Four decades ago, less than 5 percent of Americans were cremated. Now that figure stands at nearly 50 percent. This is how cremation actually works, and the story of what happens to a culture when its attitudes about memorializing the dead undergo a revolution.
Rosehill Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey, is awash in small-town trappings: tree-lined roads, rolling lawns, and street signs at every corner. On this Wednesday midsummer morning, the familiar routine of loss plays out across the acres. A yellow taxi waits at the end of a row of graves for someone paying their respects. Men and women clad in church clothes line up their cars along the curb and make their way to a grave site. A backhoe digs out some earth, another spot for another resident.
This is the textbook way we treat our dead. Someone passes, they’re buried, a headstone marks their place out among the rows in the borough of the departed. But today I’m bound for a different part of the cemetery, one fewer people see—though that fact is rapidly changing.
This place is called the columbarium, and at first, the very existence of this vast chamber full of urns can come as a surprise. In the movie version of life and death, a cremated person’s remains sit up on the shelf at home, or friends scatter their ashes in the wind over a sacred locale. In the real world, many cremated people stay in the cemetery, just like their buried counterparts.
Rose-colored carpeting covers the floors here. The whir of a vacuum cleaner punctures the silence. Cubby holes or niches line the walls, and the varying sizes and styles of urns within them marks the passing of the eras. Older urns are ornate; one is topped by an eternal flame, while another is shaped like a Bible. One inscribed “Henrietta Leiber, 1866-1933” is shaped like an acorn. Next to it leans a photo of Henrietta, who’s standing behind a chair in a sleeveless white dress and long pearls, her hair fashioned in a bob like a flapper.
More contemporary urns are boxier and cleaner in style. They’re also larger, and not for vanity’s sake. The cremation process recovers a lot more of the human body than it used to. Some families have packed their niche with flowers, family photos, or pictures of Jesus. Others skipped the niche entirely and entombed the cremated remains behind a marble plaque. It is a curious thing, as if the body was broken down into its smallest organic parts, then surrounded with stone to protect them.
We are seeing a fundamental shift in how we approach death and what comes after. Compared to just a few decades ago, vastly more Americans are foregoing the old-fashioned burial and turning to the alternative of cremation. This is what brought me here to Rosehill, and now my tour with Jim Koslovski, president of the Rosehill and Rosedale Cemetery, is about to go deeper into his world to see how cemeteries are dealing with America’s after-death revolution.
As I follow him deeper inside the columbarium, we pass through the Rose Room. Urns here are not hidden in niches behind glass, but instead are on display in the open air. I prefer it this way. The glass cases remind me of the razors at the drug store—the ones you can only access by notifying a salesperson with a key. Deeper still, at the very rear of the room, lies a set of stained glass doors. Koslovski slides them open to reveal a hidden set of spy-movie doors, these made of metal. They are solid for a reason: Behind them lies the crematorium itself.
The doors open, and we stroll onto what looks like the floor of a factory, but one dedicated to a certain kind of deconstruction.
SOURCE: Caren Chesler