Monday, 12 December 2011

Burials in cemeteries

When I was in my 60s, I decided to look for a cemetery in which my body would be spending the rest of eternity in. I know what you are thinking. If I am dead, why should I care? But I did and do care as do millions of others who are my age—78 and older. Obviously I don’t want my body in a landfill nor do I want it in a cemetery that is overrun by weeds and wild animals.

One thing you can be sure about when you are interred in a cemetery in the province of Ontario—the cemetery is looked after and will be until the end of time because in that province, that is the law. The grass is cut regularly, the weeds are pulled and the leaves in the fall are raked up. The cemetery is akin to a public park and it is not unusual to see joggers jogging along the pathways or just people enjoying a nice walk in the cemetery.

I chose a cemetery in the center of Toronto and was fortunate enough to find two plots (one for me and the other for my wife) that are in a location in the cemetery where you can’t see any signs of buildings or houses and in which all you see is rolling hills, grass, flowers and trees. And for the most part, all you can hear is the wind blowing through the trees. It’s like being in the country. The plots I chose are right next to a beautiful Maple tree and about a hundred steps from a gazebo in which people can go if it suddenly begins to rain.

Further, I chose a funeral home that is only a five minute drive from the cemetery. My son-in-law died on December 5th and his funeral was on the 9th. We had to drive 27 kilometres (17 miles) along two very busy streets from the funeral home to the cemetery. I don’t blame my daughter for choosing that particular funeral home as it was a very beautiful funeral home and she got a good deal with respect to costs. She chose the cemetery because it is just a short walking distance from her home.

There are five ways of memorization. They are:

In-Ground Burial
Above-ground Burial: Community Mausoleum
Above-ground Burial: Private Mausoleum
Above-ground Burial: Lawn Crypt

In-Ground Burial

Ground burial is the most popular form of traditional burials. Caskets or urns are placed inside an outer burial container (vault made of concrete), which is then placed in the ground for an earth burial. With in-ground burial you have the option of either placing an upright monument (headstone) or placing a lawn level (flush) granite memorial to memorialize and celebrate a life lived. Our duo plot has an upright monument that is made from dark grey granite.

Some cemeteries don’t permit headstones in their cemeteries and in their place they have lawn level granite or brass plate in its place. Many also have wreaths attached to posts.

Nowadays, most caskets are now placed in a gold-coloured concrete vault so that when the lid to the vault is placed over it and the seal is waterproof, the casket will always remain the way it was when it was purchased. Prior to the vaults being placed in the grave, dirt was shoveled over the casket and as the years passed by, the weight of the earth along with constant rain and snow falling on the surface of the grave, would cause the casket to collapse and the surface of the grave would sink and form a depression.

It is also the custom nowadays not to begin placing the dirt over the vault until the mourners have left as it is too distressing a sight to see.

The average cost of an in-ground burial plot ranges from $750 to $3,000, according to the Funeral Help Program, a funeral-industry watchdog.

Above-ground Burial: Community Mausoleums

Ever since the time of the Pharaohs, above ground interment in tombs and mausoleums has been the burial method of choice for those who preferred something other than earth burial. The name mausoleum comes from a grand tomb built for King Mausolus by his wife (and incidentally also his sister) Artemisia, around 353 B.C.

It wasn’t until the 1870’s that there was much interest in United Sates and Canada in community mausoleums. The rural cemeteries that had sprung up outside most cities were rapidly becoming sculptural and architectural wonderlands, filled with elegant private mausoleums and artistic statuary. The time was ripe to offer above ground burial to the masses. Cemetery promoters touted above ground burial as aesthetically pleasing and much easier on the grieving family than having shovelfuls of dirt tossed on their loved ones’ remains.

Unfortunately, some of the first community mausoleums suffered from shoddy construction and much of the profit realized by the cemetery from the sale of the crypts was soon eaten up by maintenance costs. Nevertheless, cemeteries continued to construct community mausoleums, but with improved construction techniques that lowered maintenance costs. The introduction of the outdoor garden crypt in the 1920’s lowered costs even more—indoor crypts, frequently in a building that also housed a chapel, had to be heated, adding substantial cost in cold climates.

Ironically, the end of the Golden Age of the private mausoleum in the 1920’s spurred community mausoleum sales even more. Those who could not afford a private mausoleum due to hard economic times (the advent of the income tax and the Great Depression), turned to the community mausoleum as a second choice for the above ground burial they preferred. Cemeteries that never before offered above-ground burials are getting in on the tomb building boom.

Mausoleum space can cost anywhere from $1,000 {for a single crypt) to $316,000 {for an eight-body crypt), with extra costs if the crypts are at ‘eye or heart’ level.
On average, single crypts cost $2,500 to $5,000; "true companion" crypts (for two bodies) run $5,000 to $8,300.

Above-ground Burial: Private Mausoleums

It is only just recently that private family mausoleums have become an affordable and viable option for more and more families. Yearly sales have increased considerably during the past 20 years and are expected to increase even more in the near future.

A family mausoleum provides superior above-ground entombment in a private structure avoiding in-ground burial. Loved ones are in clean, dry crypts, protected from moisture and the elements of the earth. Of course, that kind of protection is applicable in below ground burials where the casket is placed in a concrete vault and also is placed in an above ground community mausoleum.

The everlasting testimonial of a family mausoleum is an especially meaningful illustration of the prestige of a family and visually exemplifies the impact they made on the world. What this means is that in many cases, famous people are often placed in such mausoleums. Of course, so are very rich people who have passed on. I am neither famous nor rich but I would like to be entombed in a structure not unlike the Lincoln Memorial but alas, I have to settle for a concrete vault lowered with my casket inside it into the ground.

There certainly are advantages to having a family mausoleum. A family mausoleum provides a single, final resting place for all members of an immediate family even as life pulls them in different directions. Uniting family members in a space-efficient manner eases the path for other generations to connect with their heritage.

They would cost anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 for a mausoleum that would hold four caskets. Of course, you would have to find a cemetery that would be willing to let you have such a mausoleum built in the cemetery.

Above-ground Burial: Lawn Crypt

A lawn crypt is really an interment space in the cemetery which contains a pre-constructed and pre-buried vault capable of holding a casket. Many cemeteries have them in different areas of the cemeteries. The deceased are buried above ground in these crypts. There may be ten or more of the individual crypts side by side at any one location.


With the exception of periods of plague and the battlefield, Christianity had halted for 2,000 years the common disposition of bodies on top of blazing wooden funeral pyres which left nothing but coals—a process as old as the early Stone Age. It was a symbolic way of honouring the dead and also a reassuring way of being certain that embodied spirits would not come back to haunt the living. While ‘inhumation,’ corpse embalming, and coffin and mausoleum burial remain the overwhelming funeral preference, in relatively modern times interest in cremation has been rekindled. (Unquestionably, the Nazi’s use of cremation ovens cast a temporary but heavy pall over this resurgent interest.) The Brunetti cremation chamber, which made use of an even heat that kept flames away from the body, was first shown at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. Almost immediately cremation societies developed in the United States and Europe. By 1875 - 1676, the first crematories were established in England, Germany, and the US (in Pennsylvania).

Presently, the body is first placed in either a cardboard or a wooden casket, either of which was made specifically for cremation. An alternative is a cardboard box which fits into a ‘rental’ traditional-looking casket, removed just before cremation. The ‘retort,’ the chamber within the cremation oven, is lined with heat-retaining bricks. The propane or natural gas burns at between 1,400° F to 2,100ยบ F. After 2 hours all that remains are ashes and scorched bone. One pound of live weight yields one cubic inch of ash; for example, a 175-pound person would fill an urn 11 inches high and about 8 inches in circumference or a shoebox. Everything is swept into a grinder leaving the final ash and tiny bone fragments (collectively called, cremins—although many reject the term as being rather gross) representing about 5% of the original body weight. The chemistry of the ashes includes mostly phosphate, calcium, sulfate, potassium - along with chloride, carbonate, and oxide compounds.

In 1913 in the US 52 crematories assisted in over 10,000 cremations; in 2003, hundreds more crematories facilitated 693,742 cremations - 28.63% of the total deaths. By 2010, it is projected the number of Americans choosing cremation will rise to 35.07%, and by 2030, 50%. In Canada, it was close to 50% in 2000. In 2002, there were 5,135 cremations in Louisiana, 12.13% of all the deaths; Alabama was the lowest, 4.44%, Nevada, the highest, 60.69%.

Once the ashes are collected in the urn, there are various options.

1. Delivered to the cemetery—40.7%. Of these, 25.6% (51,308) had urns and their contents placed in the cemetery’s columbarium (dove cote—a wall with niches); the rest were either buried or scattered in a designated area of the cemetery.
2. Taken home—35.8% for the mantle or closet.
3. Scattered—17.8%. Of those, 27% was scattered on land and 72.7% on water. My mother and stepfather who lived in Hawaii had their ashes scattered in the ocean right next to their home.
4. Not picked up—5.7%. The crematorium is legally responsible to store them but not place anything but a number on the urn so that it can be identified later if necessary.

Monuments (gravestones)

One of the most enjoyable afternoons I ever experienced was when I was walking in the main cemetery in Genoa, Italy in 1985. There was a huge one-story structure that had four long hallways in which the deceased’s caskets were placed into the walls. But what got my undivided attention was the statuary. Each of the areas where the caskets were placed, were statutes carved out of marble. Two of them really got my attention. The first one was of an older man who had a grandchild in his arms and three other grandchildren were at his feet. The second one was of a man who was standing at the wheel of the kind you would find in old sailing vessels. I was later told that the faces of all the statues were the faces of those who had passed away.

Many people who died insisted that certain phrases be inscribed onto their monuments. Some of them are extremely funny. According to a blurb in a 2006 Reader Digest: Humorist Spike Milligan, an early partner of actor Peter Sellers, made sure that he had the last word on his grave. His epitaph read, “I told you I was Ill”

Here lies Johnny Yeast, Pardon me for not rising!! Ruidoso, New Mexico
This is what I expected but not so soon. Reese, 1872 – aged 21 New England
I am ready to meet my Maker, whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter. Winston Churchill

Tombstone epitaphs are a reflection of one's existence highlighting their personality traits or accomplishments in life. In some cases they may also tell the story of the circumstances that brought them to their death. Even though tombstone epitaphs have varied over time one thing remains a constant. That is that epitaphs are a meaningful way to give respect to the deceased.

Tombstone epitaphs take on many forms and are derived from many sources. One of the most popular forms are taken from biblical scripture. Bereaved family members often choose a biblical verse as an epitaph as it may exhibit some virtuous quality that was a characteristic of the decedent's life.

Some choose to write a tombstone epitaph detailing the accomplishments of the decedent's life. Maybe the person was a great doctor who selflessly gave his time tending to the sick, or one who was known for their philanthropy or community service.

My tombstone does list some of my accomplishments but I have done something with my tombstone that no one else that I know of has done. Having studied cryptography (secret codes) I have inscribed on my monument my own motto using a secret code I created for the occasion. No one will ever crack it unless they are connected to a super computer.

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