Arizonans Overwhelmingly Choose Cremation Over Traditional Burial

By Carrie Jung
Published: Tuesday, June 28, 2016 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, July 1, 2016 - 8:48am
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(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
About 70% of people in Arizona choose cremation over traditional burial for final arrangements.
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Messinger Mortuary is working to double the size of it's crematory.

In the early days of funeral director Nancy Keil’s career, cremations were few and far between.

"I’m from Wisconsin and I served my internship there, so that was around 1980," she said. "We did one cremation. One."

That’s completely different today. In a given month, Keil oversees about 300 cremations at Messinger Mortuary in Scottsdale. And demand is only growing; so much so that they’re working to double the size of their Valley-based crematory to six units.

The crematory isn’t the only thing that has changed. The funeral home's selection room, which used to house several dozen caskets is now populated mostly with urns.

Today, roughly 70 percent of Arizonans are choosing cremation. That’s up from only 40 percent in the 1980s.

"Once I realized what went into a traditional burial, embalming a body and preparing it and all that, and then once I realized how expensive all that is too. So I thought, why would you want to do that?" said Phoenix resident Elizabeth Salazar.

Salazar said she’s always known she wanted to be cremated— a feeling that grew once her grandfather was cremated.

"I’m not particularly religious or I don’t have any strong family traditions around end-of-life rituals so there is no drawback for me," she added.

That’s one factor driving this shift nationwide— we're not as religious as we used to be. Industry experts also say highly transient and affluent populations, like we have here in the Valley, also tend to be less bound by tradition.

"It certainly affects the profit margin of funeral homes that relied on burial," said Mike Nicodemus, the vice president of cremation services at the National Funeral Directors Association. His group estimates the average funeral involving a traditional burial costs about $7,000. With cremation, it’s typically thousands of dollars less. He said while some funeral homes are concerned about what this means for their bottom line, most are learning how to adapt.

"It’s not going to make them close their doors," Nicodemus said. "They have to educate themselves and they have to education their staff on how to communicate with these families and how to offer options."

For example, at Messinger, they’ve turned a portion of the building that used to house visitation rooms into a large reception room so families can throw a catered party in memory of their loved one. And today you can even send your loved one’s ashes away to have them turned into a diamond.

"Cremation is going to continue to rise," Nicodemus said. "It’s not a trend. It’s not a fad. You know it’s here to stay."

Cremation isn’t the only option seeing serious growth right now. In Arizona, more people have also chosen to donate their body to science over the last 10 years— a choice that’s grown so fast that Arizona lawmakers passed legislation this year to officially regulate the industry. Meanwhile, natural burial, in which a body is not embalmed and buried in a biodegradable coffin, is also seeing slow but steady growth here.

Read More From The Business Of Dying Series:

Part 1: How Maricopa County Is Planning To Attract More Medical Examiners In Face Of Shortage
Part 2: Arizonans Overwhelmingly Choose Cremation Over Traditional Burial
Part 3: Death Becomes Her: More Women Enter Once Male-Dominated Funeral Service Industry
Part 4: Laid To Rest: A Dignified Farewell For The Poor And Unclaimed In Maricopa County
Part 5: Organ Transplant Surgery: How Death Can Sometimes Mean New Life

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