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Grave matters

A small-city funeral belies a cremation-trending country

Grave matters

A funeral director holds a cremation urn in a funeral parlor showroom. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—When Mary Van De Berg, the “meat lady” of Sioux Center, Iowa, died at age 72 a week before Memorial Day, 250 people in the city of 7,400 came to her funeral. Among the crowd sat about 35 of her co-workers from the closed-for-the-day Fareway supermarket, where for 26 years she had a reputation for knowing everything there is to know about meat.

Van De Berg’s kind of funeral—a church service, a viewing attended by more than 300 neighbors, burial in a local cemetery—is becoming unusual in American life. Funeral homes are consolidating under financial pressure due partly to changing attitudes about cremation: In 2016 U.S. cremations outnumbered burials for the first time. Meanwhile, families are scattering, religious affiliations are fraying, and attitudes toward death are changing. Some laud such changes, but has something been lost in our drive toward independence and economic efficiency?

AT VAN DE BERG’S SERVICE, Memorial Funeral Home staffers Art Franken and Bob Feauto listened to the pastor while sitting at a table in the fellowship hall across from the sanctuary. Franken, 76, stared at bowls of SunChips and a tray of fresh meat and bread. These funeral directors often eat during the funeral rites, but today, Franken said with a wry smile, the large crowd meant no extra food.

Franken and Feauto are new colleagues. Ninety years ago, community members founded Memorial Funeral Home, where Franken has worked for 25 years. Earlier this year, Jerry Jurrens, owner of Jurrens Funeral Homes Inc., which runs eight other funeral homes in the region, purchased Memorial, and Feauto came over with the new ownership. Jurrens is the first owner in Memorial’s history to live outside of Sioux Center.

That consolidation is part of a national trend. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the number of U.S. funeral homes decreased 10 percent from 21,500 homes in 2005 to 19,400 in 2015. John Erdmann of Waterbury Funeral Service, an hour’s drive south of Sioux Center, said the growth of “cremation is making it tougher for smaller businesses to survive. ... You’ve got to be willing to change and offer more services that go with cremation.” Feauto says funeral homes have to “go bigger or go out.”

Back at the “meat lady” funeral, royal blue napkins touting “Memorial Funeral Home: ‘Your Community Owned Funeral Home’” sat at each place setting. Memorial will eventually replace these napkins to reflect its new ownership. Franken mused about scratching the name off the white Memorial Funeral Home van. Even though the funeral home is still family-owned, some in Sioux Center worry about the change.

DON PITT, 59, operates the crematory at the Cremation Society of Paducah, Ky. He has a ruddy complexion, freckled arms, and neatly trimmed gray facial hair and wears a black Mötley Crüe T-shirt that reads, “All bad things must come to an end.” “More people are accepting of [cremation] than they used to be,” he drawled as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” played in the background.

Pitt cremates both humans and pets, and he never knows what someone will bring in. He’s cremated a raccoon, a 2-day-old kitten, a miniature pony, and a 45-year-old parrot. Right now a large dog is disintegrating down to bone fragments in the small furnace in the back room. The room is hot—92 degrees Fahrenheit—but not nearly as hot as the furnace, which heats to 1,400 to 1,800 degrees.

It takes about three hours to cremate a human being. Then Pitt sweeps the ashes to a pan below, brushing the furnace at least three times with a wire bristle broom to get everything. He uses a magnet to remove metal that might be mixed in with the bone fragments. A black box holds the collection of metal he’s found: part of a knee joint, a hip joint, and other prosthetic parts. After removing metal, he puts the bone shards through a processor, which churns out the ash—a substance fine as sand.

Lindsey Funeral Home of Paducah established the Cremation Society in 2010 after recognizing the direction the industry was moving. Now, cremations make up about 70 percent of the company’s business. “Everybody’s trying to get into the act,” Pitt said—and not just in Paducah. Last year nationally, cremations outpaced casket burial in America for the first time. One reason is cost: Cremation typically costs two-thirds less than a traditional funeral. Lindsey charges $1,295 for cremation and $3,995 for a traditional funeral.

The desire to “have it your way” also drives people toward cremation. Cremation services take place almost anywhere: a state park, a favorite hunting ground, a restaurant, or a family farm. Some family members or friends keep urns at home, some scatter the ashes, and some bury the ashes in cemeteries and memorialize loved ones with a gravestone. “Money’s tight, and [cremation] doesn’t lock a family down to a time frame,” Don Pitt said. “You can have a service six months down the road.”

Changing religious and social attitudes no longer stop many from considering cremation. Most Christian denominations other than Eastern Orthodox now accept the practice—although some evangelicals worry about the trend. (Muslims and Orthodox Jews also prohibit it.) “As people loosen ties with religious traditions, they’re looking for new traditions,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. The numbers seem to back her up. States where more people answer “None” to questions about religious affiliation have higher percentages of cremation. Nevada, which with 28 percent is first in “Nones,” has a 75 percent cremation rate.

With religion no longer a bar to cremation, other values influence funeral choices. “People don’t want to just have a cookie-cutter funeral service,” said Hutch Hutcheson, managing director of Lindsey Funeral Home. A list of 2017 funeral trends notes, “Today’s funerals are highly personalized—with videos, memorabilia, special clothing and music, and quirky themes—to celebrate the uniqueness of an individual’s life. They now often include symbolic and memorable events for guests—dove releases, balloon releases, or a fireworks show.”

Cremation is one of the trends: Bob Feauto says tradition makes cremation less popular in Sioux Center, but “traditions are fading.” Will that trend accelerate?

AN ARCHING GATE STANDS at the entrance to Graceland Park Cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa, about an hour south of Sioux Center. Cemetery supervisor Tim Tushla loves giving tours of the 92-acre cemetery. When Iowans built it in 1910, he said, families purchased large plots with the expectation of many generations being buried together.

Tushla pointed to large monuments near the north entrance that bear family names. Around the monuments smaller stones mark the graves of family members, whose bodies lie with their heads near the monument. As he tossed sticks into the back of his rusted Chevy truck, Tushla said this arrangement highlighted the importance of family. Multiple generations of the same family buried side-by-side represented family continuity and pride.

As we continued the tour, Tushla pointed out small stone buildings containing the bodies of wealthy Iowans: the Palmers of Palmer Candy and the Smiths of Jolly Time American popcorn. Unlocking the front door of a mausoleum with stained glass windows, he said these marble resting places served as an ultimate family symbol, with as many as 10 stacked niches bearing the same name.

In newer portions of the cemetery, modest markers replaced the large monuments. As people moved to Sioux City from elsewhere, Tushla said, they no longer had extended family close by: “The social obligation to stay in the community you were born is gone. No one expects you to be buried in the family plot anymore. The women in the church won’t be talking bad about you because you left.”

A Pew Research Center survey from 2008 found only 37 percent of Americans had never moved away from their hometowns. That finding agrees with what Kemmis of the Cremation Association said: “Ties to the hometown cemetery are weaker than ever before.”

Charissa Crotts

A note about Mary Van De Berg at Memorial Funeral Home in Sioux Center (Charissa Crotts)

BUT NOT IN SIOUX CENTER. When the funeral service of Mary Van De Berg (“the meat lady”) ended, the pastor waited by the sanctuary doors, offering hugs and handshakes to the 250 filing into the lobby. While a few family members wiped their eyes, most of the white and gray-haired attendees seemed cheerful. They greeted each other and found seats close to the food. Soon voices murmured, people passed around coffee carafes, glasses clinked, and women bustled to and from the kitchen. One woman held a sleeping, shoeless baby.

Funeral home owner Jerry Jurrens said he believes the strong presence of local churches explains why Sioux Center has resisted the national trend toward cremation. While the Bible does not command earth burial and funeral services, such traditions make sense within a Christian understanding. But as families scatter, residents of Sioux Center and other cities are deciding whether to hold on to traditions or lay them aside.

—Morgan Channels, Charissa Crotts, Tabitha DeHart, and Harvest Prude are 2017 World Journalism Institute graduates

Three looks at cremation

To bury or burn?

An article in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June, 2010) by David W. Jones, a professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides a dispassionate analysis. “To bury or burn?” shows that Scripture is silent on the specifics but has a pro-burial trajectory, that church leaders through the centuries have opposed cremation, and that the body is theologically significant, so “both the act of and the imagery conveyed by the treatment of the deceased ought to be weighed carefully.”

R.C. Sproul in a 2011 blog post asked, “Does the Bible say anything about cremation?” He concluded that calling cremation a sin is an overreach, but “burial better reflects the biblical perspective on life, death and the body.”

The best article I’ve read on cremation is by John Piper, who emphasizes “the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever, and the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body, especially after death.” Piper proposes that “Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper.”

Every Saturday on WORLD’s website we republish one article or talk that we believe has special merit, and Piper’s was our choice for July 8: Please go to —Marvin Olasky

Three funny funeral movies

(Castle Rock Entertainment)

Bernie is a 2011 dark comedy based on a true story. A beloved funeral assistant, played by Jack Black, murders the most hated woman in small town Carthage, and an arrogant district attorney, played by Matthew McConaughey, wants justice.



(Miramax Films)

In Chocolat, a 2000 romantic comedy-drama, Vianne opens a chocolaterie in a small French village. The film shows how she fights Catholicism and tradition and struggles with whether to stay in the town or follow in the footsteps of her mother, whose ashes Vianne keeps in an urn. Some adult themes.



(Columbia Pictures)

My Girl, a 1991 comedy-drama film, focuses on 11-year-old Vada, an outcast and hypochondriac whose mother died when giving birth to her. Vada’s father is a funeral director, so she deals with reminders of death as she deals with growing up, her first crush, and her father’s new love interest. —Harvest Prude




Morgan Channels

Morgan Channels

Morgan Channels

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

Morgan Channels

Tabitha DeHart

Morgan Channels

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.


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  • KA
    Posted: Wed, 07/05/2017 05:06 pm

    This is not an either or situation. My mom was cremated and we had a well attended memorial service with lovely tributes and a clear salvation sermon. My mother in law had the viewings, graveside service, and burial- and the $ 20,000.00 price tag to go with it. I fail to see how one was honored but the other was not. 

  • RM
    Posted: Wed, 07/05/2017 10:05 pm

    And does not have to go through a mortuary at all.  My daughter, 22 years old with terminal cancer, died at home per her wishes and afterwards was kept at and cared for at home until placed into her handmade coffin by her young husband, then taken directly to our small local cemetery where those who knew and loved her were waiting to see her body to its rest.  Our only cost was for the burial plot and the man who dug her grave, a total of $1400.  My daughter wanted for her body to be buried -- in anticipation of the resurrection of it when her Lord comes at the last trump to raise her body incorruptible.  Her journey with cancer taught us to be our own best advocates; it is the same with death.  There are options.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Thu, 07/06/2017 09:36 am

    There are numerous options, and it is completely unpastoral to burden people with what amounts to a personal preference as if it were some kind of confessional mandate when they are in the middle of a crisis over the death of a loved one. The resurrection is not dependent on coffined bodies, or else there are going to be a lot fewer people raised than have lived. Sometimes dust really does return to dust (as represented in the scattering of ashes).

    This strikes me as something akin to the silly arguments that Protestants have over the mode of baptism. There is great imagery in immersion; there is great imagery in sprinkling or pouring. Stop worrying about it. And in the case of funerals, let's all just keep our mouths shut and respect the wishes of the family.

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Thu, 07/06/2017 10:24 am

    We had out 15-year-old son cremated after he opted to put a bullet through his head to end his life.  I failed to see the honor in burying him with a hole in his skull for all his friends to remember the rest of their lives.  Whether or not this has any bearing on the afterlife, for me or for him is up to God.  And everything I read leads me towards God's grace.  How else could I carry on after losing my only son?

  • sanman101
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 11:09 am


    God's grace is enough. Grieving with you.

  •  Varenikje's picture
    Posted: Sun, 07/09/2017 06:31 pm

    Okay, my first question has to do with the articles above about "funny funeral movies"? Like does someone at World think funerals are funny?  Or am I the only one that is seeing that?  Can someone at World please respond to this?  Maybe get rid of the "funny funeral movies" on here?

    About cremation, I am glad that someone says that the Bible doesn't say because as far as I know it does not.  There are cultures where cremation is the way most people are taken care of at death.  How can several million Japanese, Chinese and East Indian people be wrong?  It is what I am planning on when I die.  And cost IS a factor, or it should be.  Only in America is cost not a factor.  

  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 07/11/2017 02:42 pm

    Agreed that the "Three funny funeral movies" is out of place here. I know the trend in online reporting is to have something people can click on to go to next. I have some reservations about people of faith doing Hollywood's advertising work for them to begin with, but it seems simply distasteful at the end of an article like this. 

    Otherwise, a good article about a cross-section of America and the issues presented by changing times.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 08:39 am

    Phillip, I'm mourning with you the loss of your beautiful boy.

  • Joe M
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 01:36 pm

    Excellent piece. 

    But...after reading Piper's link words, I wonder if more carefully regulated cremation is not still also an answer. There is a case for dignity, but careful preservation and padded coffins? When my mother died years ago, I sensed cremation was actually chosen out of respect for her body. Cancer had alarmingly ravaged her physical frame and the family hardly felt the need to delicately preserve he remains. The emaciated corpse she left behind did not represent the person we'd loved, any more than her ashes later did. The Lord will finally restore her soul to her glorfied body, but however that takes place we still are talking about physical flesh and bone that fallen nature will long before then have decimated in very undignified fashion.

    As for "funny funeral movies," older editors should have nixed that one. And either way, "Chocolat"? Come on. Are we in an undergrad film glass taught by a recovering fundamentalist? It's as irksome as film as is Francis as pope, with over-the-top skewerings of tradtional believers. I wait for the plug for Heal me with your Mouth: The Art of Kissing.  

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 10:44 am

    I wish you would stop badgering Bible believing Christians with your opinion. Again, as I stated in your previous article by John Piper (with editorial comments by Olasky) you have no biblical basis to badger Christians with your opinion. 

    Are you trying to incite guilt among Christians? Does this make you the millstone around the little believers neck that Jesus talked about? How does this encourage and build each other up? (1 Thess 5:11)? Why don't you stick to a more edifying topic for all Christians and stop this?

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 10:50 am

    This excerpt is from the Rev Billy Graham, which is very thoughtful and delicate, unlike the World articles.

    "Whether burial or cremation best expresses that appropriate respect is a very personal decision. The wishes of other close family members and friends should also be considered in any decision, because they are the ones who will live with the decision and with the memories.

    At the resurrection it will not make any difference whether a person’s body has been buried or cremated. God knows how to raise the body, either in the resurrection of life or the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28-29). The new body of a Christian will be a radically changed and glorified body like the body of the exalted Christ. It will be an eternal, spiritual body never again to experience weakness, disease, suffering, or death (1 Corinthians 15:35-54 and Philippians 3:20-21)."

  • Joe M
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 01:39 pm


  •  David Troup's picture
    David Troup
    Posted: Wed, 07/12/2017 06:09 pm

    I find Piper's comments, "... who emphasizes “the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever.." with regards to burying over burning to be naive.  We don't live in a time where there is a simple burial.  First, the average funeral costs between 8-10 thousand dollars.  To me, that's sinful.  Secondly, have your read the five stages of embalming?  That's hardly treating the body with respect, in my book.  At worst it's idolotrous to spend all that money (that many people don't have) to pretend death has not taken it's toll on our loved one's body.

    Many of the reasons for cremation may not be good ones.  But everytime I see a Go Fund Me page to get help for a funeral is a travesty.  One can parse meanings between ashes and dust, but in either case, that's how we end up, unless we are placed in a sealed casket with a vault over it.  In that case, I don't think one is left with the organic death process.

    Finally, are Christians allowed to give their bodies to science?

  • reverendmother's picture
    Posted: Mon, 07/17/2017 07:57 pm

     I wonder how many of your loyal readers were offended by the insensitivity of this article.  As a recent widow, I was! The clear implication is that I chose cremation for my husband in order to save money. Also, I lack  respect for tradition. Wrong on both counts. 

     May I present a point of view that should have been included with this article. Cremation is clean. I much prefer it to thoughts about the process and aroma of decay.  I do love (and teach)  God's Word.  I do understand that cremation is not mentioned in scripture. Of coarse not. It was not available until modern times.  Scripture does teach that we were formed from dust and will return to dust. We now  understand that atoms were formed into molecules that were formed into structures. God will not have a problem re-assembling us!

      Both the content and the tone of this article is offensive. Others have dealt with the issue of  the movies so I will not go there

    I have been a loyal reader for many years. I am not feeling very loyal right now!   I do not understand how this  unbalanced and hurtful article got by your editors. You owe an apology to all your readers who have chosen cremation for their loved ones.

  • KA
    Posted: Wed, 07/19/2017 10:00 am

    I would rather read an article written by people who have actually been through the process instead of college students. This article reads like it was written for a grade and then published for a reaction. It reminds me of arguments against alternatives to public schools; find a small school in a small town and use it as an example of the superiority of public education. The people making the arguments were either childless,done raising kids or sent their darlings to private school. Never mind reality. 

  • Graced
    Posted: Mon, 07/24/2017 03:18 pm

    Mixed feelings on the cremation aspect - while I personally love the symbolism of burial and the Christian tradition of graves facing east to greet the risen Lord, as well as the historical (and spiritual?) value of cemeteries, I also understand the hard decision surrounding cremation. My brother died of a heart attack at 503 pounds. Cremation was pretty much our only option due to lack of casket availability. We couldn't keep my mom, who is developmentally disabled, in limbo for the two weeks it would take to get one. We did choose an option not mentioned here - we buried the ashes in an urn in the family cemetary plot, with a headstone so she can visit and we have our family cemetery record continued. Since that time my parents have both made the decision to have the same thing done to their remains. 

    I am curious about the commentor who was allowed to directly bury the family member. I thought embalming was pretty much required by most states? 

    I think the bottom line is remembering what we are presenting in terms of the message about death and life, and not giving a mixed "we're all part of the earth" message. I also think there are legitimate reasons to maintain cemeteries for future generations. The words on tombstones have spoken powerfully over the years. And yet this is not ultimate. 

    The more deeply I have come to understand the culture of death in western society, the more I realize the truth of the Bible's words that death is an enemy. It wasn't supposed to happen. And while I can appreciate the intention behind believers having a "celebration of life" (my own mother-in-law wanted that, as does my husband), I do see that there is a tendency to then expect people to minimize grief and skip an important part of the grief process - saying goodbye. And having walked through the grief process with my parents last year I saw that some elements of the traditional service could be comforting - my mom still struggles with not getting to kiss her son goodbye. In Biblical culture, and many cultures today, the family and close friends would even prepare the body for burial - a tradition I would imagine would be very cathartic. I remember my great-grandmother laying in the family home in the days before her funeral, and her daughters dressing her. In generations past, the black worn by grieving people would give them public permission to be in grief and minimize the very real pain felt when you feel like everyone is going on "like nothing happened", because the community would be expected to respond appropriately when a grieving person was present.

    All that to say, I am rediscovering the value of traditional funerals and the Christian funeral traditions. No criticism or debate if you prefer a "celebration of life", but just a request that when some of us choose a more public time of grieving, we are accepted and not criticized for being too sad. We grieve with hope, yes - but we still grieve. Cremation or burial doesn't change that fact.