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More Families Choosing Cremation For Departed Loved Ones


Nearly half of all Americans who died this past year were cremated. Cremation rates have reportedly doubled in the United States over the past 15 years, despite some religious objections and squeamishness about the idea of our loved ones being reduced to ashes. Why? Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA KEMMIS: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: What are some of the reasons you think more people's families, I guess I should - I almost said why more people are choosing to be cremated. And that might technically be true - but usually after their death.

KEMMIS: So cremation is simply cheaper than burial. Of course, when you consider a funeral or a memorial service or celebration-of-life expenses, those are extra. And consumers also report that they see extra value with cremation and that they have more flexibility. To put it bluntly, death, even when it's anticipated, is inconvenient.

We don't want to lose our loved ones. We don't want to drop everything and gather and grieve and do what we need to do. But we must. And we can do that. But as families are spread across the country in various states, it's more and more difficult to bring people together on short notice. Cremation can expand the timeframe of grieving and memorializing your loved one.

SIMON: Because there's more cremations, more problem to run into with scattering remains? I mean, I know, for example, they're very particular about it in the San Francisco Bay area. And I know from experience you can't get your ashes scattered there in Wrigley Field in Chicago.

KEMMIS: That is true. And you might've caught the news where cremated remains were scattered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City at the intermission, which canceled the rest of the production.

SIMON: I missed that. Oh, my word. Most of us maybe, you know, get some malted milk balls at intermission, not scattered remains. But go ahead, yeah.

KEMMIS: Yeah right. So scattering is very common. But you have to be aware of the legalities of that.

SIMON: A lot of us might recall that scene in "Meet The Parents." You know what I'm talking about?

KEMMIS: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: Ben Stiller pops the champagne cork and accidentally knocks over the urn of his father-in-law's mother. So is it permissible to make jokes about cremation?

KEMMIS: It's permissible. It's common. Popular culture has normalized cremation in a way 'cause - not only with the "Fockers" movies. There's also "The Big Lebowski." That's famous with the cremated remains in the coffee can. And he goes to scatter them. And they come back in his face. That's based on reality. That happens. And now you can buy urns that are in the shape and with the same pattern as that coffee can if you're a "Big Lebowski" fan.

SIMON: Oh. (Laughter) I'm not that big a fan. But I...

KEMMIS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Are there any states or cities where people are getting cremated more than others?

KEMMIS: Southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia tend to have lower cremation rates. Florida is higher. It's one of the states where people have chosen to retire. And when they come to retire, they think about, what happens when I die? Do I want to be buried in Florida? Do I want my body shipped back to my hometown. Or will I choose cremation?

SIMON: Barbara Kemmis is executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. Thanks for being with us.

KEMMIS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: A note to add - Carrie Fisher was cremated. This week, BuzzFeed published photos from her memorial service, where her ashes were placed in a huge replica of a Prozac anti-depressant pill. Her brother, Todd Fisher, told the website (reading) and so they're together and they will be together here and in heaven, and we're OK with that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.