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Changing death-related traditions reflect varied approaches to grief

News Photo by Julie Riddle Chad Esch, owner and funeral director of Bannan Funeral Home in Alpena, places an urn into a specially-fitted holder in a hearse at the funeral home last week.

ALPENA — Nearly 20 years after a deadly accident ended his son’s life, Tom Hilberg still waters the flowers on his son’s grave.

A handful of rocks rested on Bradley Hilberg’s black tombstone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena on Monday, mementos left by friends who sometimes stop by the grave to remember the 21-year-old who died when he was electrocuted during a summer job before his junior year at Michigan State University.

Losing a loved one hurts, but a place to remember that loved one helps, Tom Hilberg said.

As Michigan funeral and death-related traditions give way to new customs, fewer residents opt for the burials and services once considered the norm.

Cremations now far outpace more traditional casket burials, and people increasingly choose to delay or even eliminate funeral services. Death no longer necessitates a burial, or even a grave marker.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Eric Ross, owner and funeral director of Karpus Hunter and Ross Funeral Home in Alpena, displays caskets in a showroom at the funeral home on Monday.

In Northeast Michigan, funeral directors worry current trends may keep some survivors from healing from their loss.

People cope with loss in all sorts of ways, said Tom Hilberg, who marks the 19th anniversary of his son’s death on Friday.

For him, a headstone and patch of flowers in sight of the Alpena High School football stadium offers a balm for his grief.

“This is a sacred spot to come to,” the father said. “Sometimes, when you’ve got anxiety, you come talk to him.”

CREMATION GAINS FOOTHOLD

News Photo by Julie Riddle Jeff Faircloth, owner and funeral director of McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena, at the funeral home last month displays a necklace made to hold cremated human remains.

In Northeast Michigan, about 70% of deaths result in cremation, according to Brian Walborn, owner of Sunrise Crematory, which services the Alpena area.

A decade ago, a quarter of people who died were cremated, and “before that, it was next to zero,” Walborn said.

Also the owner of a company that sells burial vaults, Walborn added the crematory in 2014 after vault sales plummeted.

Local funeral directors say families request cremations more than ever before, part of a nationwide trend that will see three-quarters of U.S. deaths resulting in cremation by 2040, the National Funeral Directors Association predicts.

‘SOMEONE CARED’

News Photo by Julie Riddle Kristie Morlan, sales administrator at Crow Memorials in Alpena, displays a columbarium at the business last week.

At Crow Memorials, adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery in Alpena, traditional gravestones still have a market, but increasingly more customers purchase grave markers built to hold cremated human remains, said sales administrator Kristie Morlan.

The remains of multiple people — potentially an entire family, including pets — can fit inside a columbarium, a monument resembling a traditional gravestone and placed on one grave plot.

Such options keep death-related costs lower and fit with some people’s emotional needs, Morlan said.

Nationally, a simple cremation, with no services, averages about $2,000, compared to $7,600 for an average adult casketed funeral with viewing and ceremony followed by a burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Michigan does not restrict the disposal of cremated human remains, and some family members elect to scatter remains or keep them at home.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Tom Hilberg waters flowers at the grave of his son, Bradley Hilberg, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Alpena on Monday.

That option helps some people cope with a death, but it can rob others of a designated place to visit to process their loss, said Chad Esch, funeral director at Bannan Funeral Home in Alpena.

“People deserve a piece of granite with their name on it,” he said. “Evidence someone cared about them at some time.”

He has helped families place a marker on an empty grave decades after a death so they have a place to visit.

‘RIPPING A SCAB OFF’

Even more drastic than the uptick in cremations is a drastic decline in traditional funeral services.

Many families either delay funeral or memorial services for months or request no services at all, local funeral directors say.

The movement toward delayed or non-existent services was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when people prohibited from gathering discovered they could mark death without long-held funeral traditions.

Delayed services often result in ripping a scab off of an emotional wound, however, Esch said.

Many families plan a service months down the road, only to discover that family can’t attend, and the community — which would have rallied in support shortly after the death — has moved on, Esch said.

EMOTIONAL TOLL

Whether to save money or to stave off grief, trends toward cremation and away from public services may hurry survivors past a crucial chance to let those impacted by a death say goodbye, said Jeff Faircloth, funeral director at McWilliams Funeral Home in Alpena.

“That’s final,” Faircloth said of the cremation process. “Once that happens, that’s it. That opportunity doesn’t come back.”

Deaths with no services or burial can take an emotional toll on funeral directors, who also need closure as the last person spending time with a body, Faircloth said.

More pressingly, he worries that nationwide funeral-related trends reflect a society that prioritizes disposability.

“As a society, we are devaluing life and life lived,” Faircloth said. “Not only life, but the value our elderly have.”

Still, he acknowledged, grief is deeply personal, and those in the midst of it have to decide what they need to be able to heal.

NEW RITUALS

Even those who eschew tradition may crave ritual of some kind.

Local funeral directors say people increasingly ask for creative additions to services to celebrate loved ones’ lives. Others request lockets holding a loved one’s cremated remains or bearing an imprint of a fingerprint.

At Karpus Hunter and Ross Funeral Home in Alpena, fewer families than elsewhere ask for cremation services, said Funeral Director Eric Ross.

When he bought the business in April after many years working at another local funeral home, Ross was shocked to discover that at least half of customers still want traditional casket burials.

He chalks that anomaly up to the funeral home’s traditional connection with catholicism, although the business serves all faiths.

The Catholic Church has allowed cremation for decades but encourages burial of cremated remains.

Whether in old or new ways, people want to memorialize a loved one, Ross said.

Once relegated to the coasts, options like green burials and living urns — which use human remains to nourish the root system of a tree or shrub — have made their way to Northeast Michigan, including living urns recently planted under some hydrangea bushes in Alpena, Ross said.

Whatever the method, people experiencing loss need to find what helps them say goodbye, he said.

“It’s part of the healing process,” Ross said. “Whether it’s a fingerprint or a necklace or a tree.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.

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