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Midlands funeral trends reflect national, natural realities

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By Marc Rapport

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, right? Well, they may be certainties but they aren’t constants. Just as tax rates — and the object of the tax collector’s attention — change, so do funeral customs in the United States, and South Carolina is not immune.

Driven by shifts in costs and culture, providers of traditional and non-traditional final arrangements are reacting to new realities that include growing preferences for cremation vs. earth burial, a desire for personalization, and even environmental consciousness.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, nearly 62% of Americans were buried after death in 2005. Ten years later, that’s about 52%. About half are now cremated, a percentage the NFDA expects to exceed 70% nationally in 2030.

However, South Carolina’s cremation average in 2015 was projected at about 40% by the NFDA. That’s about 10 percentage points below the national average, something that jibes with the experience of veteran funeral providers such as Randolph Shives III of Shives Funeral Home in Columbia.

Randolph Shives III of Columbia's Shives Funeral Home (Photo/Provided)Like other major providers in the area, Shives has expanded from its original location to serve a growing metro area. In Shives’ case, this meant keeping the 80-year-old site on Colonial Drive in north Columbia and recently opening a second location off North Trenholm Road Extension in northeast Columbia.

Shives owns his funeral home, having bought it back in 2012 from the corporation that bought it from his uncle in 1999. While perhaps bucking the trend toward consolidation the industry has seen in recent years, Shives said his operation sees much of the same change that his colleagues do everywhere.

“Our earth-burial rate is probably higher than the national average and even the state average, but Columbia is a traditional city in a state that also is relatively traditional in that regard,” he said. “That said, cremation is growing in popularity. Each family has its own reasons. I’m not sure you really can generalize why.”

Cost would seem to be one factor. The average adult casketed funeral with viewing and ceremony followed by burial was $7,205 in 2014, the latest figures reported by the NFDA. It’s about $1,000 less for the same service with cremation.

Shives provides cremation services, and said he works with each family to figure out what’s best for them. Either way, he advises that some sort of permanent memorial be established. “I feel strongly about that,” he said. “If you just scatter the ashes somewhere, even though it’s a favorite, meaningful spot, what does that leave for future generations to remember that person by?”

Personalization might be another reason. Shives said he sees more of that in both secular and traditional religious services and celebrations, along with the use of technology to bring the mourners together, including from a distance via webcast and emotionally through video tributes.

While the Columbia area remains a relatively traditional funeral market, it’s not immune to change in other ways, too. Services led by non-clergy are no longer really unusual, for instance. And embalming is not done as automatically as it once was. That practice gained widespread purchase in the United States during the Civil War as a way to get bodies back home for burial.

“Now it’s not really necessary unless a person is being sent to a different part of the country using a common carrier,” Shives said. “It’s certainly not required by law, and we’re seeing more people choosing not to embalm.”

And some religious traditions just don’t want to do it. For instance, there’s been a Jewish community in Columbia since there’s been a city, and funeral homes such as Shives and Dunbar have facilities tailored for the burial preparation that many in that tradition desire.

That includes no embalming and using unvarnished, wooden caskets, and washing the body and clothing it in simple cotton burial shrouds - all practices intended to allow the body to return its elements to nature. But the Columbia area has seen growth in recent years among other cultures that have their own traditions, as well.

Muslim burials, for instance, also are expected to be quick and follow much the same regimen as the Jewish traditions. Hindu tradition calls for the body to be burned on a pyre. That’s not done in America, typically. Shives said his funeral home accommodates that tradition by having Hindu families present at the cremation in his facility.

Americans might not quite be ready for the sight of open-air burning of bodies, but there still is a definite movement back to nature. South Carolina, in fact, has become a national leader in the number of “green” cemeteries. A good example: Dust to Dust Green Burial and Nature Reserve Cemetery in Swansea.

Michael Bishop and his family own and operate the 53-acre site, where more than 100 bodies have been deposited since it opened in 2009. The rules are simple: no embalming, bodies buried in shrouds, simple wooden caskets or nothing at all, and no concrete memorials, only simple granite markers, if anything.

Bishop, who works for Clemson University as a seed and fertilizer inspector, is well aware of the environmental benefits of his approach: No embalming chemicals, no caskets that will never decompose, no need to use up huge amounts of land for carefully groomed cemetery grounds.

But he’s ultimately pragmatic about it. “It’s the cost,” he said. “We charge $800 for the grave and our transporters charge $200 to get the body here. That’s it.”

Bishop’s customers come from all religions — or none — and they all avoid what he considers to be the extreme expense of a typical funeral while getting the same benefits of a peaceful place for final repose of a loved one. “People take care of their sites if they want with flowers and things, or they do nothing. It’s up to them,” he said. “We don’t do anything, and people love it out here.”


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