It was in the late ’90s when Joseph H. Brown III first noticed a shift in cremation services. Up until that time the funeral ritual—which reduces human remains into bone fragments through intense heat and evaporation—was largely foreign to the African-American community. But with the AIDS epidemic running rampant, the funeral establishment that his father, Joseph H. Brown Jr., started began to see a vast increase. (Disclosure: For many years I worked at Wylie Funeral Home, which I wrote about in my book “Nine Years Under,” and I currently consult within the industry).
“We saw a couple of cases here and there, mostly HIV/AIDS cases,” he says. “And then those cases began to grow exponentially.”
And it’s not just Brown. In recent years, funeral businesses statewide have seen a major boost in cremations. But new regulations from the Maryland State Board of Morticians went into effect in July, making Maryland the 13th state to regulate cremations, and they’ve made it difficult for many in the funeral industry to keep up.
A bill requiring reforms in how the state’s crematoria were regulated passed in October 2010, months after 40 bodies intended for cremation were discovered in the garage of Chambers Funeral Home and Crematorium in Prince George’s County in 2010. The new regulations require new equipment, often including large refrigerators and special, lined crematory containers.
The state board has also made especially exacting requirements of existing facilities: Brown was told that he had to paint the wooden staircase leading to the garage containing his crematory a certain color. He ended up having to put in a new staircase. He also had to train people to operate the machinery, since the state board requires certification to do the job now.
Many funeral directors fear that the new procedures will affect their businesses. The changes are forcing other crematoria to update their facilities, and therefore charge more for cremation services.
Brown, a fourth-generation mortician who in 2009 opened the city’s first crematory and the only public African-American crematory in Baltimore City, says, “new crematories probably won’t pop up because they are very expensive and time-consuming.”
The regulations might dissuade an entrepreneur less insistent than he’s been.
“I became obsessed with having a crematory,” Brown says. “I fought any and everybody that got in my way.”
He was so serious about adding this service to his business that he even traveled to study a municipal crematory in Treptow, outside of Berlin, before he gutted out the garage behind the funeral home on Fulton Avenue. “I got on top of the roof and cut a hole in the top with a chainsaw,” he says.
After years of hearings and construction, he finally opened the On-Site Cremation Center LLC as part of the West Baltimore Funeral Home that he runs alongside his sister Charlene Brown Baldwin. The crematory retort needs 2 million British thermal units and runs on fuel, typically gas, which is stored in propane tanks.
The Browns have made it easy to serve their families right in their backyard, while other funeral homes outsource their cremations to crematories outside of the city.
The new regulations could slow a trend, as what was once a taboo service associated with the poor or those unable to afford a decent funeral service and burial has now become a preference.
“Families would come in and say that’s what you do when you ain’t got no money,” Brown says. The increase in funeral costs has many loved ones instructing their families to cremate them to avoid financial hardship. Middle-class families are stepping outside of their comfort zones and following the wishes of their loved ones. That’s probably because the average cost of a funeral is about $4,500, with a separate charge for the cemetery. Families can have a cremation with a memorial service for less than half of that.
“Cremation appeals to the consumer’s sense of value,” says Brown. In the Baltimore area, direct cremations cost anywhere from $875 to $3,000. Brown charges $875 for his cremations. That does not include the memorial service, urn, or additional services like programs or limousines.
More funeral homes are also seeing the surge. The Hari P. Close Funeral Service in Northeast Baltimore says cremation accounts for 40 percent of his business; 80 percent of those are with a memorial service. “Families like it because a memorial service does not have to be immediate. It could be 30 or 40 days later,” says Close.
Some are simply choosing cremation as a final disposition instead of the burial. They will have the traditional embalming, viewing, and funeral service but instead of being buried at a cemetery, the remains will be cremated and have their ashes returned to their families. Urns and cremation jewelry, like necklaces that store ashes, can also be expensive.
Some see it as inevitable that the new regulations will make cremation more expensive. “I think the heavy-handed approach will eventually cost consumers more,” says one funeral director.
But at least families can feel safe knowing that the regulations for cremations are very clear and the inspections are frequent.
While the regulations may seem strict, they also include a provision allowing Alkaline Hydrolysis, a technique that involves using alkaline to dissolve of the body. The energy-efficient process—which involves submerging a body in an alkaline solution that allows the protein in the body to dissolve and be washed away into the sewage—offers an alternative to cremation that encourages sustainable living.
But despite the changes, most in the industry seem to agree that cremation is not going away anytime soon. “I told my sister to cremate me,” says Brown.