Years ago, cremation was virtually a nonexistent option. Growing up in central Illinois, we would never had considered it an option. Organized religion was firmly entrenched in opposition: social mores absolutely dictated burial.
In those days, and we are basically talking post-war America, family systems were more focused on burial and cemeteries. We, as a family, made quarterly visits to graves of loved ones.
Some cultures today still respect that tradition. When we recently visited Palm Desert Cemetery in Palm Springs, California on a Sunday, there must have been 10 families essentially spending the afternoon around the graves of their loved ones.
Grave Blankets Were A Must In Those Days
These blankets, which are composed of various fir tree branches and other decorative plant life, are placed on the grave around Thanksgiving time and reside there until the New Year (this is primarily a cold weather custom).
If we visited a city where a lot of our ancestors were buried, a trip to the cemetery was always in order.
Just to jog our memory, we spoke to a local funeral director who works with Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory here in Lewisville, Texas (we are located just a few miles from Denton, Texas and just to the west of Plano, Texas).
This director, who is a third generation deathcare professional, grew up in Chicago, Illinois, about 100 miles north of where we were raised — we are both about the same age, so the time period we are discussing is also the same.
Confirming our recollections, his response about the availability of cremations to the general public in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s time frame were “hard to find.” He recalled that perhaps there were, at best, a “handful” of potential options. “Almost non-existent” was the exact phrase he used. “The public was not looking for cremations then,” he concluded.
His memory of cemetery visits was equally vivid — going out to place flowers on graves or simply to pray for a lost loved one over the plot was something he remembers doing on the order of a half a dozen times a year, especially if out-of-town relatives came to call.
Cemeteries served more a social function then. Not only was it a visit to display respect for the departed, it was an opportunity to share family memories.
To bring in a reference for cremation’s place in our culture during that era, we dug up a copy of our World Book Encyclopedia that was in our home then.
There is no entry under cremation, rather a direction to look up “Funeral Customs.” Under the latter heading, cremation is described as destroying a corpse by fire, with historical references to the Vikings as well as to ceremonies conducted in India. The next section is devoted to objections to the process — mentioning that the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to it and that some legal authorities had problems with evidence destruction.
The encyclopedia then gets around to noting that cremation is sanitary, it saves land and cuts down on the spread of disease. Several sentences then specifically detail the heat of the cremation oven, the reduction of bones to ashes and the use of an urn for cremains.
That was the world of death-care not that long ago — in 1960, it is estimated that the cremation took place in less than 4 percent of the deaths in the United States. It was not a preferred option for final disposition, there were ingrained societal objects and it was not widely available.
How the world has changed in our lifetime. Cremation now has surpassed traditional funeral services, many funeral homes are now devoting themselves almost exclusively to the process and forecasts for the future indicate that it will eventually dominate our culture. Would have been pretty hard to predicate all of this 50 years ago. These times are a changing.