The four workers dressed in long, gray jackets stood quietly next to the light brown wooden casket after the short procession.
“It gives us great pain to let her go,” the pastor said. “We give her back to you, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The mourners sat together under a large tent with the casket above the grass — a familiar graveside scene. But as the family and friends of Patricia Coates Smith rose for one last prayer, her casket wasn’t lowered to the ground, but instead slid delicately into a crematory.
This ceremonial cremation service is something Joseph H. Brown III began offering at his West Baltimore funeral home this summer, as more and more families turn to cremation over traditional burials.
Right after Brown added a crematorium in 2009, he said, there were only two or three cremations each year. Now he does several hundred.
Nationally, cremation has overtaken burials for the past four years, but Maryland has lagged slightly behind, according to data from the National Funeral Directors Association. In 2020, the association predicts cremation will become the most popular option in Maryland for the first time, at 50%. And it’s projected to keep rising.
National experts and local funeral home owners say people are moving away from traditional burials for both financial and spiritual reasons.
Jack Mitchell, secretary of the funeral directors association, said a traditional burial can cost more than $10,000, while cremation typically runs about $1,000. And cremation, he said, is becoming more popular as religious beliefs wane.
“There were times where people did want to do the traditional funeral because that’s what religion said, but now it’s less of a driving factor,” Mitchell said. “People are thinking a little more about it than just going along with what was traditionally done.”
Brown, a fourth-generation mortician, met resistance to his cremation services at first. Nestled in a majority black community with deep religious roots, he heard time and time again: “Burn the trash, bury the dead.” He never thought cremation would become the focus of his business.
“I now hear all the time from customers, ‘I don’t want all that money in the ground,’” Brown said.
To help counter remaining resistance, funeral home directors are beginning to focus on making cremation more meaningful for families who choose that route.
Some people wonder where their loved ones are taken to be cremated, Brown said. Having an onsite crematorium provides assurance for families and eases concerns about ashes being mixed up, he said.
When the deceased is brought to the funeral home, they’re cremated that day and the ashes can be picked up the next in whatever urn was selected. Some may choose a pink glass heart while others might opt for a more traditional colored vase shape or an engraved wooden box.
Keona Harris, a licensed mortician at her family’s Chatman-Harris Funeral Homes in Northwest and Northeast Baltimore, said about 70% of the home’s customers still choose a traditional burial. But, Harris said, they have seen an uptick in cremations.
To better serve customers, Chatman-Harris opened a separate West Baltimore location, Serenity Funeral and Cremation, that specializes in the practice.
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Instead of a room filled with caskets, people can view various urns and other memorial merchandise such as necklaces in which ashes can be placed. They also have rooms for services since most of their customers still opt for one before cremation.
“We’re giving people another option because cremation is different and requires different services,” Harris said. “And now we’re able to help a lot of families.”
Serving mourners’ emotional needs is ultimately what prompted Brown to start offering ceremonial cremations, his latest initiative to get ahead of the industry.
The cement slab where the ceremonial plaza sits is purposefully flanked by a green wall. Brown said it’s a calming color. And the inside of the crematorium, where two 15-ton cremation machines sit, is rigged with stage lighting that can be set to any hue.
The equipment workers need to wear around the 1,650 degree crematories is tucked away for no one to see. So is the part of the machine where flames are visible. Brown said it’s all done with the intent of making death easier.
“Losing a loved one is one of the most traumatic things someone can experience,” Brown said. “So we asked, how do we take the cemetery experience and tailor that for the cremation family and make it a sacred service?”
After less than six months, Brown said he already has conducted 20 ceremonial cremations. And each and every one, he said, is a “theatrical,” sacred experience from the funeral procession to the curtain slowly coming down, obstructing the view of the crematory and signifying the end of service and life.