Grave Matters

Oct 18, 2017

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—When Mary Van De Berg, the “meat lady” of Sioux Center, Iowa, died at age 72 a week before Memorial Day, 250 people in the city of 7,400 came to her funeral. Among the crowd sat about 35 of her co-workers from the closed-for-the-day Fareway supermarket, where for 26 years she had a reputation for knowing everything there is to know about meat.

Van De Berg’s kind of funeral—a church service, a viewing attended by more than 300 neighbors, burial in a local cemetery—is becoming unusual in American life. Funeral homes are consolidating under financial pressure due partly to changing attitudes about cremation: In 2016 U.S. cremations outnumbered burials for the first time. Meanwhile, families are scattering, religious affiliations are fraying, and attitudes toward death are changing. Some laud such changes, but has something been lost in our drive toward independence and economic efficiency?

AT VAN DE BERG’S SERVICE, Memorial Funeral Home staffers Art Franken and Bob Feauto listened to the pastor while sitting at a table in the fellowship hall across from the sanctuary. Franken, 76, stared at bowls of SunChips and a tray of fresh meat and bread. These funeral directors often eat during the funeral rites, but today, Franken said with a wry smile, the large crowd meant no extra food.

Franken and Feauto are new colleagues. Ninety years ago, community members founded Memorial Funeral Home, where Franken has worked for 25 years. Earlier this year, Jerry Jurrens, owner of Jurrens Funeral Homes Inc., which runs eight other funeral homes in the region, purchased Memorial, and Feauto came over with the new ownership. Jurrens is the first owner in Memorial’s history to live outside of Sioux Center.

That consolidation is part of a national trend. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the number of U.S. funeral homes decreased 10 percent from 21,500 homes in 2005 to 19,400 in 2015. John Erdmann of Waterbury Funeral Service, an hour’s drive south of Sioux Center, said the growth of “cremation is making it tougher for smaller businesses to survive. ... You’ve got to be willing to change and offer more services that go with cremation.” Feauto says funeral homes have to “go bigger or go out.”

Back at the “meat lady” funeral, royal blue napkins touting “Memorial Funeral Home: ‘Your Community Owned Funeral Home’” sat at each place setting. Memorial will eventually replace these napkins to reflect its new ownership. Franken mused about scratching the name off the white Memorial Funeral Home van. Even though the funeral home is still family-owned, some in Sioux Center worry about the change.

DON PITT, 59, operates the crematory at the Cremation Society of Paducah, Ky. He has a ruddy complexion, freckled arms, and neatly trimmed gray facial hair and wears a black Mötley Crüe T-shirt that reads, “All bad things must come to an end.” “More people are accepting of [cremation] than they used to be,” he drawled as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” played in the background.

Pitt cremates both humans and pets, and he never knows what someone will bring in. He’s cremated a raccoon, a 2-day-old kitten, a miniature pony, and a 45-year-old parrot. Right now a large dog is disintegrating down to bone fragments in the small furnace in the back room. The room is hot—92 degrees Fahrenheit—but not nearly as hot as the furnace, which heats to 1,400 to 1,800 degrees.

It takes about three hours to cremate a human being. Then Pitt sweeps the ashes to a pan below, brushing the furnace at least three times with a wire bristle broom to get everything. He uses a magnet to remove metal that might be mixed in with the bone fragments. A black box holds the collection of metal he’s found: part of a knee joint, a hip joint, and other prosthetic parts. After removing metal, he puts the bone shards through a processor, which churns out the ash—a substance fine as sand.

Lindsey Funeral Home of Paducah established the Cremation Society in 2010 after recognizing the direction the industry was moving. Now, cremations make up about 70 percent of the company’s business. “Everybody’s trying to get into the act,” Pitt said—and not just in Paducah. Last year nationally, cremations outpaced casket burial in America for the first time. One reason is cost: Cremation typically costs two-thirds less than a traditional funeral. Lindsey charges $1,295 for cremation and $3,995 for a traditional funeral.

The desire to “have it your way” also drives people toward cremation. Cremation services take place almost anywhere: a state park, a favorite hunting ground, a restaurant, or a family farm. Some family members or friends keep urns at home, some scatter the ashes, and some bury the ashes in cemeteries and memorialize loved ones with a gravestone. “Money’s tight, and [cremation] doesn’t lock a family down to a time frame,” Don Pitt said. “You can have a service six months down the road.”

Changing religious and social attitudes no longer stop many from considering cremation. Most Christian denominations other than Eastern Orthodox now accept the practice—although some evangelicals worry about the trend. (Muslims and Orthodox Jews also prohibit it.) “As people loosen ties with religious traditions, they’re looking for new traditions,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. The numbers seem to back her up. States where more people answer “None” to questions about religious affiliation have higher percentages of cremation. Nevada, which with 28 percent is first in “Nones,” has a 75 percent cremation rate.

With religion no longer a bar to cremation, other values influence funeral choices. “People don’t want to just have a cookie-cutter funeral service,” said Hutch Hutcheson, managing director of Lindsey Funeral Home. A list of 2017 funeral trends notes, “Today’s funerals are highly personalized—with videos, memorabilia, special clothing and music, and quirky themes—to celebrate the uniqueness of an individual’s life. They now often include symbolic and memorable events for guests—dove releases, balloon releases, or a fireworks show.”

Cremation is one of the trends: Bob Feauto says tradition makes cremation less popular in Sioux Center, but “traditions are fading.” Will that trend accelerate?

AN ARCHING GATE STANDS at the entrance to Graceland Park Cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa, about an hour south of Sioux Center. Cemetery supervisor Tim Tushla loves giving tours of the 92-acre cemetery. When Iowans built it in 1910, he said, families purchased large plots with the expectation of many generations being buried together.

Tushla pointed to large monuments near the north entrance that bear family names. Around the monuments smaller stones mark the graves of family members, whose bodies lie with their heads near the monument. As he tossed sticks into the back of his rusted Chevy truck, Tushla said this arrangement highlighted the importance of family. Multiple generations of the same family buried side-by-side represented family continuity and pride.

As we continued the tour, Tushla pointed out small stone buildings containing the bodies of wealthy Iowans: the Palmers of Palmer Candy and the Smiths of Jolly Time American popcorn. Unlocking the front door of a mausoleum with stained glass windows, he said these marble resting places served as an ultimate family symbol, with as many as 10 stacked niches bearing the same name.

In newer portions of the cemetery, modest markers replaced the large monuments. As people moved to Sioux City from elsewhere, Tushla said, they no longer had extended family close by: “The social obligation to stay in the community you were born is gone. No one expects you to be buried in the family plot anymore. The women in the church won’t be talking bad about you because you left.”

A Pew Research Center survey from 2008 found only 37 percent of Americans had never moved away from their hometowns. That finding agrees with what Kemmis of the Cremation Association said: “Ties to the hometown cemetery are weaker than ever before.”

BUT NOT IN SIOUX CENTER. When the funeral service of Mary Van De Berg (“the meat lady”) ended, the pastor waited by the sanctuary doors, offering hugs and handshakes to the 250 filing into the lobby. While a few family members wiped their eyes, most of the white and gray-haired attendees seemed cheerful. They greeted each other and found seats close to the food. Soon voices murmured, people passed around coffee carafes, glasses clinked, and women bustled to and from the kitchen. One woman held a sleeping, shoeless baby.

Funeral home owner Jerry Jurrens said he believes the strong presence of local churches explains why Sioux Center has resisted the national trend toward cremation. While the Bible does not command earth burial and funeral services, such traditions make sense within a Christian understanding. But as families scatter, residents of Sioux Center and other cities are deciding whether to hold on to traditions or lay them aside.

—Morgan Channels, Charissa Crotts, Tabitha DeHart, and Harvest Prude are 2017 World Journalism Institute graduates


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