Cremation rates in the U.S. are on the rise. By 2030, experts estimate that more than 70% of Americans will be cremated.
That’s a huge shift in culture and tradition –– and it’s happening in the private homes of grieving families who are following through with their one last act of giving for a loved one they’ve lost.
In that way, numbers don’t do this shift justice. They make it too cold, too removed from the emotions behind the individual decisions.
To address that, Eterneva is releasing a blog series capturing these changing American perspectives on cremation versus burying –– from the first person point of view.
Below, is my own story, and my mother’s with her permission, as we went through our very first cremation. It won’t be our last.
It was July 2, 2015 when I got the call. I was stopped at a gas station on the side of I-35 in Austin, Texas about to begin my annual 4-hour drive to Crystal Beach.
My mom’s husband was missing.
He’d left work to pick up sandwiches for his coworkers, and he never came back. His bag was packed for our family’s annual 4th of July beach trip. He was heading there just after work ended that day. He never made it.
As I was filling up the tank, I got a call from my frantic mother checking to see where I was and to tell me that no one knew the answer to that question for him.
A Family’s Home Away From Home
Crystal Beach is situated on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico just east of Galveston. It is accessible by a tall, thin bridge to its east and a ferry to its west.
It has one major store –– aptly named The Big Store.
There, “freedom fries” still grace the menu of one of its more popular bay-side fried fish eateries, a relic of 2001 emotions.
The entire peninsula is hit by major hurricanes often, and as a result, has been rebuilt countless times in memory and honor of those lost to the sea.
This beach is also where my family has been gathering over the 4th of July holiday for more than 3 decades. It’s a right of passage.
The smell of sunscreen.
Sandy outdoor showers.
Mom’s homemade salsa.
Alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
It is there that I have some of the last memories of my grandmother healthy before the brain cancer took her body and then her mind and finally her life. Her walking down the beach cabin hall, her red hair done up as beautifully as ever, showing off a new pair of cowboy boots she couldn’t wait to wear out. I was probably 7, and the memory imprinted, now a cherished moment I’m glad to never forget.
It is there, too, that I forged lifelong friendships. Each grandchild was allowed to invite one friend to the beach, and those summer memories over watermelon, sunburns, and strawberry Blue Bell ice cream now serve as nostalgia for childhood friends I see only a few times a year these days, but whom are naturally more family than anything else.
And it is there, of course, that I was headed that day when my mom called:
“We can’t find him, Tracey. We’ve been calling and calling. Work hasn’t seen him since before lunch. He didn’t come back. We can’t find him.”
Her husband was MIA. It was unusual. It isn’t even enough to say it was a rarity. In the few years they’d been married, nothing of the sort had ever happened.
Clearly, something was wrong, but I told her it wasn’t. I rambled through the only possible explanation I could think of.
Maybe he headed out early from work to go to the beach and meet everyone.
Maybe he was also in an out of service area and calls weren’t coming through.
Maybe, just maybe, he was somewhere he shouldn’t be, doing something he shouldn’t be, and we’d figure it out and that’d be better than the feeling we had growing in our stomachs that something wasn’t just clearly wrong, but that something was, instead, terribly wrong.
I told her not to worry. To call the police. To keep me updated.
Thirty minutes later she did just that, calling to tell me the police had found him and crying words I’ll never forget: “He’s dead.”
A Sudden Change in Plans
The hours and days that passed went as they always do for those suddenly in grief –– in a blur. An unforeseen to-do list a mile long helps to keep your mind on other things.
Finding the will, and working to abide by every wish.
Calling the funeral home and making an appointment to come in.
Having that home walk you through all your options, and often making what they believe will be the decisions for you (I’ve found that quiet tends to reign in these meetings. Facing a reality you’ve yet to live, in a place you don’t want to be, has that effect).
Then, of course, planning the funeral which means finding a florist, letting friends outside of immediate family know the situation, and getting them timing and details for both before and after –– handling all of the questions and comments (most of which will be “How can I help,” which when asked 100x times by friends often has an overwhelming effect).
That’s just immediately what I remember. And it is only the funeral arrangements side of it all, which if you’re lucky, is all you have to think about.
But for many families, you are also working with the police and coroners to understand what happened (which becomes frustrating when a death occurs so close to a national holiday), and finalizing hospital or other random payments.
We spent that week making plans, attending the plans we had created, and driving back and forth from our hometown and the beach house we rented out –– which turned out to be a sanctuary of relief. A place where we had 30 years of happy memories to help pardon the oncoming grief, if only for small moments.
In addition, his passing on the first day of a week-long holiday for the family meant all of us already had requested a week off.
There was no business to push aside.
No additional work stresses or anxiety.
It had been taken care of before.
He was the kind of man who didn’t like to impose, who never wanted to obstruct the plans of others, who was always making sure his inclusion was never a burden. In death, he was the same.
With one caveat: his will dictated that he wanted no show made of his passing, nothing fancy, ideally not even a service. And cremation. He wanted to be cremated because it was the least expensive and the most logical option.
This was a moral obstacle for my Southern Baptist mother.
Last Wishes and Family Traditions
Cremation wasn’t her ideal idea of a final destination. She’d been raised in the Baptist faith, and burying your loved ones for the future coming of Christ, so they could be risen to live again, was our family normal.
But she obeyed that will, without hesitancy. It was his final will, and not even a Southern Baptist woman will forgo that ask.
Where we did deviate, however, was in giving him a service, which we did. In that funeral home meeting, she teared up:
“He asked not to have one.”
To which I replied: “He thought it’d be easier without one, but if it’s easier to have it, if it’s what you want, that’s what he would want.”
Essentially what I said was that this is for you, to help unburden your woes and worries and grief –– all of which he lived his last years in honor of accomplishing.
And so, we gave him a service and then took him to the crematorium. From there, my mom, myself, and my brother drove back to the beach. Once there, I decided to make some of her famous homemade salsa to help alleviate sadness by way of full bellies.
But, I dropped the Ninja blender and cut my pinky finger in half.
Forty-five minutes later (the beach urgent care is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was Wednesday) and we were at the closest small town hospital in the area having a horse doctor put 11 stitches in my pinky to hold it together.
“Clean cut,” she said. “No ragged edges at all.”
The best news of the week, I told her.
Being OK… Eventually
These days, my step-dad’s ashes sit in our study surrounded by a small memorial. It’s the right place for him. Surrounded by sunflowers in the room he loved the most, right next to the big screen TV where he used to watch The Big Bang Theory.
My mom began going to a grief group, where she found incredible support and some new best friends. One of those new best friends sent her on a blind date with the man who is now her fiancee.
They travel the world together, something my mom wasn’t a huge fan of before any of this happened, and live down at Crystal Beach –– that home away from home she’s always cherished.
Back in 2015, days after he passed, I told my mom something so many people say in those early days to those who have lost someone.
“Mom, it’s going to be OK. Everything will be OK.”
She looked at me, a little disappointed it seems, and then said in a moment of teaching:
“I know, I know everything will be OK. Eventually. But it’s not right now. And I want to be upset about it –– right now.”
And she was. And I was. Then, and now. But we’ve found joy in so many other things, too. New friends. New families. All of whom to share the old memories with.
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