was greater in states hit particularly hard by the recession, like Michigan, which saw the percentage of cremations increase from 40.5 percent in 2007 to 49.1 percent in 2011 alone. This year the U.S. cremation rate is projected to overtake that of casketed burials for this first time, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), and by 2030 the cremation rate is projected to be 70 percent.
The cost of cremation and burial have risen at about the same rate. In 2004 the median burial cost $1,650, and immediate cremation cost $1,495, according to the NFDA. In 2012 burial cost $2,890, and immediate cremation cost $2,245.
Those figures don’t include the extras, like a casket, which starts at about $2,000, or an urn, which usually costs less than $300, according to the NFDA. Cremation costs cover removal and storage of the deceased, cremation and the return of cremated remains. Viewing the body and memorial services and special vaults cost more.
The baby boomer generation — which includes Vietnam War vets — and U.S. engagement in two wars has put pressure on Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. military cemetery in Virginia. In response to estimates that by the early 2020s the cemetery will run out of space, Arlington announced in 2013 an expansion project to develop its last tract of land, with a special emphasis on cremation niches.
Over the next two years, the expansion will add 27,282 new gravesites — 60 percent of which will be dedicated to cremated remains. With limited space to expand, Arlington is concerned with making the most effective use of the space it has available. Today more than 400,000 service members, veterans and their family members are interred at Arlington, 27 percent of whose remains are in a columbarium, or niche wall.