Dying trend: Burials are out, so cemetery hopes it can cash in

Consumers are choosing cremation over burial. That slow, steady change in the market — in the works for several decades — has cemeteries scrambling for new ways to turn a profit or ensure they can pay for future maintenance.

In River View’s case, the cemetery’s board of trustees wants to turn 120 acres of vacant graveyard land into houses, apartments or perhaps an annex to Lewis & Clark College. They’ve filed a Measure 37 claim with the city to do it and, in the documents, state the case plainly: At the current rate, it would take 400 years to use up all the potential grave sites at one of the city’s premier historic burial grounds.

“This is a very traditional business,” says David Noble, the Southwest Portland cemetery’s executive director. “But it’s like anything else: Markets change and you adjust.”

Forty years ago, fewer than 5 percent of Americans who died opted for cremation. In 1987, it was 15 percent. This year, more than 32 percent of U.S. deaths will end in cremation, and the experts at the Cremation Association of North America expect the national total to pass 50 percent within 25 years.

Cremations are generally cheaper, starting at about $1,500 compared with the $6,000 or so you’ll shell out for a basic burial. Many people also consider them more environmentally friendly. And they provide a dead person’s loved ones more flexibility about how and when to memorialize.

The procedure — which can be boiled down to this stark reality: four hours at 1,600 degrees — is even more popular in Oregon than it is nationwide. Sixty-five percent of Oregonians who die will choose cremation this year.

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