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19th Century Cemetery on W. 21st Street in Manhattan.
Photo by Julie Seyler


My brother, Gerry, died this week last year. And since his life for decades was in Florida, but his family lives in New Jersey, the decision was made to cremate him, so we could bring him home, and have him home with us, forever. In the year since his death, two old friends have died, as well as a few parents of friends, and some relatives. The bulk of them have been cremated. As a result of all this, I have become obsessed with thoughts of cremation. Thinking of my brother (and six years ago, my father), going from whole to embers is unsettling. But is lying six feet under and turning skeletal any more pleasant?

My mother, on the other hand, who is a healthy 79 years old, says she doesn’t want to be cremated. Or buried. She wants a mausoleum. For the whole family.

Which brings me to this – I can’t decide, and if I drop dead tomorrow, it’s out of my hands, because, while I have a will, I left that part blank. I’ve always had visions, since my age was in the single digits, about what it must be like to be dead. Currently, my mental pictures have me with makeup on, dressed in my skinny jeans, and dangly, sparkly earrings, lying in a box in the ground, looking exactly the same, except I’m dead. Dead, but intact. But now I have to take it all seriously – I’m on the right side of 50. And it’s not that I’m feeling doomed – just more responsible.

There’s ample argument for cremation – we are running out of space for graves in cemeteries, and running out of space for new cemeteries (there are stranger’s markers practically on top of my grandfather’s feet, at his grave in northern New Jersey), it’s cheaper, and simpler – in both cost and planning. For burial, you need to consider the cost of not only the casket, which according to US Funerals Online can run from $2000 to over $6000 (although Costco has added casket delivery at a bargain price to its inventory in some states), but also, the cemetery plot, embalming, hearse, funeral home, and transport of the body where the death occurred.

It cost my family $805 for my brother’s cremation. They gave us a temporary container for transport, for free. And because he is in my mother’s apartment, it has since allowed for a continued closeness to him that I do not feel with loved ones who have been buried.

Cremation has only come into the national consciousness over the past half-century or so. I don’t recall knowing anyone who was cremated, or even having heard of it, when I was in my 20s. According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), the latest statistics state that, since 1985, the percentage of deaths cremated has risen from 14.9 percent, to approximately 40 percent today. CANA predicts that in 2025, the numbers will climb to over 55 percent of the population opting for cremation.

There was a another special, intrinsic, component to having Gerry cremated, and therefore portable. It made for a bittersweet, and purely personal, journey for my other brother and me when we flew to Florida to bring Gerry’s cremated remains home. We took him out for lunch. Then we shared shots of his drink of choice, Jack Daniels, at an empty bar, with a wonderful bartender with whom we swapped family stories for over two hours. We had a seafood dinner with him at the airport, and he even had his own seat on the flight home with us, in the middle, just as we used to sit as kids in the back seat of my father’s Pontiac LeMans.