EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.: Despite the Catholic Church's preference for burial, a New Jersey diocese has begun work on the first crematory in the United States to be built by a diocese.
Church officials say the crematory at the 200-acre Holy Cross Burial Park here will open by year's end.
Within the last decade, more and more Catholics have opted for cremation as they became aware of changes in church law that now allow it, reflecting an overall trend in the growing popularity of cremation, according to theologians and funeral directors.
After forbidding cremation for centuries, the church began allowing it for Catholics in 1963, while maintaining a strong preference for burial.
"This is what's happening today. This is the reality. It is the wave of the future," said Bishop Paul Bootkoski of the Metuchen Diocese, which is building the crematory. "We're going along with what our Catholic population is looking for."
Cremation rates in the United States have risen from 20 percent to 30 percent since the mid-1990s, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The association projects that by 2025, the rate will be 50 percent.
Government statistics do not count by religion, but Russell Demkovitz, director of cemeteries for the Metuchen Diocese, said more than 100 funerals at Holy Cross last year were for people cremated at New Jersey's approximately 30 existing crematoria. He estimated that 15 percent of Catholic funerals across the state last year involved cremation.
The diocese's decision to build a crematory was based on increased demand, and because money from cremations _ after the crematory is paid off several years from now _ can help support the cemetery, Demkovitz said.
He acknowledged the diocese had to consider a delicate issue before it decided, two years ago, to go ahead with the project.
"We had to answer, `If we do build a crematorium, will that look like we're pushing cremation and not following the guidelines of church?"' he said. "The answer is, categorically, no. We're still in line with the fact that the full body is preferred."
Catholics are more likely to choose cremation for the same reasons as non-Catholics, said Mark Smith, president of the Crematory Association of North America, citing the lower costs compared to burials; the widespread, if off-the-mark, feeling that space is limited for burials; and the increased mobility of senior citizens.
"We're living longer, and as we are a transient society, there's less and less long-term ties and connections to the communities where people live where the death occurs," he said.
The Catholic Church's previous prohibition on cremation was never meant to imply that someone who is cremated couldn't go to heaven, according to Christian scholars. The church has not opposed cremation after disasters like earthquakes with mass casualties, when individual burials would be impractical, said Monsignor Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University.
Rather, the original ban was designed to counter pagan practices viewed as anti-Christian, Wister said.
"The Romans cremated, and for them, that was symbolic that life was completely ended, that there was no afterlife," he said. "Early Christians avoided cremation because of the connection with the Roman view . . . It was associated with a denial of resurrection and afterlife."
It also fell into disfavor because Jesus was not cremated, and out of a belief the body was a home for the Holy Spirit that should be respected, he said.
Until 1997, the church wanted cremations to take place after a funeral Mass, so the body could be present for that rite. Then the Vatican granted permission to allow funeral Masses with the ashes present.
Ashes of cremated Catholics are supposed to be preserved afterward as a body would be kept—in a mausoleum or buried in a cemetery—and not scattered or in an urn in someone's living room. To this day, church law forbids cremation "chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching."
The 4,000-square-foot crematory will resemble a funeral home from the outside. The inside will include a chapel and viewing area where family members can watch a body be put into the retort—where the body is actually cremated—but will not be able to watch the cremation itself.
The $600,000 crematory also will be available for non-Catholics "in order for this to make sense financially," Demkovitz said.
Three other Catholic cemeteries—in San Antonio; Oakland, Calif.; and Detroit—have crematoria that were already built on nonsectarian cemeteries when Catholic dioceses bought them, Catholic cemetery directors said.
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)