Cremation and Creativity

Date Published: 
November, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, November 2005

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part discussion of cremation.

WHAT: Spring Grove would like 100 percent of the people who make use of its crematory to stay at Spring Grove. That's not happening yet, but we've been changing our strategies for working with cremation families and our retention rate is climbing rapidly. We also find cremation memorialization areas can provide good income for the cemetery, and often are a lot of fun to plan, involving creativity and imagination.

At Cremation Association of North America training seminars, we've talked to some of the East Coast "big boys" as far as crematory operations, places where they're handing 2,000 or more cremations a year, compared with Spring Grove's 200. But up to 90 percent of those cremated remains are being returned to a funeral director, final disposition unknown. At Spring Grove, we're retaining 50 to 60 percent at the cemetery.

WHY: When we look at what it costs to run our crematorium properly and what we're charging for cremation—especially to families who bought cremation certificates from Spring Grove preneed at prices set 30 or 40 years ago—it's a concern.

Looking at the numbers, it's obvious that memorialization is crucial in terms of the dollars the cemetery receives. We also believe it's of real and lasting value to the family.

HOW: "I want to keep my husband (or Dad, or Mom) on the mantel." How often do you hear that? That does seem to be the very first comment from a lot of survivors. In fact, some people perceive this as one of the advantages of cremation: "I can bring my spouse home; I haven't lost my loved one entirely."

It's understandable, and we in the business need to be sympathetic to this impulse grieving people have to try to hang on their deceased loved one. Our job is to help them see a bit beyond that and realize the benefits to themselves, other survivors and future generations of a final resting place—and to provide some great options.

It's your job as a cemeterian to show these families something that will make them say, "You know what, I think this would be a better place for Dad than sitting on my mantel."

Good family service follow-up can really make a difference here. Just as cremation gives people the option of scheduling a memorial service at any time, rather than within days of the death, so the cremated remains allow people to decide two months, four months, six months down the road to select memorialization in a cemetery.

Just make sure your family counselors will be able to show families the right spot when they ask themselves, "What would Dad have liked?"

Our options
We think everyone deserves a "footprint," so one thing we don’t offer is a scattering garden, even though we know it's a popular option today. We promote property instead of scattering, though who knows, someday we may change our minds.

So, what do we offer families?

• Interment in existing family lots, of course. We've thought this through to incredible detail. For decades now—possibly 50 years—our rules and regulations have allowed for two sets of human remains in one space, as long as at least one is cremated remains. So you can have one full-body casket and a set of cremated remains or two sets of cremated remains. (We only allow two full-body caskets in our lawn areas specifically constructed for double-depth burials.)

We diagram with scientific accuracy exactly where the remains must be placed, so that when the second interment takes place we know exactly where the first one is located. You don't want confusion, you don't want people bumbling around, saying, "Wait a minute, there's something down here already."

• Cremation areas within sections. We developed our first one in 1967 when we opened our Johnny Appleseed section. The feature is a bronze statue of John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman by a Dayton, Ohio, sculptor. We didn't have many cremations back then, so the garden got off to a slow start, but the popularity eventually took off exponentially and by the '90s we were sold out.

People were still asking for space in that garden, so we took a look at some land nearby that had been left vacant. (The Grove tries to incorporate some undeveloped land in its designs rather than designing areas so that there's no room for changes in the future.) We were able to put in another 30-40 spaces, but within three years those were gone.

Last fall, we opened an area on the other side of a small roadway from the original Johnny Appleseed area, with hundreds of new in-ground cremation spaces. It ties together beautifully with the original area.

We have several areas throughout our historic sections designated for cremation. 

• Cremation interment areas with more room for personalized markers. Sometimes people want the opportunity to memorialize with a large marker. The perception probably is that cremation automatically means a small marker.

The typical size in cremation gardens seems to be 12 inches by 24 inches, and in some gardens it's even smaller. Why? Because it's always been like that?

We decided to create what we call our ledger area, where we allow larger memorials—30 inches by 48 inches. That provides people with a lot more surface area for etchings, photographs, Biblical verses, favorite poetry. It's very, very popular.

Ledger lots are created by taking our typical full-casket grave size, which is 40 inches by 9 feet, and splitting it in half.

We understand that some cemeteries have limited land available, so some of the cemeterians out there are probably shaking in their boots as they read this. Even at Spring Grove, where we don't face that kind of pressure, we wrestled with whether it was good stewardship to create lots that, technically speaking, are larger than we need for interment, larger than we need for an urn vault.

Down the road, we may revisit the issue, but at this point, we have thousands of old family lots that still have space remaining. As the cremation rate increased, we'd get more and more calls that went something like this:

"I have a right of burial in my great-great-great-grandfather's lot, and I noticed on the lot there's this little wedge of land that's about 14 inches wide and 16 inches long, and I'd like to have my cremated remains interred there."

That would mean another marker for the landscape crew to maintain and trim around, and the return to the cemetery was minimal, since this was not a new sale. And that's just a small sample of what was happening. We were getting calls from people saying, "We want to put three sets of cremated remains... five sets of cremated remains...."

We decided we needed to define the amount of land required for interment of cremated remains. Once we did that, the whole question of "Can I use that little space there to slip in some cremated remains?" no longer existed.

The issue also comes up with family mausoleums with only one crypt space left. We define how much space is required for a niche and if the family requests it, we'll have a contractor turn that last crypt space into several niches.

• A columbarium to give people a new option with a traditional flavor. In one of our newer sections we're designing an above-ground, granite columbarium we hope will do two things for us.

One, it will give us our first aboveground opportunity for cremation memorialization in our newest area.

Two, even though it will be a new structure in a new section, it's going to look a lot like one of the family monuments in our historic sections. This will remind people who would like a family monument but think that they are a thing of the past that we still have the technology and craftsmanship to offer them today.

Spring Grove still has family lots, and a family monument is still an option.

• Cenotaphs. We don't have a separate cenotaph area or feature (though we track them separately in our computer system), but we definitely encourage them. We think everyone should have a footprint, a marker, in a cemetery.
• Mausoleum niches. We include plenty of niche opportunities in our mausoleums, whether they are indoor or garden types. We offer wood, bronze and glass fronts.

Niches are low-maintenance items and very cost-effective for the cemetery any way you look at it, so including as much niche space as possible in your mausoleums should be a no-brainer.

If you've got a mausoleum that you're heating and cooling, operational costs just keep going up. Our heating and cooling bill for one building is $40,000 a year! When you're spending that kind of money on energy on a building where most of the full casket entombment has been sold, you need to look at ways to bring in more income, and finding spots where you can add niches is key.

When glass-fronted niches are done correctly, they become a sort of artwork feature for the cemetery. We recommend you deal with a lot of different vendors, because there are so many different materials and styles available, and that's what makes the niches so interesting.

Turn a problem into an opportunity
Cremation memorialization can sometimes provide an opportunity to create some extraordinary inventory that you wouldn't have otherwise. Two examples from Spring Grove:

• In the early '80s, we were faced with a problem landscape in a grotto by a waterfall. It was ugly and covered with poison ivy. The rocky landscape was interesting, though.

We started removing the weeds and as we looked at the topography—this was when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, was being built, and it inspired us—the idea came to us of how we could use the terrain.

We placed niches in the grotto and built a bridge over the water and alongside the niches, creating a garden where people could enjoy the quiet solitude of the area, really the ultimate in inventory at that time. As the first niches sold out, we added more.

• Just this year we were faced with a maintenance problem in a mausoleum. The slate on the fountain feature in the solarium had started to degrade with salt-like deposits on it.

We had decided the fountain was too loud anyway for the quiet ambiance of a mausoleum—sometimes we had to turn it off when services were being held nearby. So our capital improvements plan called for redoing the fountain. Management said heck, if we're designing a new fountain, why not design one containing niches?

This is a beautiful area, very popular. It's typically our highest-priced interior space for cremated remains, but people just love it, and all the existing niche banks were sold out.

We had a new fountain professionally designed. It features intricate, hand-cut tile with the water very quietly trickling out onto a black granite plate—first class to the max! So this was a way to make 48 more spaces available to our customers in a premium area.

The first day we made the area available for purchase, we had beautiful, professionally designed placards placed at the entry to all our buildings to let people know about it. On that very first day, we sold two! The reaction was just what you hope for: "This is absolutely perfect, exactly what Mom would have wanted."

We realize some people look at the increase in cremation as a bad thing for cemeteries, but we think this is an exciting time to be a cemeterian. There's no question that cremation memorialization offers some exciting opportunities for developing options that wouldn't be possible for full casket burials.

With full-casket burials, we can only handle an incline of 20 to 22 percent, but we can certainly go beyond that with columbariums—even with in-ground cremation burials, because we don't have to get the larger-sized equipment in to handle the interments.

In areas that would be difficult to mow, we'll use low-growing ground covers, create naturalized areas or leave the section wooded and place columbariums in it.

In fact, in our newest section, we continued our tradition of leaving some land undeveloped for the future. In this case, we left a half-acre of woods untouched.

Who knows what Spring Grove will decide to do with it in the future. Develop a nature trail? A scattering garden? Some subtle, natural in-ground memorialization areas? A granite columbarium designed to fit right in?

Like Will Rogers said, "Land—they ain't making any more of the stuff." If you can, leave some for the future stewards of your park to use to respond to the changing needs and desires of your families.

At the Grove, we look at our hills and the incline of some of the undeveloped land we have and we feel blessed, even though the topography of what's left makes dealing with our developed hills and valleys look like a walk in the park.

There are some steep, ravine-like areas in our future that we'll be able to turn into cremation areas with spectacular vistas our customers are going to love!