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Ashes to Ashes

Is cremation a better way to go?



When A. Jones Kimbrough died on July 20, of a massive hemorrhage accompanied by a stroke, he left no wife or children. It fell to his sister, the Reverend Sister Loui, to make final arrangements for Kimbrough. She received some direction from a yellowing newspaper clipping she found amid Kimbrough's belongings.

"Burn what is left of me," went the clipping, "and scatter the ashes to help the flowers grow. If you must bury something, let it be my faults, my weaknesses and all prejudice against my fellow man. If you wish to remember me, do so with a kind deed or a word to someone who needs you."

Intent on respecting what she took to be her brother's wishes, Sister Loui called the Cremation Society of Illinois (CSI), one of the very few services in the Chicago area that deal exclusively in cremations. Two days after Kimbrough had died, Mark McCarthy, CSI's chief associate, drove to Kimbrough's apartment, near 40th and South Michigan Avenue. The front door wasn't working, so McCarthy scaled a fire escape in his charcoal gray suit in order to reach the apartment, where he located Sister Loui reposing by the kitchen table; her daughter looked on from a corner chair. A sweet-faced, elderly woman in a housedress and white slippers, Sister Loui offered McCarthy a glass of cool herbal tea, and since it was hot as blazes outside, he readily agreed.

"I'm unaware of how these things work," confessed Sister Loui. McCarthy, 28, a graduate of the University of Illinois, brainy and eager, was happy to enlighten her.

Sister Loui handed McCarthy a snapshot of her brother. "Nice lookin' fella," he said. Kimbrough was 73 when he died; his sister is two years younger. He and his sister, two of eight children, were born in Mississippi and raised in Pennsylvania. Sister Loui trained as an evangelist minister and later converted to Catholicism; she settled in Michigan, where she worked as a housekeeper in a rectory. Her brother, a veteran of World War II, migrated to Chicago; he worked as a security guard for the state of Illinois and for a private agency. Divorced once and widowed once, Kimbrough left no children. He had been living in retirement next to the Prayer Band Pentecostal Church, which he attended.

"My brother had a good life, and very dedicated life," said Sister Loui. "He was in so many community services."

"What I'm going to do with his ashes is take them back to Michigan with me," Sister Loui told McCarthy, "and scatter them near my home." For that, perhaps you'd like an urn, McCarthy suggested.

Like caskets, urns vary greatly in price and quality. From CSI you can purchase a bronze-and-walnut model for $696 or one in solid mahogany for $438. McCarthy seldom recommends them. "The most important thing in my business is that the family leaves happy," he says. "If they aren't, everybody is going to hear about it. You never want to leave the impression that you're a gouger."

McCarthy showed Sister Loui a $125 urn made of rose-colored marble. "Oh, that's a honey," she burst out, but McCarthy pointed out that the marble box "costs as much as a piece of furniture." And since Sister Loui was eventually planning to take her brother's ashes--called "cremains" in the business--home to Michigan to be scattered on the earth, McCarthy recommended instead CSI's burnished copper box, priced at $36, his least expensive alternative (barring a tin container or a fiberboard box).

CSI's cremation package for Sister Loui cost about $560, within the limit the Veterans Administration would contribute to dispose of Jones Kimbrough. "So it looks like the VA will take care of everything," McCarthy told Sister Loui.

Yet Sister Loui appeared uneasy. "To live and die, it gets more complicated as you go," she sighed. "It used to be, you died and they put you in a box and buried you and that was that. Now it's thousands and thousands of dollars."

"You OK, Sister Loui?" McCarthy asked.

"Yes, I am," she replied, "except I somehow feel like I've taken the weight of my brother's burdens and added them to my own."

McCarthy, however, felt satisfied that at least CSI had lightened Sister Loui's load, not added to her troubles. Bidding her good-bye, McCarthy retreated down the fire escape and got into an Oldsmobile station wagon. He was off to pick up two bodies lying in hospital morgues, one the remains of Jones Kimbrough. Its destiny was a quick and efficient cremation.

Once employed only by kooks, cremation is a growth industry in America today. Some religious groups, such as Baptists and orthodox Jews, still look unkindly upon cremation, but the Catholic church has lifted its prohibition and the practice is gaining acceptance. Nationally, cremations now account for about 14 percent of all final dispositions, and the rate is climbing.

"The fact that cremation costs less than a funeral is part of the attraction," says Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), based in Chicago. "But the major reason is cultural. Old people are moving away from their families and friends, so when death happens, who is there to mourn? Death is not the family-oriented event it used to be. Cremation becomes the simpler way of disposal. The old person thinks, 'Why obligate my loved ones to come a great distance for a grand funeral and burial? I'll just do things simply and be cremated.'"

This trend has its nay-sayers, however. Funeral directors downplay the move toward cremation. Few will admit that slimmer profits diminish their enthusiasm for incinerating remains. Instead, they contend that Americans need the mourning ceremony that only a full-blown funeral and burial can provide. And even without the opinions of funeral directors, cremation retains its indelicate image. You may approve of it in principle, but do you want a crematory across the alley?

For his part, Mark McCarthy thinks that most funeral directors are antediluvian when it comes to cremation: "They are looking like greed-mongers. They are reacting against cremation, but they are in the dark. The director who doesn't embrace cremation, who hesitates in offering this choice, is going the way of the shoemaker and the iron horse.

"Let's compare funeral services to the car business. Now what's the justification for a Cadillac? Snob appeal. What's the justification for a BMW? Snob appeal. Now I'm not saying the only reason for a funeral and burial is snob appeal. They are also an occasion for people to gather; there is permanence to it. But if you don't feel you need that, terrific, you have another opportunity.

"Personally, I want to be cremated. When you're dead, you're dead, is what I say. Do it simply. Let's be gone with me. Bingo."

The son of an engineer, McCarthy grew up in South Shore and Flossmoor. While at the University of Illinois, he worked part-time doing odd jobs for a funeral home. Though he has pursued other professions--he was an editor of a trade journal for printers and a PR man for politicians--he has never strayed far from disposing of the dead. For three years he bunked above the Birren & Son funeral parlor in Edgewater. "I was the janitor," he relates, "although I often helped to pull a body in."

Since April, McCarthy has worked for CSI, the venture of a funeral director named Jerry Sullivan. Sullivan's father owned a mortuary on the west side, and both his mother and his sister continue in the trade. Sullivan operates two homes of his own, one in Beverly and the second in Park Forest. Both facilities used to be owned by the Lain family, who as early as 1967 "saw the trend," according to Sullivan, and installed a crematory in the Park Forest home. The trend that Sullivan himself saw was that funeral directors were discouraging cremations. "Any business must be driven by the consumer," says Sullivan, an open-faced man of 39. "We felt the consumer was getting resistance from the traditional funeral director." In 1983 he incorporated CSI, with offices in Oak Brook Terrace. For the most part, CSI's representatives travel to the customer, then utilize the Park Forest crematory.

CSI handles some 300 cremations a year, attracting clientele in large part through ads strategically placed on the bottom of the Tribune and Sun-Times obituary pages.

Using CSI means a very inexpensive final exit. If you become a CSI member in advance of your demise, for $30, your cremation costs only $395; with a permit and the requisite number of death certificates, the total charge might run to $460. For a nonmember, like Jones Kimbrough, the overall bill will come to maybe $100 more. A cremation-cum-funeral can be costly--$2,450 through one of Jerry Sullivan's mortuaries, only $300 less than the average funeral expense cited by the Chicago-area Funeral Directors Services Association. But there's a considerable saving in burial costs, that is, if you are buried in a cemetery at all. With CSI the cremains are usually returned to the family, where they are dispensed with as the relatives see fit.

Strangely, economics plays less of a factor for CSI customers than other considerations. "What's going on fundamentally is a changing demography," observes McCarthy. "We're in a big city. The old neighborhoods are crumbling, and the continuity in people's lives is gone. Before, when somebody died, the relatives always went to the neighborhood funeral home. But when the neighborhood changed, the funeral home did, too. People have become disaffected, and they have begun to consider other options. Twenty years ago, you went with a full-scale traditional funeral. Why? 'Cause you just did. Everybody did. Now there are alternatives.

"We do a helluva trade among wealthy Protestants, for instance," McCarthy continues, "people who live in Oak Brook, Hinsdale, Western Springs. They just don't see any reason for an elaborate funeral. It's a matter of simplicity. You know, when you're dead, you're dead. We also get a lot of calls from Streamwood. And Schaumburg; honest to Christ, I'd say I've cremated half the town. I don't know if it's the rootlessness of those two suburbs, or what.

"Lake Forest, though, forget it. Cremation would be an obscenity to the Royal Doulton types."

The Catholic Church used to prohibit cremation, but in 1963 the Vatican II council revised the proscription. Today, according to the authoritative Catholic Almanac, cremation is allowed "provided it does not involve any contempt of the Church or of religion, or any attempt to deny, question, or belittle the doctrine of the resurrection of the body." While Catholics still tend to avoid cremation, CSI gets some customers of that faith. "See, lots of Catholics don't want the additional expense of a funeral," McCarthy explains, "and besides many have fallen away from the church and they see that when you're dead, you're dead." Among Baptists and fundamentalists, however, who have a strong belief in the resurrection of the body, CSI has no chance. "Forget it," sighs McCarthy.

Orthodox Jews disdain cremation. "Cremation is never permitted," writes rabbi Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. Lamm links incineration to the pagan ritual of burning bodies on a pyre, and he says the Torah, the body of Jewish law, dictates that bodily decomposition must take place "in nature's own steady way." Another emotional block for many Jews is cremation's suggestion of the Holocaust.

Yet Reform Jews compose a segment of the CSI market. "We handle a lot of what I call Sheridan Road cremations," says McCarthy. "An old woman dies. The son is in Scottsdale and the daughter's out east. There are a couple of nephews she hasn't seen since their bar mitzvahs, and her sister died two years ago. The son comes in from Scottsdale and decides to take care of things simply, meaning cremation. The operative phrase here is, 'Everyone's gone.'"

After leaving Sister Loui, McCarthy drove his Olds wagon down to Lakeside Veterans Administration Hospital, on Huron Street near Lake Shore Drive, to pick up his first corpse of the day, a 78-year-old laborer from Beverly who had died of a heart attack.

The first step in retrieving any body is getting the doctor of the deceased to sign the death certificate. "Now most doctors are good about this," says McCarthy. "Eight times out of ten, I'll call up a doctor, he'll be beeped and--bingo--when I get to the hospital the certificate is ready. Occasionally, though, you run into an MD-ity. The doctor says, 'I don't care. There's a nurse I'm in love with. We're going to Rush Street.' So I have to come back in two days."

Today it was the hospital clerk who was taking a long lunch. McCarthy leafed through the Tribune until the clerk returned and beeped the appropriate physician, a hassled resident. She signed the necessary form, and McCarthy presented the clerk with the release signed by a family member that a hospital demands before it can turn over a corpse. In the eighth-floor hospital morgue, the body, fresh from the cooler and shrouded in white plastic, was placed under a blue blanket and transferred to McCarthy's wheeled stretcher, and down it went to the station wagon.

Then it was over to the Westside VA Hospital, at Damen and Ogden, where Jones Kimbrough's death certificate was waiting with a clerk. So too, within minutes, was Kimbrough's body; shrouded and cold, it was deposited on a cot by a loading dock. McCarthy zipped Kimbrough's corpse into a green twill body bag and rolled it onto his stretcher and then, in turn, into the back of the wagon. The station wagon had given off the smell of a musty kennel before, and now the scent seemed to intensify.

The office of the Cook County Medical Examiner supplied McCarthy with permits to cremate. Some clerks at the Chicago Board of Health office in the basement of the Civic Center sold him burial permits and copies of death certificates. (Funeral directors recommend that the family obtain more than the original death certificate for estate purposes.)

Finally, McCarthy drove the corpses out to Jerry Sullivan's Lain-Sullivan Funeral Home in Park Forest, where Kimbrough, at least, was disposed of on the same day, July 22.

The Lain-Sullivan has two crematories. They are located near the loading dock of the spacious and tastefully decorated funeral home. The crematories, called "retorts" by professionals, were manufactured by the G and S Crematory Co. in Downers Grove; new ones cost up to $30,000. The Lain-Sullivan retorts are two-chamber affairs, each ten feet long, lined with firebrick and equipped with gas burners. The upper chamber of the retort destroys human remains through a combination of flame and intense heat--"intense" meaning a maximum of 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit--while the lower chamber burns off smoke and gases.

Late on July 22 the body of Jones Kimbrough, housed in a large paper container for the sake of delicacy, was pushed off a cart and into the retort. It took the retort about 90 minutes to do its job. After the oven was allowed to cool, a Lain-Sullivan staffer opened the door to find skeletal remains--a caved-in skull, fragments of the hip joints, arms and legs. Those, in turn, were put through a special pulverizing machine, producing not an ash like that on a cigarette--the popular impression--but pure white gravel-sized pieces of bone, perhaps a half-dozen pounds of them.

The simplest way for the cremains to be conveyed back to the family is packaged in fiberboard boxing. But Sister Loui had ordered a copper urn. On the evening of July 28, McCarthy brought the urn to Sister Loui in her brother's apartment. A cool breeze wafted through the flat as McCarthy and Sister Loui downed a couple glasses of cool herbal tea and talked about the hereafter.

The practice of cremation dates far back in time. The Phoenicians burned their dead, as did the ancient Hindus and Greeks. Cremation came into favor in Italy only at the time of the Roman republic, and then with elaborate rituals.

The corpse was bathed in fragrant oil and balms and then wrapped in asbestos, to keep its ashes separate from those of the pyre, itself composed of cypress boughs. Before the burning, one finger of the deceased would be amputated, to insure that death had actually occurred. Finally the nearest relative of the departed would open the dead person's eyes and then, with his or her own gaze averted, light the pyre. Onto the blaze were thrown dead animals beloved by the deceased: dogs, doves, and sometimes horses. The ashes ended up in urns, made of marble or bronze for the rich, clay or glass for the poor. Burial took place in an underground columbarium, or vault with niches for the urns. The emperors Julius Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, and Nero were all cremated.

"There is evidence to show that cremation was practiced by the early Christians in those lands in which the custom was in vogue," recounts a history published by the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal in 1902, "but finally it was the influence of religion that prevailed upon authorities to stamp out the practice of burning the dead." Of course, burial assumed a decided holiness since Jesus was buried after his crucifixion. "And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb," says the Book of Matthew. Christians were also offended by cremation because it harked back to paganism (the Celts and various Germanic tribes burned their dead) and because it seemed to strike at the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. After all, how could the body rise if it had been destroyed?

The cremation renaissance began in the 1870s. Two Englishmen, Sir Henry Thomson, personal surgeon to Queen Victoria, and Dr. T. Spencer Wells, president of the Royal College of Medicine, favored cremation for its sanitation benefits. They connected up with one Professor Brunetti, of Padua in Italy, who in 1873 brought his model of a retort to the Vienna Exhibition, a world's fair. The professor's oven was the first specifically designed for the quick disposal of human remains, and it impressed exhibition visitors enough to spur on cremation movements in France, England, and the United States.

The American cremation movement owes its birth to Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne, a physician in Washington, Pennsylvania. "Dr. LeMoyne . . . asserted that the first authenticated case of burning the dead was the proposed incineration of Isaac," wrote one cremation historian, "and although it was not consummated it was fully authorized by the Deity. In a sequence he [LeMoyne] argues that cremationists stand in the shadow of the Lord, and that anyone who opposes them commits a sacrilege."

Dr. LeMoyne erected a crematory for the purpose, ultimately, of doing away with his own body, but in the interim he decided to educate the public by allowing others to use the device. The first to solicit LeMoyne's generosity was Baron de Palm, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, no less. Unfortunately, the baron perished in May of 1875, 18 months before the LeMoyne crematory was ready. No matter: the baron's body was embalmed and placed in a Lutheran cemetery until the appropriate time. The baron christened the LeMoyne crematory on December 6, 1876. Three pints of ash constituted his cremains, according to a surviving account, and they were deposited in an antique vase.

Three years later Dr. LeMoyne's own time arrived, and he was turned to ash in his personal oven. In Detroit, a young man named Hugo Erichsen read a newspaper account of Dr. LeMoyne's way of going, "and that instantly converted him to cremation," reports one biographical sketch of Erichsen.

Erichsen was 29 at the time, a brown-haired man with gold-rimmed glasses and a childlike face. Erichsen's parents had emigrated from Schleswig-Holstein, and his father went on to operate a Detroit hotel. Hugo trained as a doctor and was succeeding in a solid career. He served as city physician of Detroit, as translating editor for the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical firm, and as medical director for the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Home for part of Erichsen's life was a grand Detroit estate called Villa Inglese. Off-hours found him pursuing his avocations as literary editor of the Detroit Commercial Advertiser and as an amateur photographer. Sunday mornings found the doctor in pew 13 of the First Unitarian Congregational Church of Detroit, where he was a devoted parishioner.

"But Dr. Erichsen was just obsessed with the idea of cremation," remembers Paul G. Bryan, a retired California cemetery owner and cremationist who met Erichsen when he was an old man. In 1885 Erichsen had his mother cremated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then, organizing a joint stock company, he financed the construction of a crematory in Detroit. The resulting one-story facility was made of brick, with stone trimmings and a turret. The chapel inside had a catafalque on which the coffin of the dead person was placed. A minister would stand in front of the catafalque to conduct the funeral service, at the conclusion of which an elevator would "slowly and noiselessly" transport the coffin to the basement. There the body, wrapped in a white sheet, would be incinerated--or rather, oxidized in an atmosphere of "superheated air." The result for the body, wrote one observer, was "a gentle but swift disintegration and a harmless resolution into its original elements, all of which, after purification, make their escape into the air . . ."

A quiet man, Dr. Erichsen was cremation's first and, to date, its greatest champion in this country. In a series of articles and a booklet, he proselytized for his cause. He claimed earth burial leads to cemetery overcrowding and thus the rotting of remains, which become "dangerous to the living on account of the poisonous gases and other effluvia generated." Erichsen contended that burial led to the spread of cholera and other infectious diseases--a concern many shared. (In 1893, officials at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, fearful of an epidemic, installed a crematory in the basement of its chapel, where it remains.) He preached that cremation didn't conflict with belief in the resurrection, since "both interment and incineration lead to the same result; namely, to the total destruction of the body." Erichsen thumbed his nose at the bothersome link cremation seemed to maintain with heathens: he argued that many pagans--Orientals, Romans, Etruscans--also practiced burial.

"The problem presented to us, uncomplicated by tradition and religious beliefs, is a very simple one," Erichsen said in a speech delivered in 1913. "The soul, the vital principle, the ego, or whatever your special philosophy calls it, has departed from its tenement of clay, and we have simply to see that the discarded flesh may be broken into its various chemical elements without injury to the living. There is nothing sacred or sacramental in burial apart from what man's ingenuity has invented. The grave is but a clumsy contrivance to save the feelings of the survivors by putting out of sight a grievous spectacle. Cremation does in an hour or two what it takes many years to accomplish in the grave, and the final result is the same--ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Erichsen's Detroit Crematorium became part of the Woodmere Cemetery in 1929, by which time the doctor had helped found the Cremation Association of North America. He was its first president, in 1913, and he headed the organization again three years later. Erichsen died in 1944, in his early 80s. Was he cremated? "What do you think?" replied a stunned Paul Bryan, the group's historian, over the phone from California.

The increase in the number of U.S. cremations has come slowly, but come it has. In 1967 the cremation rate stood at 4 percent, according to CANA; in only 20 years it's reached its current 14 percent level, and is rising at around three-quarters of a point most years. In Cook County about 11 percent of corpses are cremated, but proponents contend that the current rates tell only half the tale. Look to bellwether locales to glimpse the future, advises Jerry Sullivan. Indeed, in trend-setting places like Marin County, north of San Francisco, or in such senior-citizen reserves as Tampa, Florida, the cremation rate tops 60 percent, reports CANA's executive director, Jack Springer. He further predicts that by the year 2000, the U.S. cremation rate will reach 28 percent. In Japan and England, says Springer, the imprimatur of religion (in Japan, the Shinto faith) and the shortage of land have made cremation the predominant form of disposal. "Why, you can't get into Westminster Abbey anymore unless you're cremated," says Springer.

And in this country? Consider the case of Marv Pow.

Marv, whose job was to tend to the boilers at Wieboldt's main store on State Street, lived in Bolingbrook with his wife and six kids. His hobbies were fishing, golfing, bowling, and watching television from his favorite gray lounge chair; good with his hands, he relished This Old House, but he also liked to watch The Frugal Gourmet and most anything on the Playboy Channel. To his family Marv constantly trumpeted two sayings: "Don't do it half-assed," and "I'm sweet and lovable."

On July 3 Marv was on vacation, and two of his grandchildren were visiting from Florida. Marv took care of eight-year-old Shannon all day. She watched as Marv cut the grass, and then he filled a plastic pool for the girl. Marv and Shannon went fishing; she caught a catfish and he didn't. In the late afternoon Marv got in his car to drive to a friend's house for a weekly game of cards. He never made it. He had a heart attack, either en route or else inside a Hinsdale pizza parlor where he collapsed. In any event, Marv was taken from the pizza joint to Hinsdale Hospital, but by then he was already dead. He was 51 years old.

Marv had had a heart attack three years before, and his first wife had perished from cancer. Death and its prospects were thus not unfamiliar to Marv, and he had made his wishes known to his family. "He said one time, 'Put me in an orange crate and throw it in the backyard,'" recalls Marv's widow, Marie. "He didn't want anything elaborate."

Marie complied. "First of all, I was debating whether I should have him cremated right away or laid out," recalls Marie, "so I priced what a funeral would cost." A Bolingbrook funeral home cited a price of $2,500 (for a wake, funeral, some hearses, and a rented casket), for a funeral with cremation, which Marie considered "outrageous." So she called CSI, and Mark McCarthy came out and outlined the firm's services. For a total cost of $668 Marie Pow had Marv cremated and his cremains deposited in a gray marble urn. The urn sits on the dresser of Marie and Marv's bedroom.

"I'm comfortable with Marv sitting on the dresser," says Marie, who is 41, Catholic (Marv was Methodist), and works as a salesclerk. "By the time I die, 40 years from now, I will have made a decision on what to do with the urn." For now, Marie receives some consolation from her ability to talk to her husband's urn, in conversations that occur mostly before she goes to bed: "Most of our talks were then anyway, 'cause otherwise I was working and so was he. I just tell him what I'm doing, what my feelings are at the moment. This way, I can face the next day without always crying."

Louise Richter, unlike Marie Pow, saw her husband die over an extended period. When he was 65, Kenneth "Rick" Richter retired from his job as a tool and die maker. Gradually Louise noticed small things going wrong with Rick--a tendency to fall asleep in front of company, several near-miss traffic accidents, bed-wetting--but at first she credited them to old age. Doctors, however, diagnosed Alzheimer's disease.

"My goal was to keep Rick in peace and contentment, to let him die gracefully," explains Louise. "Rick loved going out to dinner with his grandchildren, but he didn't know them. Finally he didn't know me, either. Yet he knew he'd been a tool and die maker. His mind was completely arrested in the 20s. He used to go to our window here at the apartment and look out, thinking he was watching his old street in Chicago."

This last Christmas came and went, and on the morning of December 31, Rick lay in his hospital bed in the apartment. "He was just totally without color," recollects Louise. "I'd say something to him, and there was absolutely no response." Louise strolled to the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee, and when she returned she knew that Rick had died. He was 76 years old.

The Richters had decided on cremation before Rick began to lose his understanding. "You have to understand," Louise explains, "in retirement we had a very different life-style. The people we associated with played cards, ate out--everything was 'manana.' We talked about death, not morbidly but sensibly, and after some friends went for cremation so did we.

"Rick never went in for pomp and circumstance. That's not to say he didn't like picnics and weddings, but not funerals. Our friends, too, from childhood on down, had scattered all over the United States. We felt it was wrong to obligate them to come to a funeral. When people get older, they'd rather not do that.

"Rick and I were practical that way, too. We had gone through the Depression, and we came out with the outlook that you face the inevitable and accept it. That includes death.

"There was another consideration. Say my husband was buried in Illinois, and I lived in Arizona. There would be neglect at the grave. To me, that is total disrespect. Here you bury a person with respect, going through all the fineries, and then you neglect the grave. To me that's terrible. I want my memories of the living."

The cremains of Rick Richter are in two brass urns--one in the possession of a daughter in Glen Ellyn, one with the other daughter in Michigan. "I did not want the ashes," asserts Louise, "because I believe in Rick's memory."

Similarly, Ed Wegner worships the memory, not the grave, of his wife, Marilyn. An office clerk, Marilyn died in her sleep on July 7 at home in Edgewater. A heart attack, the doctors concluded. Marilyn was 54. "Marilyn's going was a shock, an abrupt shock," says Ed.

"We had talked about cremation for ourselves," relates Ed, "and Marilyn and I thought, why not save a few bucks? Besides, I have a thing about open-casket funerals. They are repulsive. Who likes a corpse lying there, with all that makeup? Cremation is more purifying, you don't have to worry about diseases from the dead and it saves space."

On the Saturday after Marilyn died, the family held a memorial service for her at a Unitarian church in Evanston. On Saturday morning the immediate family--Ed, his two sons, and Marilyn's mother--congregated on the lakefront just north of Montrose Harbor to scatter Marilyn's ashes.

Mark McCarthy and Jerry Sullivan normally advise their customers to scatter the cremains judiciously. Since the "ashes" aren't ashes at all, but bone fragments, and can be distressing to a loved one who's seeing them for the first time, "the scattering should be done by a third party, not by a close relative," suggests Sullivan. If the ashes are to be scattered on the ground, the third party should dig a furrow and deposit the cremains there, "so the residue will disperse naturally."

Illinois state statutes don't address the issue of where cremains should be disposed of, but municipalities sometimes make their own rules. Within the city of Chicago, for instance, no one can dispose of human remains anywhere but in a cemetery. "But as a practical matter, it's quite difficult to watch over every single urn that comes out of every single crematorium," says Stewart Sikes, director of health regulations for the Chicago Board of Health.

While a few CSI families elect cemetery burial, in a niche or grave, most keep the cremains of their loved ones, bury them in their backyards ("along with Fido," notes McCarthy), or scatter them. "We handled a man whose son-in-law was going to take the ashes out to Arlington Park and put them on the finish line," relates McCarthy, "so every time the son-in-law went to the track he could say, 'There's my father-in-law, Ed.'" Favored public spots include golf courses as well as Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, although the families normally carry only a portion of the cremains to the ballpark and dust the environs lightly.

Ed performed the honors for his wife: "We all made impromptu comments. Each of us, though, was left with personal thoughts of Marilyn. We each did our own grieving. The event had an aesthetic touch that I very much liked."

Funeral directors, as a group, have not been enamored of cremation. Although 11 cemeteries operate crematories, only four mortuaries in the Chicago area (among them Lain-Sullivan) have them. The directors say it isn't cremation's lower profit margin that keeps them from embracing it. "I don't care what a family does with its loved one," remarks Burbank mortician Don Jarka.

But families often do care. "Cremation is all right for people who want it," says Daisy Stone Jimerson, whose Stonecrest home is located on West 79th Street. "But to my way of thinking, this is for folks who don't care much about family. Me, I don't want it--it's time enough to burn when the devil gets you."

"Our view is that cremation is an alternative form of disposition that increasingly meets the needs of a variety of people," says Robert Ninker, executive director of the Illinois Funeral Directors Association. But Ninker takes exception to the idea that the cremation rate is on a steady rise: "Actually, what many directors tell us is that frequently after one family member is cremated, the next time the family doesn't want it again. They feel uncomfortable with cremation, with the incompleteness of it, the lack of tradition, which you find in a funeral and the burial that comes next.

"The funeral has been around for centuries. It's a ceremony, and human beings are ceremonial animals. People need to bind together for important events, even though it costs money. Would you pay $10,000 for a wedding? Maybe. What's so great about a stupid birthday party? People travel thousands and thousands of miles for Thanksgiving dinner. They have dinner and burp and go home. But these events are important. You take these ceremonies away and you'd have to find events to replace them. It's part of nature."

Notwithstanding these objections, some funeral directors, such as Jerry Sullivan, have chosen to specialize in cremation. Another enthusiast is Louis Rago, although his infatuation has ended unpleasantly.

A third-generation mortician and a founder of Festa Italiana, the August lakefront festival, Rago operates two Rago Brothers funeral homes, one at 624 N. Western. Some years ago Rago noticed an increasing demand for cremation, even among his heavily Catholic clientele, and in recent years he has served it. Out of 370 dispositions he now executes each year from his Western Avenue site, Rago says, fully two-thirds are cremations. In March 1984, Rago further committed himself to cremation by making his the first funeral parlor within the city to open its own crematory.

In a three-car garage behind his mortuary, Rago installed a Crawford retort--the Cadillac of cremation devices. Officially the crematory belonged to Rago's mother and to a young funeral director under Rago's wing, Patricia Scott Albrecht, but Rago concedes he was in charge. Or should have been in charge but wasn't: Rago had neglected to secure the required city building and installation permits, and after his third test cremation, some Chicago Board of Health inspectors arrived and shut Rago down. (Another test was subsequently executed for the city Department of Environmental Control, according to Rago.) In addition Rago discovered, to his great dismay, that the garage in question was zoned residential, and city zoning administrator James Wilkes outlawed its new use. In August 1984, as the mortician scrambled to right himself legally, the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals circulated a notice in the immediate area announcing Rago's appeal of the zoning administrator's ruling.

Many neighbors, who swear they were ignorant of the crematory's presence, were horrified. And as they trained their memories back over the preceding months, some could recall an unpleasant smell permeating the air. "The smell was like sour burning meat," says Elaine Herzeg, who resides nearby. Rago denies that his crematory emitted an odor; he says the occasions on which the neighbors say they smelled things do not square with the dates of his test cremations. But the neighbors also were appalled at the idea that cremations had been occurring within feet of their homes. "Say he's got a smokestack going," says one. "Could you eat supper while looking at that?"

Residents also feared that Rago would be doing such a volume of business that the alley on which the garage sits would be clogged with traffic. "Thirty years ago, we did hundreds of funerals from [the] Western Avenue [site]," counters Rago. "Visitation was three nights; there were processions. That brought in traffic, but did anyone ever complain?"

Area residents, a mix of Poles, Ukrainians, Hispanics, and Italians in a neighborhood called "the Patch," organized under the banner of the PROS Neighborhood Organization, a venerable civic association. Rago met with the neighborhood once that August, but the funeral director is a fiery sort and his comments, defiant and smug, only stirred up more anger among his opposition. Still, on September 21 the Zoning Board of Appeals decided that Rago was within his rights in installing and utilizing his crematory.

But PROS was not to be beaten. The group pressed Alderman Wallace Davis Jr. (29th) into introducing an ordinance limiting all cremations in Chicago to existing cemeteries; it passed in December. PROS took up a picket line outside Rago's mortuary every Sunday morning, "and sometimes we did it a couple afternoons a week just for drill," says Donna Dombrowski, PROS president. PROS also sued, protesting the ruling of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and while the group lost in circuit court, it won before the Illinois appellate court--the zoning board was ordered to rehear the matter. Last October a reconstituted zoning panel reversed itself. Rago faces a possible $1,000-a-day fine from Judge Calvin H. Hall of housing court unless he gets his crematory equipment out of his garage by September 9. Already, Rago swears, his stack is down and the retort itself disassembled.

There's a precedent for Rago's fate. In March 1982, Joseph and Kathleen Gennari of Sandusky, Ohio, took the Andres-Tucker Funeral Home to court, charging that its crematorium violated city and state zoning laws. Eventually the Gennaris were victorious; they won $3,000 for "mental anguish and interference with . . . their peaceful enjoyment of their property," and the funeral home was forced to close its crematory.

Ironically, though, Rago claims he's sitting prettier than before the crematory battle. How's his cremation trade? "It's more popular than ever. We've cremated ten people in that neighborhood who never would have called us without all the publicity." Rago attributes his troubles "to a few people with nothing better to do than hassle me." Rago's attorney, Robert Novelle, thinks that community antagonism to crematories is waning, and he has presented a draft ordinance to the City Council license committee that would legalize their operation by funeral parlors.

Jerry Sullivan's ultimate ambition in the cremation line is to establish a garden for cremains, something like what's been done at the Golders Greene Crematorium in London. At this establishment, where notables from Keith Moon to Sigmund Freud have been handled, a three-acre field has been planted with 30,000 crocuses. Underneath lie the cremains of 2,700 people.

Jones Kimbrough was memorialized soon after his death in a service at the Prayer Band Church. Sister Loui has ferried her brother's ashes back to her home in White Cloud, Michigan, where she scattered them on her 30 acres, obeying her brother's wish that they be applied to help the flowers grow. "It was a private thing, just me and my brother," she said. She herself is going to be cremated at an Ann Arbor hospital and buried in a crematory garden there. "Being Catholic," she says, "I wanted my ashes buried."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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