Nearly 1 In 3 Now Choose Cremation Practice Growing More Acceptable, And Funeral Directors Are Adapting
FOR THE RECORD: April 23, 1996 CORRECTION: Lonny Duce is the manager of Shoshone Funeral Services. His position with the company was incorrectly stated in an article in Sunday’s newspaper.
Gary Getchell went out with a blast.
The would-be frontiersman and founder of a black powder gun club wanted to spend eternity in the woods. But his favorite spot - a Panhandle National Forests field - was not open to burial.
So, when Getchell died three years ago, friends had him cremated. They carted his remains to the forest in a Native American pipe bag.
“We put his ashes down the barrel of our guns and fired him over the meadow,” said Linda Shorb, owner of October Country Muzzleloading in Hayden.
Stories like that are increasingly common in the West, where cremation has become a sort of boom industry.
In Idaho, the number of people choosing cremation over burial rose 150 percent in 10 years and now is chosen in nearly a third of all deaths.
North Idaho rates hover just below 50 percent, mirroring Washington state, which has the second-highest cremation rate in the country.
The national average is below 21 percent.
In fact, the entire industry is changing so fast that Idaho funeral directors this spring balked when the state Department of Health and Welfare considered halting annual crematory inspections.
Why the increases? Cremation is cheaper, doesn’t use up land and no longer bears an anti-Christian stigma, said Jack Springer, director of the Cremation Association of North America. North Americans are more mobile - especially in the West - reducing demand for family burial plots.
In Washington, rates are higher in part because residents are environmentally conscious and because neighboring British Columbia has the highest cremation rate in Canada - 70 percent.
“The more people doing it, the more acceptable it becomes,” Springer said.
The popularity of cremation in the Panhandle reflects a recent influx of urban folks from the Pacific Coast, where cremation is common, he said. North Idaho also is home to “free-thinkers” not driven by tradition - unlike the South and Midwest.
“In those places people are often buried together right on family farms the way they always have been,” Springer said.
Idaho has only 16 crematories, but that’s only one less than New Jersey, which has eight times the population. Idaho has added two in the past four years.
That’s one reason the state Board of Morticians, which licenses funeral directors, agreed to oversee the inspections beginning in July.
“I’ve seen what happens in states where (inspections) are not required,” said board member Lonny Duce, who owns Shoshone Funeral Services in Kellogg.
Duce recounted horror stories of businesses in other states burning several bodies at a time to save money. A California pilot once contracted with a crematory to scatter ashes over the ocean, Duce said, but instead took the money and dumped the remains on a hill behind his home.
Inspections also catch unrecognized problems. Last fall “unknown material” was found on the ceiling of a Boise crematory, where it fell and mixed with remains. Inspectors initially suspected silicon breast implants, but the substance later proved to be residue from particleboard boxes.
Complaints about Idaho crematories are rare. State inspector Greg Heitman said it’s because the industry in Idaho is well-managed.
“There is nothing running rampant,” he said.
When there are problems - unlike with other licensed businesses like cosmetologists, doctors and barbers - most crematory complaints come from within the industry.
Seven of the 11 complaints filed with the board in 1994 came from other funeral directors. Half of 1995’s did.
“Funeral directors are so competitive that stuff gets noticed,” Duce said. “Usually if there’s two in one town, they’ll be watching each other’s back door.”
Bruce English, of English Funeral Chapel and Crematory in Coeur d’Alene, agreed. “We all feel as though we’re able to provide what’s needed better than everybody else.”
To be fair, the Kootenai County coroner’s office uses a monthly rotation to contact funeral homes when someone dies without family or has not requested a particular mortician.
“It’s just like with wreckers that respond to car accidents,” said Jody DeLuca, deputy coroner. “If there were 30 people dying in a month and they all went to English, I wouldn’t be happy if I was Yates (Funeral Home).”
As the business of cremation grows, funeral directors and wholesalers are adapting.
Regional spinoff businesses specialize in urns for outdoor enthusiasts. Some are shaped like mountains or are carved out of wood and look like duck decoys. One includes a fish and fisherman.
Area funeral homes have increased urn selections from a half-dozen in 1990 to more than 40, including one ornate vase with two bronze dolphins that sells for $1,200.
“People see that and say ‘That’s a nice piece of bronze sculpture’ and they’d never know it was an urn,” English said.
If projections hold true in the cremation industry, there will continue to be plenty of business to go around. In addition to population increases - and the resulting increases in death - Springer’s group projects Idaho will be cremating 64 percent of its dead by the year 2010. Washington could be as high as 67 percent.
And while traditional forms of burial fade, remembrances of the dead live on.
All of which seems appropriate to Shorb and her muzzleloading friends.
They now visit Getchell every year during their annual rendezvous in the Fernan Ranger District’s Hudlow Meadow. They can honor him in ways they couldn’t if he had been laid to rest in a cemetery - with a target shoot and other black powder events.
“This is exactly where he wanted to be,” Shorb said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Ashes to ashes
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LESS EXPENSIVE A low-cost North Idaho cremation by a funeral home - which includes paperwork, but not burial - is about $1,300, said Lonny Duce, owner of Shoshone Funeral Services. The cheapest burial - in a Kellogg cemetery where the plot sells for $10 - will cost at least $2,500. Most cemetery spaces cost more.
This sidebar appeared with the story: LESS EXPENSIVE A low-cost North Idaho cremation by a funeral home - which includes paperwork, but not burial - is about $1,300, said Lonny Duce, owner of Shoshone Funeral Services. The cheapest burial - in a Kellogg cemetery where the plot sells for $10 - will cost at least $2,500. Most cemetery spaces cost more.