WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) - A thin plume of black smoke rose out a ventilation stack at a crematorium in Hanover Township, one of only four crematories in Luzerne County.
Colby Vonderheid, owner of Sunlight Crematory, pointed before the smoke vanished.
“Do you know what that is? That’s the body bag,” he said.
Almost half of all people in the United States chose cremation over traditional burial services in 2013, a rapid shift in the death industry in which it experienced more than a 20 percent jump in national cremation rates over the past decade, according to the most recent statistics from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). Despite rising cremation rates that have created capacity issues at crematoriums in some parts of the country - particularly in rural areas - the general public is often wary of having one in its neighborhood, CANA says.
Brian Leffler, funeral director at Kniffen O’Malley Lehman, is currently battling public concern over a proposal to establish a crematory at 120 Sambourne St., Wilkes-Barre. Leffler had brought Donald Collins, consultant with Florida-based crematory unit company Matthews International, to testify before the city’s zoning hearing board that emissions were “minute.”
But Collins’ testimony wasn’t convincing enough, and the conversation went in circles because they had no hard proof about emission levels.
The zoning hearing board voted 4-0 in April to table the hearing to give Leffler time to gather more data after a handful of residents from the neighborhood voiced concerns over emission levels.
“I’m sure your company has more than ample resources to address emissions concerns,” said zoning solicitor Charles McCormick. “I’m sure there is lots of data.”
State and federal officials, however, say there is a lack of scientific data regarding crematory emissions.
Zoning hearing board Chairman John Bergold said in a phone interview that the burden is on Leffler to convince board members and the public that crematory emission levels are not harmful.
The city’s zoning code doesn’t allow for a crematorium to operate in a residential area, so if the board grants the variance it could set a precedent, he said.
“Once you approve one, that opens the door for everyone,” Bergold said.
About three months after the hearing was continued, Leffler said he is he is still compiling data.
Even without proof that crematory emissions could be harmful, most people don’t want a crematorium in their backyard, said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of CANA.
“There’s a lot of concerns from residents about what goes up the stack that no good science shows is dangerous,” Kemmis said. “It’s part of a taboo.”
CANA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly funded a 1999 study - the most recent one they’ve conducted - that tested crematory emissions over a seven-day period at the Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. The tests showed evidence that crematories are capable of low emissions without the addition of pollution equipment and that higher temperatures can increase pollutants, according to the CANA study.
Kemmis said she has heard public relations nightmares from funeral directors around the country whose proposed crematories had been shot down because of public concern. Funeral homes and cemeteries are businesses, she said, and can’t “fly in the face of community opposition” because that’s the community they are there to serve.
“It’s just hard when the numbers show we need well-run crematories and we need them in places that are underserved,” she said. “When there’s this kind of knee jerk, emotional response to the placement of crematories in certain areas, it has to be really frustrating for business owners.”
Vonderheid, 44, had tried expanding his business into part of Saint Vladimir Cemetery in Scranton in 1996, but a handful of people who went to the zoning hearing effectively killed the proposed crematory, he said.
“I had a few people come from surrounding neighborhoods - it was a completely commercial area, not a residential area - and the City of Scranton turned me down,” he said, noting that the zoning hearing board vote was 5-0.
Roy Seneca, a spokesman for the EPA, in an email said the EPA does not regulate crematory emissions because it does not consider the human body to be “solid waste.” Therefore, human crematories are not solid waste combustion units and are not subject to regulation.
Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said crematory operators need an air quality permit, but state emissions regulations are minimal. Between two and four times a year, DEP inspectors visit crematories to watch a cremation take place, noting if emissions are visible, what they look like and how long they last.
No odor was emitted from Vonderheid’s stack when the body bag burned off into the atmosphere. There is no way to eliminate all emissions, he said, and the time of emission for a single cremation should not exceed three minutes under DEP regulation. The unit operator has to track each cremation and note emission details, which he said is also required by DEP.
Vonderheid, who is the fourth generation of his family in the cremation business, said in the 1970s his father might have done two or three cremations a week. Vonderheid’s business, however, now does about five or six cremations a day, he said, some of whom are of people who had been transported from other counties. Roughly 150 funeral directors operate in Luzerne County, almost all of whom deal with cremations. However, because only four crematory facilities operate in the county, funeral directors typically come to a third-party crematory like Vonderheid’s, which does not deal with the general public. Leffler currently brings his business to Vonderheid.
Vonderheid said every corpse that is brought to him is tracked from the moment it is placed into the cremation unit. A single body goes into the unit at a time and is not burned without being put inside some sort of container, such as a cardboard box or a casket.
All the ones at Vonderheid’s on a recent day were in cardboard boxes. A stainless steel identification tag shaped like a stop sign sat on top of one of the boxes about to go into the cremation unit. Vonderheid said the ID tag goes into the unit with the body and container and comes out charred.
Contrary to popular belief, cremated remains are not ashes. Vonderheid said a partially collapsed skeleton is left after the body is cremated. Once cooled, all the remains, including the incinerated container, are spread out on a stainless steel tray. Vonderheid sifts through the remains with a magnet to collect the ID tag and any other metal - which can include surgical screws, hospital gown buttons, hinges and other parts from a casket. The skeletal remains are then pulverized and placed in a container to be returned along with the ID tag.
Under the division of vital records for the state Department of Health, coroner’s offices for every county are also required to track cremations, reviewing and approving all death certificates for those who die in a particular county and wish to be cremated. In 2002, when tracking began, the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office logged 814 cremations. By the end of last year, that number had more than doubled to 1,790.
A combination of factors have driven cremation rates up to 45.3 percent, according to CANA. By 2018, the rate is projected to reach 50.6 percent.
The number one reason is cost. The national average for a traditional funeral with a burial is around $8,433 and a memorial service with viewing of the body and cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, is about $3,100, which is roughly a $5,000 difference and doesn’t include the purchase of a grave site, Kemmis said.
The range of options of what can be done with cremated remains comes in second. The rise in interest of leaving behind a smaller carbon footprint on the environment comes in third, and then, it’s the fact that cremated remains can be easily transported. Fading religious objections come in fifth as all major religions - except for Orthodox Judaism and Islam - now accept cremation as a form of final disposition, according to CANA.
Cremation also allows for a longer time-frame to do a memorial service and is perceived by the public as being simpler and easier, Kemmis said. The range of options allows people to make their death highly personalized.
Mark Gruenwald, Marvel Comics editor who died of a fatal heart attack in 1996, for example, wished to have a portion of his cremated remains put into a comic book by mixing them into the ink. About a year later, Marvel obliged and reprinted a 1985 collection of Squadron Supreme with ink that included Gruenwald’s remains.
“He remained true to his passion for comics, as he has truly become one with the story and blended himself in the very fiber of the book,” wrote Gruenwald’s widow Catherine in the book’s forward.
A variety of things can be done with one’s cremated remains - they can be scattered, buried, placed on a mantel in an urn, made into jewelry, pressed into vinyl records or even be shot into space.
“You dream it - you want to memorialize someone in a particular way - somebody is out there who is going to help you do it,” Kemmis said. “You can really make this as personalized as you want it.”
Information from: The Citizens’ Voice, https://www.citizensvoice.com
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