Passing Thoughts

I’ve reached the point in life where the biggest looming decision is not paper or plastic, red wine or white, pretzels or peanuts, but rather: cremation or burial?

Unlike the first three questions, which I have spent decades answering (in order) paper, red and pretzels, no one has ever asked me, face to face, if I wanted cremation or burial. But no one has to.

The mirror raises the question every day. And for the past several years I have been receiving gentle reminders from the Neptune Society, a national company with headquarters in Plantation, Florida, that calls itself “America’s Cremation Specialists.”

The “Dear Greg” letters, which often arrive in the mail with my AARP newsletter, are tasteful and low-pressure, explaining that “cremation just makes sense” because it is “simple, economical and dignified.” And by sending in a card for more information I’m entered in a monthly drawing to win a pre-paid cremation!

Cremation is all the rage—de rigueur-mortis. An NBC story dubbed it “the hottest trend in the funeral industry.” The Neptune Society boasts a diverse list of 100 celebrity “members” including Johnny Carson, Wilt Chamberlain, Buddy Ebsen, Tupac Shakur, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe and Vincent Price (no surprise there).

Since 1985 the number of deaths in the U.S. that are followed by cremation has risen from 15 to 42 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. In Florida—and metro Orlando—the figure is even higher, with cremation the chosen step after nearly 60 percent of deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Why the sharp increase in Floridians who find cremation so, uh, fulfilling?

“The recession had a lot to do with it,” says David Minkow, sales manager for the Neptune Society office in Altamonte Springs. He likes to say that cremation is less than the cost of a casket—just one part of the cost of a traditional funeral, which runs at least 10 grand. Neptune’s “complete cremation,” from here to eternity, is $1,900, including a box for the remains.

Also driving up the popularity of cremation, says Minkow, is the easing of opposition by religious leaders and a growing number of transplants who decide not to be shipped back up north to be buried in a family plot in Iowa or Michigan. Cremation is the thriftiest Plan B.

While I’m still leaning toward cremation, despite the kitty litter scene in the movie Meet the Parents, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for burial—not the being-below-ground-forever part, but for cemeteries as repositories of history and some lovely landscaping.

I find myself lingering before markers wondering about the lives and bygone world of those cryptically memorialized on bronze and granite—the beloved wife and mother, the loving son and father, the soldier who never returned from war, the baby who lived only three days.

In comparison, the scattering of ashes seems so, well, fleeting. And a tad selfish. Take the NASCAR nut who wants his remains strewn at the third turn at Daytona. Is it really fair that loved ones have to buy a ticket to the Coke Zero 400 just to “visit” you? And then there’s the football freak who orders his ashes released at midfield of his alma mater’s stadium where he will forever be associated with bad halftime shows, goofy mascots and sweaty lineman. How dignified is that?

I love Cocoa Beach, and the ocean remains the most pristine location to scatter ashes (if you can avoid oil slicks). But it’s become such a cliche. If money were no object I would put my remains in orbit, but I am not Richard Branson.

No, I’ve resigned myself—if I choose cremation—to spend eternity on a shelf in the hall closet next to the box containing the ashes of our cat Ginger, who will give me exactly as much attention posthumously as she did when we shared breathing space.

Meanwhile, I keep sending in my card to Neptune for the monthly drawing. Scoring a free pre-paid cremation would be the final nail in the coffin.

Email Greg at


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