Ashes to ashes

Cremation’s appeal to mobile populace

By James Gallant

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently published a piece on the growing popularity of cremation of the dead, as opposed to burial (“More Atlantans choose cremation,” Living, Jan. 5). Among the explanations mentioned for this trend were the lower cost of cremation, its environmental friendliness and the decline 0f organized religion.

The author of a book on American attitudes on this matter, interviewed on National Public Radio, remarked that Americans in the past tended to think the body as closely related to what a person was. The fashionableness of cremation suggests people now may be embracing a view more like that of the Hindus: The body, after death, with the soul freed, is just disposable waste.

No doubt, there’s something to be said for these explanations why cremation has become so popular. I doubt, though, the cost associated with burial is the critical factor. If burial was still as firmly entrenched in cultural practice as it once was, people would go into debt to bury their dead.

I also doubt altered philosophical or religious views have been the critical determinants.

The factor that has been critical, I think, is the one mentioned by one interviewee in the AJC piece: “Most of us don’t live or die in the same town where we grew up any longer.”

Exactly. For transients like us, the question raised by the idea of being buried somewhere is, “Why there?”

My mother in Ohio, who lived to be more than 90, spent her entire life in one small Ohio town. She arranged for her own burial — and had to go into debt to do so. I don’t think she ever considered cremation as a possibility. I would drive up from Atlanta to visit her. We once paid a visit to an old country churchyard near my hometown where four generations of my rural ancestors are buried.

“There’s your father,” she said, pointing to a slab of marble with Dad’s name on it.

I did not think my father was there, and as a mobile, urban American who has lived in Minnesota, Indiana, Virginia and Georgia, I could no more identify with that location than I could with my family’s rural background.

The idea of having most of my bodily substance dispersed into the air by incineration isn’t exactly charming, and the idea of my daughter in Chicago having my remains in a jar is laughable. But as symbolism, cremation would represent better than burial my life on the wing.

James Gallant is author of “The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House, a Novel of Atlanta.”

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