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In response to growing demand, Riverside Cemetery to add third cremation retort

In 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, 57% of people are expected to choose cremation. The association predicts that by 2040, that number will jump to 78.4%.

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Katie Paxton, manager of Riverside Cemetery, talks Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, next to a retort used for cremation behind the cemetery offices, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — When Steve Wright started out in the funeral business in the early 1980s, the cremation rate in Clay County was in the 2% range.

In 2020, the funeral director and owner of Wright Funeral Homes said the rate was 59% in Moorhead and 50% at his Hawley, Minn., location.

Wright Funeral Homes are in line with the national trend, which shows the call for cremation has now surpassed the demand for a traditional burial.

In 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, 57% of people are expected to choose cremation. The association predicts that by 2040, that number will jump to 78.4%.

In response to the increased demand, Riverside Cemetery is in the process of adding a third cremation retort. The cemetery at 2102 5th St. S. in Fargo is responsible for cremating bodies for many funeral homes in the metro area and surrounding communities.

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An additional retort was good news to Wright.

"In most communities like ours, every funeral home would probably have their own retort by now. The reason it hasn't happened is because Riverside does a really good job at what they do," he said. "They have the critical mass there that makes it a professional endeavor where they have the staff to do it at an almost round-the-clock basis when they're busy. ... They're doing a professional job at a price that is, I think, very fair to the customer."

Cost and convenience

Riverside Cemetery manager Katie Paxton said the biggest reason more people are choosing cremation is convenience.

"Families are more spread out now," she said.

People today are less likely to live where they were born. Families are often spread out across the state or the world. Cremation allows more time to make service and travel arrangements. And in some cases, cremated remains are mailed directly to the family.

"It's just easier if you live in another state and mom's back home, you can do the paperwork through email and deal with the funeral home on the phone, and then they can mail the ashes to you," Paxton said.

Cost is also a motivator.

"It is cheaper, but sometimes people don't know that you can have a cheaper traditional burial, too. It's all in the casket you choose and the options. You can do without a big service. That's where those things add up in price. But it is typically cheaper to do direct cremation," she said.

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Wright believes there are cultural reasons as well.

"I would argue that the culture and its emphasis on youth and beauty and its denial of mortality has made it harder for people. I think a lot of people are just completely put off by the idea of being in the presence of a dead human body to some extent," he said. "Yes, granted it's cheaper and simpler from a scheduling point of view, but also the perception is that this is just going to be a little easier if we don't have to go through that very, very hard thing of a traditional type of funeral where we're confronting death in such a very real way."

Wright said death is never convenient, so he's not sure how much that is a factor. It has more to do with people's busy lifestyles.

"The world used to stop to recognize a loss. Now we're kind of doing it on the run," he said.

Some may wonder if the availability of burial plots is an issue, but Paxton said that's not the case at Riverside.

"We actually have a lot of space left (at Riverside) for traditional and cremation burials," she said. "A lot of people think we are filled up because we're so big and we've been around for a long, long time, but we do have a lot of area still plotted out and are still selling. We want both. We don't just want cremation. We want traditional burials as well."

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Construction is underway for an additional cremation retort Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at Riverside Cemetery, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

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Privacy and peace of mind

Riverside Cemetery is in the process of expanding its former chapel to accommodate another retort.

The cemetery is working with Stone Group Architects in order to maintain the look of the building built in 1909.

"We wanted to keep it the same, so it will have the same brick outside, the same roof tile, and the symmetry will be pretty similar," she said. "We wanted to keep it so it didn't look like this huge expansion on the back."

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Riverside Cemetery is in the process of adding onto the Fargo cemetery's former chapel in order to accommodate another cremation retort in response to increased demand. Contributed rendering / Stone Group Architects

Once complete, funeral home employees will be able to drive into the facility to drop off remains.

"We have a lot of people who like to walk here in the summer and they might see us unloading. This is going to offer more privacy," she said.

While Riverside has a process for ensuring each body's ashes are kept separate and clearly labeled, Paxton said some families want to be present during cremation in order be sure they take home their loved one's ashes.

"It's a worry a lot of people have. I hear that a lot," she said.

Wright adds that many families want to be present for religious reasons. For example, Buddhists are known to conduct the last rites at the crematory on the day of cremation.

Families are allowed to be present when the body is placed in the retort and are free to wait for the ashes, Paxton said.

"They can actually be right back there with us when we unload and then they'll watch us place it in the retort and turn the machine on," she said. "There's nothing else really to see. It takes about three hours and they can sit here and wait if they like."

Paxton's job is to help families through the process, whether they choose cremation or a traditional burial. She finds the work rewarding.

"Once in a while you get a nice note from someone that says 'Thanks for helping me.' A lady I spoke with yesterday, I helped with her son's remains. She told me, 'You're an angel in disguise,'" Paxton said. "It's nice to hear those things, but at the same time I'm just doing my job. But it's nice to be able to comfort people in those times."

Related Topics: SMALL BUSINESS
Angie Wieck is the business editor for The Forum. Email her at awieck@forumcomm.com
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