ELIZABETHTOWN — More and more, people are turning to cremation when a loved one passes away, and at least one Bladen County church is banking on the trend continuing.
“Over the last, say, 10 funerals I’ve done in the last few years, probably seven have been cremations,” said Trinity United Methodist Church Pastor Jay Winston. “We’ve noticed it seems to be going in that direction.”
With the future in mind, Trinity is in the process of building a columbarium adjacent to its current facilities. Room or buildings with small alcoves for cinerary urns, columbaria can be freestanding, open-air units or attached to other facilities. Trinity’s columbarium will have three open walls, and the structure will be composed of the same stone with which the church is constructed. Niches, which will be able to hold two urns, will be sealed and locked and will bear bronze plaques with the names of the deceased. Around the whole structure will be a landscaped prayer garden and benches for loved ones to use when visiting, which can be done at any time.
“It will be a very nice and peaceful place,” Winston remarked. “It will also be beautiful. When people drive by, they’re going to look over and say, ‘What a pretty garden’.”
Trinity’s columbarium will have 72 niches but has the potential to be expanded in the future. For now, according to Winston, spaces are being sold only to church members, former church members, and current or former pastors.
Construction of the columbarium, made possible by an endowment, is expected to be complete by this summer.
What Winston and Trinity are seeing corresponds to what is happening around the country. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, five decades ago, the overwhelming majority of Americans — more than 90 percent — buried their dead in the ground, and only 4 percent opted for cremation.
By 2000 in North Carolina, most families still elected for tradition, with less than 10 percent of families or friends choosing cremation.
By 2013, however, things had changed, and drastically. Approximately 37 percent of North Carolina deaths involved cremation, and a roughly 8 percent increase each year meant in 2015, the practice eclipsed traditional burial in popularity nationally for the first time in American history. The NFDA expects more than three out of four deaths to end in cremation by 2035, based on national trends over the last two decades.
“It’s changed drastically over the 20 years I’ve been in ministry,” Winston commented, adding at Trinity’s cemetery on E. Broad Street, many bereaving families, having nowhere up until now to place cinerary urns, bury them in ground plots.
At least one local funeral home also attests to changing views.
“We do see it somewhat on the rise,” said Linda Gaskins, funeral director with Bladen-Gaskins Funeral Home, who said roughly 18 percent of their services involve cremation.
Several factors could have a hand in the rise of the practice both nationally and locally. In addition to the lower cost — cremation runs about half of traditional burial services, according to NFDA — today’s families may also find appealing the fewer, or the altogether elimination of, some of the services associated with traditional burial.
Concurrent with altered perception of the importance of services is the changing view on death itself. Historically, a predominantly Christian culture emphasized the need for a physically intact body for the afterlife, and the Catholic church even went so far as to prohibit the practice of cremation in order to preserve the body, taking its stance from verses that talk about the “dead in Christ” rising first when He returns.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, the view of cremation as an affront to God Himself was relaxed, and a still predominantly Christian culture began to see it as permissible. The Catholic church retains its view that burial is preferable to cremation.
“I get a lot of questions about this,” Winston said. “The answer is, there’s nothing in the Bible that prohibits cremation. That is, nothing is taken away theologically.”
Environmental friendliness, aesthetically pleasing property and communities, and space could also play a role in the increasing predominance of the practice.
“Let’s face it, there’s not but so much land,” Winston said.
Despite its rise locally and nationally, however, Gaskins had a word of caution.
“There’s a lot the general public needs to learn about it,” she remarked. “Whenever we have people come in here, if they’ve never had a cremation in their family, they don’t know what’s important and what’s not. We have to lead them through it, and there’s a lot to think about.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.