September 9, 2012

More Mainers choosing to cremate loved ones

Lower costs, changing religious views among causes

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

Karin Anderson still has her husband's cremated remains stashed in a box at her condo in downtown Portland. Steve Fisk, a math professor at Bowdoin College, died two and a half years ago after a decade-long fight with leukemia.

click image to enlarge

Karin Anderson holds a box of the cremated remains of her husband Steve, who passed away two and a half years ago. Anderson is photographed in her Portland apartment on Thursday.

Portland Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec

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Chris Stilkey operates Lighthouse Crematory in Freeport, which is one of the newest crematories in the state. Stilkey is photographed at the crematory on Wednesday.

Portland Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec

As Fisk lived out his remaining days in hospice care, the couple talked about what he wanted. First, his body would be donated to the University of New England's medical school for research. Then, he would be cremated.

"Neither of us thought it was important to preserve the body," said Anderson, 56. Next weekend she and her daughter plan to scatter his remains.

Mainers are cremating their loved ones at an extraordinary rate, and the numbers keep going up. In 2000, 44 percent of deceased Maine residents were cremated. In 2010, the rate was 64 percent -- well above the national rate of 41 percent.

The cremation rate here is the sixth-highest in the country and the highest in the eastern half of the United States. The Cremation Association of North America projects that more than half of Americans -- and three quarters of Mainers -- will choose cremation within 10 years.

There is no one reason that explains the growing rate. There are a variety of factors: the lower cost of cremation, relaxed religious views and increased environmental awareness. Cremation also offers flexibility that traditional burial does not and fits into today's transient lifestyle. People do any number of things with their love ones' remains, from burying them in the backyard to scattering them in the woods or at sea.

Peter Neal, a funeral director in Piscataquis County and a board member for the state's funeral directors association, said the trend toward cremation has mirrored a broader societal shift.

"Fifty years ago, everyone went to church, everyone had a big wedding, no one moved in before marriage, and no one got divorced," he said. "Now, all those traditions have eroded a little. Funerals are no different."

Funerals are rarely solemn, black-clothing-and-dark-sunglasses occasions anymore. People don't always want caskets or religious services. And more and more they don't want to be buried beneath the ground.

For Anderson and Fisk, the decision had nothing to do with cost or religion. Cremation was a practical option that suited his lifestyle.

They never talked about what to do with his remains. It took her a month to pick them up because she dreaded the finality of having them in her possession. She has hung onto them ever since, waiting for the right time to dispose of them.

"My daughter and I are going to sprinkle some at a few special places -- there is a spot where we had our first date that comes to mind," she said. "And I suspect we'll get a little silly, too. He was a silly man sometimes."

Besides, she likes the thought of knowing that there won't be just one place where she can go visit her husband. There could be dozens.

Cost biggest factor

Six years ago, there were only five crematories in Maine. Now, there are 12, ranging in size from Lighthouse Crematory in Freeport, which logged 122 cremations last year, to Gracelawn Memorial Park in Auburn, where 2,391 cremations were performed.

You can't see the Lighthouse Crematory from the road -- it's set back in the woods, shielded by Burr Cemetery and its rows of gravestones, many blackened with age. The markers evoke a time when returning a body to the earth whole was a time-honored custom.

Chris Stilkey maintained that cemetery and ran a gravestone business for 30 years before he built the crematory in 2010.

(Continued on page 2)

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