People touch names on the 4-inch, bronze-colored plates at Schenectady’s First Reformed Church.
Cremated remains of Eleanor, Wayne, Priscilla and James are among those interred inside the church columbarium, a room with wooden walls, plush light green carpeting and sofas and chairs for visitors. The mood is usually quiet, even solemn.
“Human beings need touchstones; we need holy places,” said Bill Levering, senior pastor at the landmark Stockade church. “It’s a way of calling a person’s life to memory.”
People treat ashes of loved ones in different ways. They are scattered, buried or kept in mausoleum vaults, and people in the cremation and funeral businesses say more options are available — especially with more and more people choosing fire over casket.
Levering said respecting cremated remains — called “cremains” in funeral and religious circles — is a church mission.
“We would like to honor the remains of people,” he said. “We’re not going to treat them casually.”
‘I’d like to be useful after I die’
Levering said First Reformed’s columbarium is open daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sunday is the busiest day, he said, as people visit niches that hold loved ones’ ashes before church services. If ministers are nearby, they will walk the visitor into the church service.
“It’s a nice pastoral opportunity for the church,” Levering said.
About half of the funerals at First Reformed are conducted with caskets; the other half are conducted with urns, Levering said. The columbarium contains 328 niches; 179 are occupied, 85 are reserved and 64 are available.
The Reformed faith has no quarrel with cremation — Levering said if oxidation of the body takes place over time in the ground, that’s fine, but if the body is reduced quickly by flames, that’s also permissible.
“Personally, I’m going to be cremated,” he said, adding that one current option combines ashes with a ceramic process. “You’re made into something useful. I’d like to be useful after I die, maybe a candy dish or a rosebud holder.”
While becoming a candy dish may not catch on in America, becoming a small pile of ashes has become a popular alternative to the traditional grave. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the U.S. cremation rate reached 43.5 percent in 2012. The percentage in New York state was 40.6; that figure does not include cremations that took place in New York City.
Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Illinois-based association, said ecology and economics are two factors people consider when they’re considering cremation.
“Cremation is perceived as being greener,” she said. “And cost has always been the number one trend. Cremation is cheaper than burial.”
Convenience also comes into play. Kemmis said cremation eliminates the rush to gather for farewells in a church and cemetery. When ashes are placed in an urn, a memorial service can be scheduled for a time when all family and friends can attend.
Kemmis also said people can better personalize their final dispositions with ashes.
“You hear stories about shooting cremains into space or turning them into vinyl records or art glass,” Kemmis said. “The range of options for memorializing your loved ones is growing. If you can dream about it, somebody can do it for you, no matter how crazy it is.”
Rana Huber, a spokeswoman for the New York State Funeral Directors Association in Albany, has heard about the vinyl record conversion or people mixing cremains into artists’ paints and tattoo inks. “You can get a tattoo of a loved one,” Huber said. “I’m not recommending any of these, but these are things I’ve read about and seen.”
Huber added that in New York, people cannot legally scatter ashes anyplace they want. “They must be disposed of on private property with the consent from the owner,” she said. “You have to get permission.”
Kemmis has heard of urns personalized with the departed’s favorite sports team or television show. Some relatives and friends will divide cremains and place small samples of loved ones in jewelry.
Kemmis admits that some people might consider such options questionable. “For one family, it may seem undignified,” she said. “For another, it’s incredibly meaningful.”
Places of remembrance
For Roman Catholics, cremation is allowed, but the Rev. Kenneth J. Doyle, chancellor of public information for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, said the church still prefers traditional burial.
“In the ancient civilized world, cremation was the norm,” said Doyle, who is also pastor of Mater Christi Roman Catholic Church in Albany. “But the church never allowed it because the church believed in the resurrection of the body. In 1963, there was an instruction from the Vatican’s Holy Office that allowed cremation.”
While some people plan send-offs in mountain streams, hiking paths or baseball fields, Doyle said Catholics should not consider those options. “The church specifies that cremated remains be treated with the same reverence as the body, to be placed in a worthy vessel and buried or entombed in consecrated ground,” he said.
At Mater Christi, Doyle said, between 15 percent and 20 percent of funerals involve cremations. He understands why some people prefer the fiery process.
“In some parts of the country, there’s a shortage of burial spaces,” Doyle said. “But for the most part, people do it because it’s less costly than a traditional burial. The other reason that I find here is [for] a lot of seniors who go to Florida in the winter, if someone were to die in Florida, it’s less burdensome to ship the cremains home than to ship home a body.”
Albany Diocesan cemeteries conduct a committal service and free interment of ashes every All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1. Last year, the ceremony took place at St. Agnes in Menands; in 2014, the ashes will be accepted at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna. The cemeteries alternate.
At St. Agnes, ashes are interred inside the communal Crypt of All Souls. Smaller columbariums outside are also used for eternal storage purposes.
“Another option is cremation benches,” said Michael Conti, family services manager at St. Agnes. “They’re like tombstones; cremated remains can be placed in the pedestals of those benches.” Names of the deceased are etched into the benches.
Conti said a dedicated space for ashes means survivors will always have a place to visit. If ashes are cast into wind or water, Conti said, “we find there’s really not a place to go to memorialize or reminisce.”
For Muslims, cremation is not an option. Cremation is not allowed in Islam, and is considered a violation of Islamic law. As a community, Muslims are tasked to ensure every Muslim who dies is properly washed, shrouded and buried.
Members of the Jewish faith reminisce at cemeteries.
“Traditional Judaism does not allow cremation,” said Rabbi Ted Midlarsky Lichtenfeld of Congregation Agudat Achim in Niskayuna. “You certainly find Jews who do it, and I think the Reform movement allows it, although most observant Reform Jews don’t do it. . . . The traditional Jewish idea is that the body is put in the ground and is allowed to decompose on its own.”
Midlarsky doesn’t believe cremation will ever pick up support in Judaism.
“There’s a very, very strong sentiment among observant Jews to be buried rather than cremated, so the idea of allowing cremation, of making that a possibility, would have to come against an awful lot of Jewish sentiment against cremation,” he said.