Cremations are on the rise.
With the average cost of a full-body burial at $6,560, according to the Brookfield, Wis.-based National Funeral Directors Association, some consumers have gone shopping for deals on how to lay their loved ones to rest more cheaply in these tough economic times.
Cremations, which can range anywhere from under $600 to $2,400, have caught on.
"The economy is playing into it," said Scott Pennington, general manager of Alhiser-Comer Mortuary in Escondido. "Our cremation rate was about 45 percent in 2009, but it's probably creeping closer to 50 percent."
The cremation rate in the United States was about 36.9 percent, or roughly 850,000 bodies, in 2009 ---- up from just over 25 percent a decade earlier, according to the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America. There were about 1.7 million bodies that were buried in 2009, the latest figures available.
Forecasts say cremation, which involves placing bodies in a blast furnace and reducing the body to ashes and bone fragments by heating it to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, will make up 46 percent in four years, and just under 59 percent by 2025.
"The economy is bad," said Edmund Dougiello, owner of San Diego-based Bayview Service Group Inc., which does business under the banner of American Cremation Services and Bayview Crematory & Burial Services. "People are saying, 'Hey, we should look around and check out the different prices. They're doing their homework."
Debbie Allen, general manager of Eternal Hills Cemetery Association in Oceanside, said cremations made up about 52 percent of its business in 2010, up from 46 percent in 2008.
"I have seen it rise steadily over the past eight years," said Allen, whose crematorium is upgrading to a more efficient incinerator to replace two older ones.
Dougiello just installed a third incinerator at his crematorium in Perris, in what looks like a two-story office building hunkered in the desert flight path of March Air Reserve Base. The bigger incinerator also handles larger people, up to 800 pounds, said Dougiello. Some people who want the remains of their loved ones pay $85 for an urn. Smaller ones can be bought at fractional prices that can be used to split up someone's remains and given to family members.
The Perris crematory's three furnaces take about 10 minutes to heat up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, after which a single body is pushed inside. The insides ---- which are rectangular-shaped and measure about four feet by eight feet, and about 10 feet deep ---- have a firebrick lining that becomes superhot when the furnance door is closed. Flames shoot into the chamber from a tube in the top of the oven and in the rear. The flame from the tube at the top of the oven is the one that ignites the cardboard box holding the body. The cardboard acts as the kindling to catch the body on fire.
Last year, Dougiello moved up to 2,800 bodies from facilities in Carlsbad and Escondido, and a handful of other San Diego County locations, to the Perris crematory.
Chris Beltran, Bayview's crematory operator in Perris, estimates that he cremates about 12 bodies a day, with up to 100 that could be held in a cooler the size of a small bedroom. The temperature is kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There is much more job satisfaction here than exporting drilling equipment," his previous job, said Beltran, 26, who runs the crematory by himself. "It's very peaceful."
Dougiello, who also runs a crematory in Cathedral City, has plans to open a third in Orange County.
Six full-body crematories in San Diego County and 13 in Riverside County are regulated by air pollution control agencies in those regions, according to officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, and the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.
Five of the 13 crematories in Southwest Riverside County are in Murrieta, Lake Elsinore (which has two), Perris and Romoland. North San Diego County has crematories in Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos.
Some air pollution problems have cropped up because of the uptick in cremations ---- mostly among the older ones.
After receiving complaints from neighbors, Robert J. Kard of the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District slapped citations against the Neptune Society's crematory in El Cajon.
"This is among the worst that I have ever seen in my entire career," said Kard, who has been an air pollution control officer for more than three decades. "They were cited for odors, and smoke in the building. Smoke should not be going through the afterburners."
Antony Nash, the San Diego attorney handling questions for Ed Stivers, manager of the Neptune Society, said the cremation business is working with the air pollution control district to respond to its concerns. "We've been there many years and we want to be a good neighbor," Nash said.
Kard recently visited the crematorium during evening hours to observe smoke and "sparks" coming out of its chimney. "Our concern is visible smoke and raunchy odors getting into the neighborhood," he said. "I had a heavy-duty leather coat on, and the burning tissue ruined my coat."