Cremation keeps loved ones close

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MILWAUKEE — Steve Clementi sits on his deck in suburban Virginia, looks at the bird bath in his wooded yard, smiles and thinks of his parents. It makes sense. They’re right there.

The cremated remains of Tony and Edy Clementi, who loved to prune, plant and putter in the garden of their Menomonee Falls, Wis., home for decades, rest in the cast steel cylinder that holds up the bird bath.

Clementi finds peace in it. “It’s a reminder of them and their life, and their love of life, as opposed to a reminder of their death,” Clementi said.

Bird baths, earrings, sundials, even fireworks — cremated remains are finding a resting place in these and other remarkable vessels as cremation, once a rarity, goes mainstream and families search for a fitting final home. Cremation is predicted to be the choice for almost half of all American funerals by 2016, with cremation now chosen in 42 percent of all deaths nationally.

Cost is the top reason people choose cremation, followed by “saves land” — there’s no need to buy and maintain a burial plot or a vault.

In Wisconsin, a traditional burial costs $7,963, while basic cremation is $2,100 (more if other services are added), according to the Brookfield, Wis.-based National Funeral Directors Association. And religious restrictions that once existed have been loosened, too, the association notes. Once forbidden by the Catholic Church, cremation is now allowed — though scattering of cremated remains is not.

What remains after the 2 to 2 ½ hour cremation process weighs 5 to 7 pounds — roughly the volume of a 5-pound coffee can. While ashes are sometimes scattered — and there are rules about that — about two-thirds of the time people keep some or all of the coarse sand-like remains.

So for most people, cremation brings a question: Where do the ashes go?

For Clementi and his sister, Lucy Nygren of Big Bend, Wis., the answer came from funeral director Joseph Limback at Schmidt & Bartelt Funeral Service in Menomonee Falls, Wis., who knew a bit about the family and said he had just the thing. Limback points out they also carry a sundial as well as other more traditional urn options.

“We have catalogs and catalogs and catalogs,” he said.

When Clementi’s father died six years ago, the urn with his ashes stayed with his wife, Edy. “It was kind of comforting to her to have him nearby,” Clementi said. When their mother died in May at age 87, Clementi and his sister were faced with a dilemma.

They knew she wanted to be cremated. But what to do with her ashes — and those of their father?

Tony and Edy Clementi loved working in the yard of the home they shared for more than 55 years. They had a birdbath.

“It was just a good fit,” Clementi said. “They just really enjoyed working out in the yard and being outdoors.”

They paid $925 for the birdbath — more than the typical brass urn, which might cost a few hundred dollars. But this was not the typical urn, and for lots of people today, that’s the whole point.

For many, that perfect urn reflects the individual, and that means everything from an urn resembling a motorcycle gas tank for a hardcore Harley rider to a well-worn coffee pot used for decades on a campfire.

“The industry kind of looked at what people were doing and started doing it themselves, giving lots of variety — not the same old brass urn,” said Mark J. Krause, president of Krause Funeral Home & Cremation Services.

Funeral homes are broadening the lines of urns they offer for cremated remains.

“They should be. They’re foolish if they’re not,” said Mike Nicodemus, a Virginia funeral director who just took over the newly created post of vice president of cremation services with the funeral directors association.

“You can bring in and use whatever you want,” Krause said. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s unbreakable and has a secure lid that isn’t easily opened. Most people will want to open that urn and have a peek, he notes.

At Krause, urn offerings include a cloisonne container ($225) and matching vial-size containers (about $40) so that each family member can have some remains.

There’s a biodegradable rock salt urn ($325) that resembles rosy marble and dissolves after being dropped into water or buried.

There are lockets that can be embossed with a scaled down thumbprint or footprint — sometimes used with the death of an infant.

You can have cremated remains made part of a reef. Eternal Reefs (www.eternalreefs.com) combines cremated remains with cement to create a “pearl,” that becomes part of an offshore reef. You can have cremated remains combined into fireworks to light up the sky.

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