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Carroll County follows national, state trend in increased cremation rate due to COVID-19, other factors

Dorota W. Marshall, owner of Maryland Cremation Services, stands in the crematorium on April 17, 2020.
Dorota W. Marshall, owner of Maryland Cremation Services, stands in the crematorium on April 17, 2020. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, funeral homes in Carroll County, across Maryland and throughout the nation have seen a spike in the percentage of people choosing cremation, accelerating an existing trend in recent years.

Since 2010, Maryland’s cremation rate has gone from about 35% to more than 50% in 2020, a tad below the national average of 56%, according to data compiled by the National Funeral Directors Association. During that period, the state’s burial rate has dipped from 59% to about 43%. By 2040, the group projects, 78% of people will choose cremation.

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Westminster’s Fletcher Funeral & Cremation Services and Winfield’s Burrier-Queen Funeral Home and Crematory both said they have seen increasing cremation rates during the pandemic but beforehand as well. The shift toward cremation prompted Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care and Value Choice Cremation and Funeral Care to expand by acquiring two crematories in Woodbine, a move the group announced in late September.

The coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes has added to the increase in cremation rates nationally and in the state, but the rates were already increasing before pandemic, said Jack Mitchell, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association.

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COVID-19 restrictions on funeral size and fear of the virus have prompted many to opt for cremation, he said. Maryland has allowed funerals to go on during the pandemic, but with social distancing requirements and size limits. In the early months of the pandemic, gatherings were limited to 10 or fewer people. The state is in Stage Three of its reopening, but still has restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings.

State authorities don’t have specific occupancy requirements for funerals if the funeral home is not deemed a religious facility, but social distancing and face coverings are required, Carroll County Health Department spokesperson Rachel Turner said.

Cremation is also relatively cheaper, Mitchell said, but the nation’s turn away from religion has also been a factor — some religions “frowned upon” cremation, he said.

“People are a little less traditional in how religious they are now, so that’s not as much of a consideration anymore when people are making that decision,” Mitchell said.

Following the trend, parent company of Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care and Value Choice Cremation and Funeral Care, ESFD Inc. acquired Woodbine’s Going Home Cremation in September, renaming it Going Home Cremation and Funeral Care by Value Choice. It also bought into the pet cremation business, purchasing Woodbine’s All Pet Crematory, now called Forever Faithful Pet Cremation and Funeral Care by Value Choice.

More people are also choosing to cremate their pets due to the internet, which has given people more information on cremation, said Dan Simons, general manager of Value Choice Woodbine. Among funeral homes nationwide, 15% offer pet cremation, according to National Funeral Directors Association data, but another 15% plan to expand to pet cremation in the “next few years.”

“We expanded into the cremation market because of the increase of cremation,” Simons said. “The trends are continuing in that direction, so it was just a good time to do it and a good time to make the investments, seeing where the trends are heading and continuing to increase.”

Some Carroll County funeral homes have reported a spike in cremation rates due to COVID-19, but not all of them.

Fletcher Funeral & Cremation Services in Westminster has seen an increase in cremations, as many have shifted their service plans, said Tom Fletcher, the home’s funeral director. Some families that paid in advance for a service have moved to an immediate burial and canceled public visitation to avoid large gatherings of people.

Cremation is also more flexible than an immediate burial with viewing, which has driven the shift toward cremations, as people can wait longer to have services, Fletcher said. Others have opted for celebration of life services, which can happen “pretty much anywhere" as opposed to just a funeral home, he said. More people are starting to come out for funerals, but people are still cautious, he said.

“It’s a very tough situation for families, especially those that have lost someone to COVID, because if they were in nursing home or long-term care, they haven’t been able to see them,” Fletcher said. “We have tried to accommodate as many families as we can to come into the funeral home to see their loved one for one last time before they are buried or cremated.”

Burrier-Queen Funeral Home in Winfield has also seen an increase in cremation, said Todd Kellner, an owner of the home. Some older people have been afraid to go out and families have chosen different funeral options due to the pandemic, he said.

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But he also said the trend was apparent before the pandemic. People and their families don’t live in the same area as much, complicating services, as well as fewer people attending religious services, he said. Overall, funeral services at the home have been down.

Streaming funerals — implemented before the impact — have seen a massive increase, from about 20% of funerals at the home to 90% during the pandemic, Kellner said. That service allows people to watch the funeral live online or recorded on the business' website in the weeks after.

“It’s an option for people who want to avoid risk,” Kellner said. “But you don’t have the interaction you would have pre-COVID, with the families and viewings where people to come pay their respects, and the support we give families. I feel they’re missing out on that.”

Pritts Funeral Home & Chapel, with locations in Westminster and Garrett County’s Kitzmiller, has seen cremation grow in recent years, but has not seen the pandemic directly contribute to this trend.

“Those who passed away during COVID had either pre planned or expressed to their families the decision for cremation services. The pandemic was not a direct reason for this decision,” according to a statement from spokesperson Audrey Pritts Coder.

Flexibility in terms of scheduling and place of final rest are some of the reasons why people are moving more toward cremation, the statement said.

During the pandemic, the funeral home has had to “think outside the box,” offering drive-thru visitation and streaming services.

“COVID made an already stressful time, even more so stressful with the loss of a loved one,” the statement said. “Our natural instinct is to hug and provide emotional support to those grieving, and we have seen that occur less.”

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