Ashes to Ashes

Cremation is on the rise as local prices for funerals and graves skyrocket.

In 1970, San Francisco’s population was 714,000. Today, more than 864,000 people live in our the city, and as apartment buildings under construction stretch toward the sky, that number rises by a few thousand  each year.

While the living flood to S.F. in droves, fewer and fewer people are dying in our seven-by-seven city. Based on Department of Public Health numbers, back in 1970, 9,568 deaths were reported citywide. Last year, only 6,192 people died. There are innumerable theories for this — medical advancements that extend life, an exodus of seniors, a reduced murder rate — but the reality is that as San Francisco’s population booms, its death rate is in decline. And as finances, customs, and religions evolve, our dead bodies are handled differently than they were 47 years ago. Now, more than ever, friends and families of the deceased have moved away from burials and toward cremation.

The trend is statewide, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association. In 2015, 63 percent of Californians chose cremation, setting a new state record. By 2030, it’s estimated that 80 percent of people in the state will be cremated once deceased.

The rise in cremations partly has non-religious heathens to blame. Pew Research Center states that from 2007 to 2014, adults who don’t identify as religious rose from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent. The rituals of religious burial — such as the ritual cleansing and shrouding required in Jewish culture, or the traditional Catholic funeral Mass — are instead traded in for such hippie, non-denominational ceremonies as tossing ashes into the sea, or placing ashes in organic caskets that grow into trees.

In San Francisco, there is a practical reason cremations are on the rise: cost is a major issue. The price of cremation is significantly less expensive than that of a burial. A price sheet from Cypress Lawn Funeral Home in Colma, the city where San Francisco bodies are most-commonly buried, lists a basic funeral at $2,395. It charges $495 to transfer the body from the place of death to the home (and if it’s more than a 35-mile trip, an additional $3 per mile is added). Embalming is $695, refrigeration is $95 a day, and a hearse is $396. Adult caskets range from $1,195 to $25,795. Charges for a “complete traditional funeral service” come in at $6,195.

But the funeral is not the only cost associated with a traditional western burial. Prices for graves in Colma — particularly in religious cemeteries — are among the nation’s highest. In Greenlawn Memorial Park, sites start at $7,458.50. At Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, they’re slightly cheaper, but still start at a hefty $6,900. Even a lot for a pet (under 20 pounds) runs $550 at Colma’s Pet’s Rest graveyard, with a $30 annual maintenance charge.

By comparison, cremation is cheap. College Chapel Mortuary, which is located inside Duggan’s Funeral Service on 17th Street, specializes in low-cost cremation services for those with small incomes. Through its services, bodies can be turned to ash for only $747. The price, says Welch, has only increased about $30 since 2002. This undercuts even the Medical Examiner’s Office, which charges $1,000 to friends and family of the deceased who pick up their loved one’s ashes.

College Chapel Mortuary processes approximately 650 bodies per year, done in conjunction with Duggan’s Funeral Services, which the center works out of. Three years ago, that number was closer to 550. Welch believes the increase in cremations is unequivocally reflective of the cost. “There are no shortage of burial sites in Colma,” says College Chapel Mortuary Funeral Director Steven Welch. “But it’s so expensive. It’s like housing — costs for both the living and the dead are rising.”

Of all the demographics who have moved away from graveyard burials and toward cremations, Welch says it’s the African American community who most recently has embraced the change. Based on what he’s witnessed at Duggan’s, Black customers still prefer to have a full funeral service — but once that has ended, the body more often than not ends up in a crematorium than a graveyard.

“They’re the last major demographic to switch over,” he says.

For Welch, offering low-cost cremations is key to his business. While many crematorium companies who advertise in San Francisco are based out of the city, requiring customers to call on the phone or fill out an online form to get the process rolling, his office is open every day in the Mission District — and he values the connection he has with clients. The inexpensive services, however, come with a fair amount of heartbreak: One cremation of a baby was put on hold until the mother was released from prison to attend the ceremony, and a man who was hit by a bus that Welch attended to never had his remains picked up by family.  

Despite the boom in cremations, Duggan’s Funeral Services and College Chapel Mortuary are a dying breed in San Francisco. In the past 57 years, the number of city mortuaries dropped from 42 to 13. Excelsior’s Valente Marini Perata and Co. funeral home, a massive facility that included four chapels, a 100-car parking garage and two basement levels to store and process bodies, was sold to developers who plan to build 134 units of housing on the site. It quietly closed its doors in July of this year. Sullivan Funeral Home on Market Street shuttered in March 2016 to make room for 45 apartments. The space required to run a funeral home is a tough thing to find in San Francisco. But as cremation booms, the market may as well — and the steady march of gravestones taking over fields in Colma could slow down, and someday, completely stop.

Check out more stories about what happens to San Franciscans when they die:

Human Burial Ceremonies Are Now Rocket Science
Elysium shoots your loved ones’ ashes into outer space.

Gardens of the Dead
A field between a Best Buy and Home Depot in Colma hides thousands of unmarked graves.

A Grave Undertaking
Moving 150,000 graves from San Francisco to Colma in the early 1900s was a dirty job, but the political fights were even dirtier.

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