Madison resident Jerry O’Connor was impressed with her uncle’s Houston, Texas, funeral — the first cremation ceremony and most joyful memorial service she had ever attended.
“The ceremony was so much more lighter-hearted,” she said. “To me, it was more like a celebration of life.”
Without a body to view or graveside service, family members (including the smallest grandson) took turns with a shovel, digging a small hole in which they eventually placed an ash-filled urn.
James Redmond O’Connor, Jerry’s husband of 51 years, was so moved by the simple, yet memorable service, he told his wife he wanted the same when it was his time to go.
After a lengthy illness, death came peacefully for James, who passed away in his wife’s arms. Abiding by his wishes, she chose cremation, and his funeral at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Gluckstadt celebrated his life and heritage.
Photographs of James were displayed, bagpipes told of his Irish ancestry and his ashes were later taken home with the family.
While cremation is a fairly common practice in Hawaii, Nevada and Washington, Mississippi statistically ranks 50th in the annual percentage of cremations that take place in state. However, research shows that more Mississippians like O’Connor are increasingly choosing cremation over burial.
Michael Hudgins, director of Natchez Trace Funeral Home in Madison, arranged James O’Connor’s cremation ceremony.
Hudgins, who has been in the funeral business the last 12 years, said while state statistics indicate an 8 percent cremation rate, at his business, the rate is twice the state average.
“It’s becoming much more accepted,” he said.
In the past, cremation was considered an affordable alternative to a traditional funeral. Not so anymore.
“The cost of cremation is obviously less expensive than burial,” Hudgins said. But today, money doesn’t seem to be a factor. “I am seeing cremation chosen by some of the more wealthy people in our community.”
Many choose cremation because it offers more ceremonial options. Cremains can be buried, entombed, scattered and divided amongst the family.
Small amounts of ash can be placed inside jewelry and worn. Artists can mix ashes with oils and use it to paint. Carbon can be extracted during the cremation process and used to create a diamond. Ashes can be placed in bottle rockets and ignited on the Fourth of July. Some have even been sent into space, thanks to NASA.
“Some of these seem extreme but are available,” Hudgins said. “Personally, we have never been asked to provide services beyond jewelry.”
There are also plenty of choices when it comes to selecting the right urn. Natchez Trace Funeral Home has 12 urns crafted from a variety of materials, including oak, bronze, porcelain and marble that range in price from $95 to $2,850.
Rosa Reynolds, of Natchez Trace, said most people choose marble and wood.
“Those are traditional, and they are not very expensive,” she said.
Hudgins said many forgo the urn, deeming it unnecessary because they plan to scatter the ashes.
The cremation boulder is available for those who want a permanent location for the ashes. The 800-pound rock, to be placed in a garden area, features a hole in which ashes are placed and a bronze plaque bearing the deceased’s name and dates of birth and death.
Families who want a traditional funeral service may choose to rent a casket with a removable interior that holds the ashes.
Hudgins, a “new-generation” funeral director, said he believes he’s more open-minded than the funeral directors of the past.
“We are in the Bible Belt,” he said. “Our values are very traditional. I think, as Southerners, we have our own ways. It takes time for us to grasp new ideas, but this area is definitely changing. In the metro area, we’re a melting-pot society. We have people of all different races, traditions and backgrounds, so we have to be more open.”
Hudgins said the national cremation percentage rate is around 30 percent, with Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee lagging behind other states. Research predicts, however, that by 2025, more than 50 percent of those who die will be cremated.
There are 13 crematories in Mississippi now. Natchez Trace Funeral Home uses a crematory in Pearl, but owners have decided to build their own crematory on site and expect it to be operational next year.
As the funeral service industry adapts to changing times, so has the religious community. Hudgins said cremation has become more accepted among religious leaders, particularly Catholics, who did not recognize it until the last decade or so.
“It’s a new point of view,” he said, “and it’s probably because of the many parishioners that are choosing it. The church is adapting to their needs.”
Hudgins said Catholic leaders still require that ashes ceremonially pass through the church.
“The body being present is not really as important as recognizing the soul,” he said.
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