Area cemeteries say they've got plenty of space available


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Surrounded by athletic fields and campus buildings, Mount Hope Cemetery in Champaign has little room to expand.

Yet its funeral director isn't worrying about one day running out of room — in part because the way we bury our loved ones is changing.

In 2016, the cremation rate in America crossed 50 percent, up from 9.7 percent in 1980, according to the Cremation Association of North America. And in Illinois, 47 percent of those who died were cremated in 2016, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Mount Hope, which has a mausoleum that's 85 to 90 percent full, is responding to the demand, adding columbaria, which are a bit like bookshelves to hold cremated remains.

"People are really starting to latch onto those because of the turn to cremation," said Stacy Wagner, a funeral director at Mittendorf-Calvert, the funeral home in Mount Hope.

Yet Mount Hope has another reason to not be too concerned.

"We're kind of filling in old pathways and roadways, that kind of thing," Wagner said.

There's a section in the cemetery that looks empty, but Mount Hope can't expand into that because "it used to be an old indigent burial ground for Champaign County," Wagner said. "There are what we know to be thousands of burials there, and the records of who is there are somewhat minimal."

When a previous owner of the cemetery took over long ago, Wagner said an agreement was made to no longer bury people in that section, "because we don't know exactly how many people are there."

Like Mount Hope, other area cemeteries say they won't be running out of room anytime soon.

"We've got probably 150 years left," said Mike O'Kane, manager of Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Danville. "Half the cemetery isn't even plotted out."

"We've got plenty of room to grow," said Dave Short, a trustee for Eastlawn Burial Park in Urbana.

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Cremations are taking over burials for a variety of reasons.

They're generally much cheaper than traditional burials, but that's not necessarily the main reason people choose them, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the cremation association.

"Consumers always point to price," she said. "A lot of that, we hypothesized, is not that the family doesn't have the money to spend. It's just that they don't see the value of a casket burial. They like cremation."

She also said cremation can be more convenient, giving family members more time to return home.

"Cremation can allow a lengthening of the time frame for doing memorialization," she said.

And she said younger generations just aren't as tied to the traditions of previous generations.

That's why cremation tends to be more popular in the western U.S., where many residents weren't born in the state they live in.

Washington state, for example, has a cremation rate of 77 percent.

"Baby boomers increasingly want their death to reflect the life they live, so it trends toward a celebration of life versus a memorial service versus a funeral," Kemmis said. "So scattering ashes in a place that's meaningful, and destination funerals to gather the family together one more time. ... Options that don't take place within a funeral home or cemetery."

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The shift toward cremation opened up a new line of business for Kelley Vault and Crematory in Champaign.

It started as a burial vault company in 1923, and in 1983, it added its first crematory.

Kelley now does cremations wholesale for many of the funeral homes in Champaign-Urbana.

In 1983, "the cremation rate was pretty much nonexistent," said Rich Herr, the company's vice president. "It's grown steadily over the years."

In this area, especially with the University of Illinois, "it's more of a transient society," he said. Compared to "shipping a full body, it's a lot more economical to be cremated."

The company also makes headstones (for pets and humans) and granite countertops.

Kelley makes fewer headstones than it used to, but an increase in cremations doesn't necessarily mean there will be less headstones needed, Herr said.

While some people simply receive the ashes and scatter them, others choose to bury the urn or place it in a columbarium.

"You can still have a visitation, you can still have a funeral, you can still be buried" with cremation, Herr said.

When someone dies, the family has to wait at least 24 hours before the body can be cremated, Wagner said. It usually takes that long for the funeral home to get the required permits.

The funeral home takes the body to the crematory and then picks up the cremated remains to give back to the family.

"Once it's cremated, the state of Illinois no longer views it as a human body, and you don't need a licensed funeral director present," Wagner said. "With a full-casketed burial, a licensed director has to be present."

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At Heath & Vaughn Funeral Home in Champaign, owner Chuck Vaughn estimates that at least 75 percent of his clients are cremated. And, he said, he has seen an increasing number of green or natural burials, where the body is placed in a biodegradable casket.

"It's an all-wood casket. No metal in it whatsoever," Vaughn said. "It's simplified, but also very elegant."

He said that option is more popular on the West Coast, but it's "slowly making its way east."

"Especially as we get younger folks into the market, I think it's going to be the future," Vaughn said.

But it can be difficult to "find cemeteries that will accommodate you," Vaughn said. "There aren't that many."

The move toward new methods reflects a shift in society, Kemmis said. The cremation rate is expected to continue to rise, though Kemmis wonders how high it will get.

"That's what we're all waiting for," she said. "At some point, it's going to slow down. ... It's never going to be 100 percent."